Blacksburg's winter storm came early on Saturday evening.
Bolstered by a season-high 24 points from Justyn Mutts and a breakout game from Nahiem Alleyne, Virginia Tech dispatched Notre Dame 79-73, earning their first conference win of the year. The victory came three days after a gut wrenching loss at Virginia, which saw the visitors go dormant for the final three minutes and 14 seconds of the contest, ultimately falling by two points.
It was a different story against the Irish. The Hokies' asserted their will offensively, carving up Notre Dame's matchup zone defense to the tune of a season-best 69.4 eFG%. The win surely gives Tech fans renewed faith that their team can close out games in crunchtime, late-game execution having been the Hokies' bugaboo all season long.
Over the past seven years, there have been 49 high-major teams that started conference play 0-4. Among them just three made the NCAA Tournament: Syracuse, with their Elite Eight run in 2016, Oklahoma State in 2017, and Texas A&M in 2018. Can Virginia Tech become the fourth? It's a tall task, especially with a stretch of five games in 11 days looming. But perhaps the incessant game action will force Tech to snap out of their prolonged funk. Tech's postseason chances are slim, but not none; they will need some good fortune to go their way.
The Unluck of the Hokies
Virginia Tech currently sits at 348th among 358 Division I programs in KenPom's "luck" rating. The primary reason for this is their 1-4 record in games decided by five points or less, the theory being close-game records are largely uncontrollable because they do not correlate with overall efficiency nor do they correlate across seasons. Teams with better efficiency ratings (using KenPom as a barometer) tend to do better in close games, but it's hard to reflect that in a five-game sample size, and irrelevant to the Hokies anyway because most of the teams they are losing to rank lower in those metrics.
Samford is a good example of how deceptive close-game records can be. The Bulldogs started the year off 10-2, at one point ranking first in luck with five wins coming by a combined eight points, including a marquee victory over Ole Miss. A casual observer might remark that Samford had some special DNA (call it "grit", if you will) that helped them finish out close contests. But in the time since, the Bulldogs are 1-4, having lost to Furman and Wofford by a combined 55 points and suffering a pair of three-point losses to boot. Regression to the mean hit Samford hard.
As you might suspect, some coaches are better at winning in crunch time than others. Bill Self is a master of close games, owning a nation-best 77% win percentage in games decided by five points or less since 2015 (min. 30 games coached). Tony Bennett is not too far behind at 65%, while Mike Young checks in at 55% — better than Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, and John Calipari. For most coaches, close games are little more than a coin flip.
Oftentimes terms like "clutch" are used to describe teams that pull out close wins. But if "clutch" is a repeatable skill, why is it so unpredictable year-to-year? Tech ranked 82nd in luck last season, and 283rd the year before. For as flawed as this roster is, the Hokies are still a Mutts putback and a Hunter Cattoor three away from an 11-5 record, which would drastically change the perception of their season. That's kind of why it's called luck: sometimes, the ball just doesn't bounce your way.
The flip side to the "bad luck" perspective is that Tech needs to do a better job of not being in so many tight games. Four of the Hokies' single-digit losses have come to teams that rank lower in KenPom, and Tech was favored in three of them. This team won't dominate games very often, but they are too well-coached to get run out of the gym. The Hokies have to win more of the nail biters.
Preparation and Opportunity
Notre Dame is interesting in that they've employed a strict seven-man rotation the entire season. Those seven players have accounted for 98.8% of the team's minutes, the most for a team's top-seven minute-getters in all of Division I. While the Irish have a talented starting unit led by Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski, their lack of depth was exposed late in the game.
While I thought Virginia Tech's defense could have been better in the first half, Notre Dame was hitting many difficult and contested shots. I figured that would regress after halftime, and it did: the Irish shot 6-of-11 from three in the first half and 2-of-9 in the second. However, Notre Dame was also getting easy buckets inside which prompted the Hokies' coaching staff to adjust how they defended the ball screens. Early on Tech switched everything, which created some matchup problems such as the 6'10 Laszewski getting isolated against the 6'4 Alleyne in the low post. Notre Dame was also slipping screens, leading to easy layups for forward Paul Atkinson, aided by the Hokies' poor defensive communication.
