"Trust the process."
The phrase emanating from the pro basketball team in the City of Brotherly Love aptly speaks to the progression Virginia Tech has made throughout this topsy-turvy season. Following wins over Syracuse and Virginia, the Hokies find themselves on a six-game conference winning streak, their longest in six years.
For Hokies fans, it was hard to remain optimistic just three weeks ago. Tech was just 2-7 in the ACC after suffering a half-court buzzer-beating loss to Miami on Jan. 26. It was deja vu all over again — just another soul-crushing loss for a team that, if they didn't have bad luck, would have no luck at all.
But sports have a funny way of bringing you back to reality. Tech has underperformed relative to their advanced metrics all season, so logic would tell you they were bound to start winning games sooner or later. Now, as they sit in the upper half of the ACC standings, the Hokies' tournament hopes are rosier than they were, pending a highly-anticipated matchup with North Carolina on Saturday afternoon. A Quadrant 2 victory hangs in the balance.
Mike Young trusted the process, and his faith has been rewarded. But instead of relying on streaky three-point shooting, the Hokies are winning games with balanced efforts on both ends of the court, taking full advantage of what their opponents have given them.
Scheming for Success
Virginia Tech was able to get quite a few good looks from three on Monday night against Virginia, but could not knock them down. The fact that the Hokies shot a season-low 25% (5-of-20) from downtown and still won a game against a respectable conference opponent is a very encouraging sign.
This is certainly not the UVA defense of old. The Cavaliers are experiencing historical Tony Bennett-era lows in opponents' eFG%, 3P%, and offensive rebound%, all areas in which Virginia is normally elite. That said, UVA has been playing very well as of late on the defensive end, hence their four-game win streak. In order to beat this team you have to run good offensive sets to get the ball in the hands of your playmakers, and the Hokies did.
A core element of the Bennett pack line is hard hedging almost every ball screen. This can be tricky against a team with such agile bigs and spacing as Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers ran into some trouble with this in the first game, and the second game was no exception.
Young isolates Hunter Cattoor (#0) and David N'Guessan (#1) on the right wing. N'Guessan screens and rolls, while UVA's Kadin Shedrick (#21) hedges on Cattoor. With no one rotating over, all Cattoor has to do is make a bounce pass to the cutting Dutchman who flies to the rim for a slam dunk. When you have guards who are all shooting threats (as the Hokies do) it makes it much easier to isolate 2-on-2 as the defense is focusing their attention elsewhere.
This was my favorite set of the game. Sean Pedulla (#3) gets a wide pindown screen from Nahiem Alleyne (#4) in the corner. The design of this play was really good because in staggering the screens between Alleyne and Keve Aluma, you increase the distance that the defender guarding the ball handler has to go to get back to his man. Alleyne deserves credit for bumping Kihei Clark (#0) away from the play without moving his feet, which forces Clark to cover more ground in less time. Aluma rolls to the rim, and by the time Francisco Caffarro (#22) gets back from his hedge, Pedulla has an open throwing lane to his All-ACC forward. He makes a pinpoint pass and Aluma finishes beautifully whilst in the air. This was perfect coaching combined with perfect execution.
Echoing that point, one reason that Young's offensive sets are so hard to guard is because they feature uncommon screens that put defenders in very difficult positions to recover. This play late in the second half is a perfect example.
Alleyne (#4) and Cattoor (#0) were stationed under the basket, spinning their defenders in a comical merry-go-round of screens. This play can be categorized as a misdirection floppy set. (Floppy sets involve screens under the basket to get an open look for a shooter, usually on the wing. Every team will add their own wrinkles.) Here, Cattoor turns his back towards Reece Beekman (#2) and screens for Alleyne, who then gets a wide pindown from Aluma, freeing him for a wing three. This turns a two-point lead to a five-point lead, invigorating the home crowd in the process.
