If there was such a thing as a "must-win" game in January, the Hokies let one slip away Tuesday night in Cassell Coliseum.
In a contest of wild runs, Virginia Tech found themselves on the losing end of yet another nailbiter, this time falling to NC State 68-63 in their first game back from a 13-day COVID pause. While the Wolfpack snapped a five-game losing streak and earned their first ACC win, the Hokies suffered their third consecutive loss to begin league play, as their NCAA Tournament hopes dwindled more.
This loss played out like many we have seen this year. NC State made plays where the Hokies didn't, consistently driving to the rim and finishing through contact. They were tenacious on the offensive glass, securing 14 offensive rebounds. In so doing, Tech surrendered a season-high 43% offensive rebound rate, which is to say that the Wolfpack gained a second possession on nearly half of their misses. In a game decided by three possessions, it's hard not to pull your hair out and wonder what could have been if the effort on the boards was better.
Cleaning up the Glass
Many of the Wolfpack's offensive rebounds were the result of dribble penetration. NC State's guards were able to muscle their way inside and put Tech's defenders in awkward positions when they came down for the board. It didn't help that Nahiem Alleyne frequently got beat off the dribble, forcing help that left open shooters to take advantage.
Here, Casey Morsell (#14) was able to squirt past Alleyne, putting up a wild bank shot which he may have been trying to miss. He got the rebound and kicked out to an open Terquavion Smith (#0) on the wing. David N'Guessan, playing to give Aluma a breather, was overaggressive on the closeout, committing a foul as Smith drained the shot and converted the four-point play.
Another huge offensive rebound came in crunch time off a missed jumper by Cam Hayes (#3).
Alleyne lost defensive positioning, and though I think he was trying to draw a foul he may have had his arm yanked by Dereon Seabron (#1). The possession didn't end with points, but it took valuable time off the clock.
Dreaming for Nahiem
Having conspicuously observed Alleyne's game over the past two weeks, I believe his offensive woes may be impacting his defense. He is now shooting 6-for-35 (17%) from the floor over the past four games, including 3-for-22 from behind the arc. I don't worry too much about three-point shooting slumps because jump shooting tends to ebb and flow throughout the course of a season. My main concern is that Alleyne isn't doing a very good job at driving to the rim, so when he isn't hitting his jump shots, he essentially provides nothing. According to Bart Torvik, Alleyne is shooting 4-of-19 (21%) on close two-pointers, which ranks dead last among 113 ACC players with at least 10 attempts. For comparison, Seabron is shooting 61% on 169 close twos, in addition to 17 made dunks (Alleyne has one).
On paper, NC State is one of the more talented teams in the country. They have six blue-chip recruits (four- or five-stars) on their roster, and eight players who were rated Top 150 coming out of high school. They've also been without the services of four-star forward Manny Bates, who is sidelined for the year with a shoulder injury. That talent hasn't translated to results on the court, as they are just 8-7, but the raw athleticism was certainly on display. In the second half, Seabron had a spectacular reverse layup with the shot-clock expiring; Ernest Ross took flight for a vicious slam after a turnover in transition.
The Wolfpack were able to blow by Tech's slower guards and get to the rim. They also exploited matchup advantages, like getting the 6'7 Jerrico Hellems isolated against the helplessly undersized Storm Murphy. NC State plays an iso-heavy brand of basketball, which can be hard to watch when the shots aren't falling but is incredibly difficult to defend when they are, and probably explains their propensity for hot-and-cold streaks: this game saw runs of 17-0, 18-2, and 8-0 to close it out.
Seabron had a huge impact, notching a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds. He finishes so well inside, and as much as I've criticized Alleyne, sometimes good offense beats good defense. I'm more frustrated by the inability of Tech's guards to break down defenders off the dribble, particularly when the opposition does it on a nightly basis.
While NC State can put up points, they've been held back by their atrocious defense, which ranks 202nd on KenPom, second-worst among Power Five programs. They like to double in the low post, and while the Hokies were able to get some open looks from three off drive-and-kicks, they didn't take full advantage of the Wolfpack's lousy D, with a combination of subpar shooting and careless turnovers. I didn't see the offensive creativity that was on display against St. Bonaventure and Duke; many of Tech's points came from Aluma in one-on-one matchups, which is perfectly fine, but there was too much standing around and not enough cutting and screening action. Additionally, hardly anyone made an attempt to drive to the basket when the threes weren't going down.
Young yells out "motion" on this play, to no avail. Perhaps if he had more practice time with his players to get on the same page and develop a game plan tailored to his opponent, the outcome may have been different.
If there was any place I saw rust from the COVID break, it was in Justyn Mutts. The redshirt senior had an uncharacteristically poor game, missing several close layups and committing six turnovers, including several poorly-timed entry passes. Like Murphy earlier in the year, it seems that Mutts' confidence has diminished. He did not shoot an open three after N'Guessan passed out of a double-team in the post; he later passed out of a post-up opportunity multiple times in a single possession. Mutts does so many valuable things for this team (specifically passing and rebounding), but his indecision on offense has become a liability.
Elsewhere, Aluma has been prone to mental lapses on defense for much of the year, and this game was no exception. On the first possession of the game, he lost track of the cutting Hellems (#4), giving up an easy two. On the very next sequence, he switches the pick-and-roll with Alleyne and gets flat-footed, letting Seabron (#1) run straight to the hoop.
With less than four minutes remaining in the game, Aluma again lets Hellems slide right past him following a three-point attempt, and was boxed out as Hellems was able to tip the ball to Ebenezer Dowuona (#21), who scored his only points of the night on the putback. The Wolfpack were constantly a step quicker.
Those mental miscues are correctable, but Virginia Tech lost yet another game this season in which they got out-athleted and simply out-worked. Another eight-day break looms ahead before a Jan. 12 matchup on the road against Virginia. The Cavaliers are not the ideal team against whom to break out of a shooting slump.
Sum of the Parts
If his postgame press conference is any indication, Young has full confidence in Alleyne to break out of his slump; he will have to if Virginia Tech wants any chance of success going forward.
"If it was an easy answer," Young said of Alleyne's shooting problems. "I'd have already done it. We all know what a fine basketball player he is. He works as hard as anybody I've ever had. You know we got his first one down opposite NC State's bench in the first half and looked great doing it. He's practiced very well. He was not paused, was great. We're gonna hang in there with that kid. He's got to play well for us. He knows that. We all know that, and I know that he'll pop out of it here very, very quickly."
Unfortunately, the current iteration of the Hokies look like a group where the whole is less than the sum of their parts. Compare this team to last year: there is no Wabissa Bede, a lockdown defender. There is no Jalen Cone, who can knock down a three from anywhere in the front court. And there is no Tyrece Radford, a physical force who can score from close range almost at will. All these players had flaws, but it is difficult to replace their production in the course of a single offseason. While Alleyne is an important player because he can score in a variety of ways, the ripple effect of these absences is that he is drawing more attention from the opposing team's best defenders, and thus far he has not responded.
This was a bad loss. NC State ranks outside the top 100 in both KenPom and the NET, and because the game was played at home, Tech now has a Quadrant 3 loss to their name. The Hokies have somehow managed to hold at No. 29 in KenPom, and with their poor record in close games are now the 14th unluckiest team in America. I believe in analytics, but I also believe in "manalytics", and you would be hard-pressed to find many teams that thrive with a starting guard and wing combo that struggle to create for themselves. While the efficiency metrics will always be favorable to a team that can hang around in every game, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the Hokies are rapidly running out of time to right the ship.