After the intermission, Tech started hedging those ball screens with Atkinson, a technique generally used to corral talented guards and prevent drives to the rim.
Keve Aluma (#22) hedges on Hubb (#3) while Atkinson (#20) rolls to the rim. Hubb probably could have made a pass to Atkinson, but Storm Murphy did a good job of trapping with high hands, making the Irish point guard hesitant. Aluma recovered, the ball was passed around the perimeter, and Notre Dame had to settle for a contested three-pointer, which is always a win for the defense.
The risk with hedging is that the roll man will be left open momentarily. That's fine with a mobile big such as Aluma, but can be a little tricky when the possession goes faster than anticipated.
On the very next possession, Aluma again hedges, this time on freshman guard Blake Wesley (#0). Wesley takes the absolute worst shot possible — a contested long two — and misses it. However, Atkinson secured the offensive rebound and put-back because he was first to the rim and boxed out Aluma. In an odd way, Wesley's terrible decision actually bailed out the Irish, because the Hokies probably weren't expecting him to take that shot (and why would they?). Had Wesley held on to the ball longer, Aluma would've recovered in due time and been able to deny Atkinson in the post with the shot clock winding down. Fortunately, Notre Dame's subpar shot selection cost them more often than not, as they connected on just 38% of their second-half FGA.
Of course, it helps offensively when the shots are falling. Alleyne awoke from a dreadful scoring slump, dropping a season-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting, and 4-of-5 from behind the arc. A game like this demonstrates why Alleyne is so integral to Virginia Tech's success: he's a versatile scorer, able to hit from three, in the midrange, and in the paint, all while being a plus-defender. This might be a contrarian take, but having reflected further on the matter, I don't think it's in Tech's best interest for Maddox to get extended minutes over Alleyne. When Maddox came into the game, Notre Dame immediately went after him on defense, pushing him around inside. He also struggled to fight through screens which left shooters open on the perimeter. That's why Young said last week that Alleyne needs to play better for the team to win — there simply is no other option. If this is the start of a prolonged streak of confidence for the junior, good things are ahead for the Hokies.
Mutts also played his best game in months. He was aggressive in attacking the rim, exploiting the lack of lateral quickness from the Irish bigs. The end-result was 9-of-11 shots dropped, including two huge buckets down the stretch. (Mutts even seems to have fixed his woes at the charity stripe, hitting 11 of his last 13 FTs.)
A huge key to this win was Atkinson recording his fourth personal foul at the 6:53 mark of the second half. With no depth on his bench, Mike Brey was forced to sub in the 6'5 Wesley. Aluma promptly went to work, converting layups on the ensuing two possessions. The situation became so desperate for Brey that he reinserted Atkinson (#20) into the lineup a minute later, but he had to play so soft and tentatively that it may as well have been 5-on-4.
It wasn't just the Hokies' bigs that cashed in. Because Atkinson couldn't guard effectively, Notre Dame was forced to double in the post. Watch as Hubb (#3) comes in to help against Mutts.
That left a red-hot shooter in Alleyne wide open, and he drilled the three. In the final seconds, Murphy came through, making amends for his game-ending miss against Virginia with a rainbow three-pointer to put Tech up by five and seal the victory.
In a way, this game is a microcosm of the debate over luck. Virginia Tech deserved to win — they were the better and deeper team. They hit shots when they needed to and were disciplined defensively. Even so, the only reason the Hokies had the lead on their last possession was because Cormac Ryan — an 80% FT shooter coming into the game — bricked two shots at the line. While Young schemed up many great offensive sets, he never accounted for Brey getting whacked with a technical foul, giving the Hokies two free points. That four-point swing proved to be the difference.
The Roman philosopher Seneca is alleged to have said that "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." If he had said it at a sports analytics conference, he might've gotten booed off the stage. But in this case, the quote is apt. Virginia Tech won a close game because they made better plays down the stretch, and the basketball gods rewarded them accordingly.