It's plays like these that explain how Virginia Tech has a top 20 offense despite having just one blue-chip recruit in their entire rotation. It also explains how Young constructed the nation's 10th-best offense at Wofford in 2019 with hardly a single player who would be identifiable at any recruiting showcase or AAU tournament. The great thing about college basketball is that you don't need elite recruits to win games (though they certainly help) — the basic fundamentals of basketball like screening, cutting, and passing do not require tremendous physical skill but simply a willingness to execute. Young's creative offensive mind has allowed Virginia Tech to get the most out of the talent they have and do more with less. As prized recruits Rodney Rice, M.J. Collins, and Patrick Wessler enter the fold next season, hopefully Tech can start doing more with more.
Doin' it with Defense
The Hokies defense has gotten noticeably better over the past week and a half. Their last three games against Pitt, Syracuse, and Virginia have all been their most efficient defensive performances in-conference all season. KenPom has thus rewarded them with a 35-spot boost as Tech has climbed to 78th in AdjD, at the same time that the offense has mainly flatlined.
Not since the St. Bonaventure game has Tech held an opponent to a lower eFG% (40.0) than they did to Virginia. It helped that the Cavaliers went 0-for-9 from three, but the Hokies were much more disciplined defensively.
Virginia's offensive issues fundamentally stem from poor spacing and shot selection. When you don't have good shooters, it allows the defense more flexibility in terms of how they guard.
Note how when Beekman (#2) comes off a high-ball screen, he draws the attention of three Hokies. Justyn Mutts (#25) executes a soft hedge to prevent a drive, while Alleyne (#4) comes off little-used guard Kody Stattmann (#23) to provide additional help. The ball swings back to Caffaro (#22) and then to Clark (#0), who extends an elbow into Storm Murphy (#5) on his drive and was called for the charge. With a lineup like this, Beekman and Jayden Gardner are the only players that you have to pay considerable attention to, and Tech did that well enough.
Missing the Midrange
One thing that stuck out to my analytically-oriented mind was UVA's propensity for taking long two's and midrange jumpers. The midrange shot, once a staple of the NBA in the 1990s, has since almost completely disappeared from the modern game. It is the least efficient shot in basketball: three-pointers offer more value, while shots at the rim are easier to make, so you might as well take one of the two.
At the college level, three-pointers are worth about one expected point per attempt. Thus you would have to convert mid range shots at a 50% clip to get equivalent value to a three. (The league average is around 37%). In the defense of Armaan Franklin and Gardner, both can hit midrange jumpers at a relatively high rate. But UVA as a team is way too reliant on those shots, and it drags down their offense.
Against the Hokies, Virginia attempted 45% of their field goals from the midrange (their season average is 33%). I counted four instances in which the Cavaliers passed up a three for a long two — and those were just the ones that they made. In a game decided by a handful of possessions, those missed points add up. While defenses don't exert much control over their opponents' three-point percentage, they can control how many threes they allow. Tech surrendered just nine threes, which was low even by UVA standards. This tells me the coaching staff had a specific plan for the types of shots they wanted to force the Cavaliers into. The results certainly speak for themselves.
Alleyne (#4) defends Franklin (#4). He crosses over and attempts to shoot a long two, but loses the ball in the air. The scouting report on Franklin is that he's a terrible three-point shooter (25%) but a very good midrange shooter (49%), so you can sag off him a little more. (Darius Maddox got burned on a Franklin shot fake from three earlier in the game, surrendering an open midrange jumper, which is precisely what you don't want to do against a player with his skillset.) Franklin dishes to Clark (#0) on the wing, and Pedulla does a good job of keeping a hand in his face. Pedulla does bite on the shot fake, but he jumps parallel to Clark rather than into his body, and contests at the release, forcing the UVA point guard into an off-balance two-point jumper.
Take Them if You Make Them
But let's not get ahead of ourselves: big-time players will find a way to big-time plays, regardless of where they occur on the court.
In the waning minutes of the game, Aluma posted up on Shedrick, sinking a turnaround midrange that put the game on ice. On the other end, Gardner missed a wide-open 16-footer as UVA went cold down the stretch. Gardner's shot was a much higher percentage look, but he couldn't knock it down. Aluma did. That's just basketball.
For the first time all year, the breaks are going the way of the Hokies. If the gods of fate are looking to make amends for their previous injustices, Virginia Tech has quite a few more wins ahead of them.