There is an oft-repeated phrase that every college basketball fan instinctively knows when the calendar turns to March.
Expect the unexpected.
With wins in eight of their last nine games, the Virginia Tech Hokies are peaking at the right time. On Saturday in Coral Gables, Tech improbably stormed back to snatch a 71-70 win against Miami after trailing by eight points with two minutes remaining. Darius Maddox hit a go-ahead three-pointer off a stolen inbounds pass with 12 seconds left, and the Hokies' defense stood tall on the final possession. Quite a way to earn your first Quadrant I victory of the year.
Succeeding that win was a 75-43 drubbing of Louisville, the program's first victory over the Cardinals in 31 years. After ascending to No. 28 in KenPom and No. 37 in the NET, the Hokies are in prime position to put themselves in prime position to make the NCAA Tournament. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Tech in the "Next Four Out", so they will need to beat out at least six teams between now and Selection Sunday.
The Miami game felt like the first time all year that Tech stole a win. They needed three missed free throws and a pair of Miami turnovers off inbounds plays just to win by a single point. The Canes won the first matchup on Charlie Moore's halfcourt buzzerbeater, so things evened out in the end. Although Tech didn't hit much from outside against the Canes, they were highly effective inside, getting a game-high 18 points from Keve Aluma and much-needed dribble penetration from point guard Sean Pedulla. Good passing led to easy looks at the rim, and it culminated with one of the best interior scoring games we have seen in a very long time.
Virginia Tech converted 22-of-27 (82%) two-point FGA against Miami. This was the 11th highest 2P% in a Division I game this season, and the highest against a major-conference team in two years.
It helped that the Hokies were tenacious on the offensive glass.
After Aluma (#22) misses a jump hook, Justyn Mutts (#25) sets the ball back to Nahiem Alleyne (#4) for a reset. Hunter Cattoor (#0) drives and then dishes to Mutts, who draws two Miami defenders. The crafty forward makes an underhand pass splitting the defenders, and Aluma was the beneficiary, finishing with a slam.
Mutts has been a Jekyll and Hyde-type character for me. His turnover rate continues to skyrocket at the same time that he leads the team in assists. He's like a quarterback that throws a lot of interceptions but also makes incredible throws through tight windows that few others can make. I said in an earlier piece that he needs to learn how to pass out of double-teams, and I believe he's doing a better job of that.
Mutts receives the ball on the low block and posts up 6'7 Jordan Miller (#11). Anthony Walker (#1) comes over to double, although in this situation he does Mutts a favor by only half-way committing, giving him a window (albeit a fairly small one) to find a cutting Aluma for the jam. Virginia Tech had six dunks against the Canes, their most in a conference game this year. It was an abnormally great shooting night, but the overall quality of their looks was a byproduct of good passing.
Virginia Tech is 5-1 over their past six games despite shooting a putrid 29% from three. The reason is their defense: since Feb. 7th, the Hokies rank 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency and just 95th in offensive efficiency, according to Bart Torvik. This is a complete reversal of the trend we had seen for most of the season: the Hokies, normally an offensive-minded team, have now focused on getting stops on the defensive end. For a team that has been reliant on the longball, this is a sign of considerable growth.
Although three-point shooting can ebb and flow throughout a season, it's almost inexplicable that a team as good at shooting as Tech would endure a stretch this cold from behind the arc. I have a working theory that the reason for the decline in shooting is because Tech is putting more emphasis on defense during practice.
In the copious amount of time I spend watching and studying basketball, one thing I have observed is that offense-defense splits tend to be a zero-sum game, meaning that if you put more focus into one side of the ball, it will usually affect the other side in equal amounts. There are some teams that play great defense but have a terrible offense, or vice versa, but the aggregate of their body of work is going to be reflective of their overall talent level and coaching, irrespective of how balanced they are. Obviously, teams can improve throughout the course of the season as players grow and develop chemistry with each other. But in general, the product that you put on the court is the result of what you emphasize in practice.
