All good things come to an end.
Virginia Tech learned that lesson the hard way, falling in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament to Texas 81-73 on Friday afternoon. Thanks to uncharacteristically hot shooting and an overtly physical defense that stymied the Hokies' perimeter shooting, the Longhorns tasted victory in the Big Dance for the first time in eight years, while Tech was sent home packing.
It has been a long time since the Hokies were outplayed in nearly every facet of the game. They were out rebounded offensively 9-4, committed four more turnovers than the Horns, and made six fewer three-pointers. A Virginia Tech team that was scorching hot fresh off their ACC championship suddenly couldn't buy a bucket. In a single-elimination tournament, one fluky performance can end a season. The Hokies found themselves on the wrong end of a coin flip.
Shots Were Falling
Texas picked a very good day to have one of their best three-point shooting outputs of the season, hitting 10-of-19 (53%) from downtown. Relative to the opponent, this may have been the Longhorns' best offensive game of the season.
👀: Every team's ShotQuality performance in the first round of the NCAA tournament!Big takeaway? 19 teams took above-average shots on offense and held their opponents to below-average shots on defense. Those teams went 17-2. pic.twitter.com/rUSjDtuSPV— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) March 19, 2022
The tweet from ShotQuality displays the "expected" net points per possession for every first-round matchup. It confirmed my suspicions: Texas played a little bit better, but not that much better. If you were to play this game ten times, the Horns might win six, but not by this much on average. Everything just went in for Texas. Such is basketball.
That said, Virginia Tech needed to play a very good game in order to win because they had less margin for error. Much credit should be given to Texas head coach Chris Beard for using the extra preparation-time to attack the Hokies at their weakest points. Unfortunately, Darius Maddox was a huge weak point on defense.
Texas runs a wide pindown for Andrew Jones (#1), who had the hot hand in this game with 21 points and five three-pointers. Maddox loses track of Jones for just a split second, allowing him to cut to the wing as he got a strong screen from forward Dylan Disu (#4). This provided Jones plenty of space to get off an open three, which he drains.
Of course, defense is a group effort, and without knowing what any assignments are I can't say with certainty who is at fault on every play. But when Texas ran their screening action (especially the pindowns), Maddox seemed to be in close proximity.
Fast forward to this second half possession. Ball handler Marcus Carr (#2) runs the pick-and-roll as Aluma executes a soft hedge. Christian Bishop (#32) rolls to the rim and finds himself matched up on Maddox under the basket which was obviously a huge mismatch. Aluma plays it well by trapping and showing high hands but the second he recovers, Carr now has an open passing lane to Bishop, who backs down the undersized guard for the layup.
The Longhorns did a very good job of exploiting Virginia Tech's soft hedges throughout the game.
They run another pick-and-roll here, and Aluma does the best he can to deflect the pass from Carr (#2) to the rolling Disu (#4). But he can't do so, and Disu gets his own rebound after a missed layup and puts it back in. I think Aluma could have been more aggressive in going for the rebound, but once he left his feet he was out of position anyway. This was a perfectly timed pass and well executed by Texas.
Offensively, Virginia Tech really struggled to get open looks. While research suggests defenses have little control over three-point percentage, they absolutely have control over three-point attempts. The Longhorns took away the Hokies' perimeter shooting almost entirely, as Tech attempted a season-low 12 shots from three (and several of those attempts were in garbage time).
I do not recall any open three-point looks for Hunter Cattoor off of pindowns at the top of the circle (otherwise known as zoom actions, which is a staple of the Mike Young offense). These plays worked numerous times against Duke, and have throughout the course of the year. Texas used their length and physicality to alter much of what Tech wanted to run, in addition to displaying excellent closeout speed when there were shooters on the perimeter.
As I get older, I try to learn from what I've seen in the world of sports. I've always considered myself an observational person, and I think there is a lot to be gained by listening to players and coaches and drawing from past experiences. Here is what the past season of Virginia Tech basketball has taught me.
1) Never overreact to bad luck. When the Hokies were 2-7 in the ACC, it would have been incredibly easy to lose hope. Here was a team that was predicted to finish in the top half of their conference floundering towards the bottom. I recall having internet arguments with people who said that Young exhibited poor coaching after his team lost on a halfcourt buzzerbeater. I read from those who said that Tech hired a middling .500 coach who should've stayed at Wofford, that Nahiem Alleyne should be recruited out of the program, that the Hokies would be lucky to win four ACC games. I never believed in these things, but I certainly had my doubts as to the direction of the program in the dark days of January. Anyone who was paying attention could see this team was better than what they showed. The Hokies had talent, and the underlying metrics validated that. It just took awhile for them to gel. Which leads me to...
2) Teams can always improve throughout the course of the year. This one is fairly obvious but also hard to see in the moment. As a player, more reps always make you better. Players and coaches learn and grow from their mistakes. In nearly every press conference, when asked about the key to his team's turnaround, Young said something to this effect: he just stopped coaching. He let his players go out and make plays. Saint Peter's was a .500 team in the MAAC one month ago; they will play for an Elite Eight bid on Friday. Texas A&M lost eight straight conference games; they rallied to make the SEC Championship game. And Virginia Tech was a laughing stock in January. Now, they are the ACC champions.
3) There are some things numbers can't measure. I don't mean to turn this into a spiel about how "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." Recruiting rankings matter and always will. They define who the best programs are, and help those programs sustain greatness. But every so often there comes along a special person who has an ability to find value where others do not, and Mike Young is one of those people. The culture that he has instilled — exhibited in the resiliency and fortitude of his players — allowed Virginia Tech to rise from their darkest moment to their finest. In all the time I have spent studying recruiting rankings I truly believe that there is no better head coach at maximizing talent than Young. Can Tech's roster be improved? Certainly. And based on the incoming recruiting class, I think it will be. But Hokie fans should feel confident knowing they have a head coach who will always put a good product on the court.
There are a couple things I think Virginia Tech needs in order to win these types of games going forward.
The first is an increased level of physicality. To my eye, Texas' players were stronger and that helped them stop drives to the basket, contest shots, and fight through screens. These are the types of little things that win in March. I've harped a lot on length and athleticism — that will come in time with better recruiting. For now, Tech should focus on building up their players to be more physically ready to win these types of dog fights. Sometimes the three-pointers will be there and sometimes they won't, but physical play should always be a constant. Hopefully Young now has a better understanding of the types of players he needs to win in the Big Dance and can adjust his recruiting strategy accordingly.
The second is individual shot creation. Fundamentally, you need players who can hit a jump shot right in a defender's face. (Darius Maddox's game-winner against Clemson is the perfect example.) Set plays are fine, but they are difficult to execute in crunch time especially when the coach on the opposing bench knows exactly what you are trying to run and has high-caliber athletes to disrupt the timing of said play. When you look back at highlights from past years, those "in-your-face" type of shots are the defining highlight of March Madness. As a smart coach once said, big-time moments are about players, not plays.
When Virginia Tech gets those players, the sky is the limit.