An example: when the Hokies were climbing up the national ranks in 3P% after that white-hot stretch in January, I couldn't help but pay attention to South Dakota State, who has led the country in three-point shooting for most of the year and now has the 13th best offense per KenPom. The Jackrabbits just don't miss from downtown: in their last six games, they've had shooting splits of 45%, 55%, and 57% (!!), never once dipping below 40%. If the season were to end today, South Dakota State would have the second-best team 3P% in the last 20 years. But their defense? Not so hot. They rank 215th in AdjD, after having recently given up 102 points to Oral Roberts. Still, winning programs find ways to maximize their talent, and South Dakota State has done that with elite shooting. As a result, they just wrapped up their fifth straight regular season Summit League championship.
Now back to the Hokies. Virginia Tech's defense has ascended to 67th in KenPom after the season nadir of 113th back in January. They limited Georgia Tech to 58 points on Wednesday, and were able to contain Miami's playmakers as well as they could, holding the Canes to below their season-average in offensive efficiency. (They would have graded out even better were it not for the turnovers on offense, as Miami scored 26 points off 17 Tech miscues.)
The Canes have a trio of talented guards in Moore, Kameron McGusty, and Isaiah Wong who can all score off the bounce and hit contested shots. They did this in spades against Virginia Tech, but down the stretch, the Hokies' defense was able to get stops when they needed to.
The Hokies execute a soft hedge on the ball screens with Moore (#3), meaning that the second defender (in this case, Aluma) will slide laterally to prevent a drive. This allows Cattoor to fight over the screen and recover, playing tenacious on-ball defense against the Canes' talented point guard. I think Miami would have been better off running a pick-and-pop with Sam Waardenburg (#21), because it would've left an unguarded man on the perimeter, but perhaps Tech's coaches saw something that told them it would be unlikely. Nonetheless, Moore has no passing lane to Waardenburg, and Cattoor manages to poke the ball away into the corner before drawing a player control foul as Moore extends his elbow into Cattoor's chest.
A few possessions later, Tech deployed a hard hedge (ahem: a really hard hedge) on a dribble handoff to Moore (#3), forcing him to nearly halfcourt and disrupting the timing of the possession. Wong (#2) showed off his speed on his drive to the rim, but Mutts (#25) came over to help, allowing Aluma (#22) to contest from behind. Wong could have made a wraparound pass to Miller (#11) if he didn't slip, but it's not like he had much wiggle room anyway.
With a renewed focus on defense, Virginia Tech has put themselves in a much better position to close out games against quality competition.
Since 2016, there have been five postseason-eligible teams that finished top 30 in the pre-tournament KenPom rankings that did not go dancing: St. Mary's in 2016 and 2018, Penn State in 2018, Clemson in 2019, and Texas in 2019.
St. Mary's, by virtue of playing in a non-power conference, probably didn't get the benefit of the doubt due to their subpar strength of schedule. Texas just had too many losses (16, including five in their last six games), as did Clemson, who was also beset by only having one great win (it was Virginia Tech, incidentally). Penn State is the best comparison to the '22 Hokies: they were 21-13 and 9-9 in a non-elite Big Ten. They finished 296th in luck and had two marquee wins, both against Ohio State.
Lucas Harkins explained why Virginia Tech is on the outside looking in.
During the 2019 and 2021 seasons, 25 total teams have ranked top-50 in either average quality or resume metrics while ranking sub-50 in the other category.8 of the 13 resume-focused teams made the Big Dance.2 of the 12 quality-focused teams made the Big Dance.— Lukas Harkins (@hardwiredsports) February 21, 2022
The Hokies have good efficiency metrics, but the games have to count for something. A 1-5 record in Quadrant I games certainly isn't appetizing to the committee, whether fans like it or not. Additionally, the 25-30 range on KenPom is where teams start getting snubbed, so it's hard to say the Hokies have a huge advantage being ranked where they are.
Saturday's game against Clemson is a must-win. So too is the second round of the ACC Tournament. After that, opportunities abound for a Quadrant I victory, with Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and North Carolina all in the mix. Based on the precedent that has been set, I have a hard time seeing Tech slipping on their Cinderella shoes unless they make a deep conference tournament run, the odds of which are little more than a coin flip.
Then again, you know the old saying about March.