The University of Miami is bad at basketball. That's the first thing you need to know when dissecting the Virginia Tech men's basketball team's 82-70 win over the Hurricanes in Coral Gables.
The Canes play seven guys, just like the Hokies. They've faced injuries, suspensions, and bad luck that has chipped their roster down to a nub. They don't have a ton of size, and their best player is a small point guard. Again, just like the Hokies.
Though a win over an opponent that's just 1-7 in ACC play (and 9-11 overall) isn't impressive, especially for the 12th ranked team in the country, it should be eye opening for Tech fans. On the surface, the Tech/Miami matchup is basically that meme of Spiderman pointing at Spiderman. They're two undermanned ACC schools with good coaches who can recruit talent. But in reality, the Hokies are Spiderman, and they're pointing at portly, homeless man in a Spiderman costume he found behind a Party City.
And though Tech may be both undermanned and undersized, they're still one of the best 15 teams in the country, all in the face of adversity.
And adversity was in full force again in South Florida.
Kerry Blackshear Jr. went 0-5 from the field with a few bad turnovers and and multiple bad fouls. His foul situation meant Tech's lone big man had to spend long stretches glued to the bench. And if things couldn't get worse, senior point guard Justin Robinson left the game with 13:16 in the second half with an apparent ankle injury, never to return.
Though, putting it mildly, the Hokies' future hangs in the balance with Robinson's ankle, they didn't have a problem with the Hurricanes after their leader's exit. Nickeil Alexander-Walker lead the way with 25 points, five assists, four rebounds, and six steals. The super sophomore got to the rim at will, cleverly finishing with both hands.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker was in the zone tonight! He finished with 2⃣5⃣ points, 5⃣ assists and 6⃣ steals!#getBETTER🦃 (@HokiesMBB, @TheReal_NAW1) pic.twitter.com/UGY1mywmv8— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) January 31, 2019
And Ahmed Hill was active all over the court, not just settling for perimeter jumpers but attacking the basket and draining tough mid-range shots. The senior finished with 19 points and five boards, playing all 40 minutes (someone please get this man a deep tissue massage, because he's going to need legs in March).
And though this is an expected outcome for two teams in the opposite direction in the standings, Tech fans should feel good about the outcome. No game in the ACC is a given, especially on the road. A year or two ago, this is the type of game in which the Hokies play down to an inferior opponent in front of a sleepy crowd and let one slip away.
But instead they win by 12, in a game that felt like they were up by 25 most of the second half. Should Robinson's injury turn out to be severe, this game can be marked down as a catastrophe. But until we know the full diagnosis (or lack thereof), we can take the positives away from a victory that propelled the Hokies to 17-3 on the year, and to 6-2 in ACC play.
But this is just the beginning of a tough stretch for Buzz Williams and company. Over the next 10 days they play at #23 NC State, at home against #15 Louisville, and at a Clemson group who just took the Wolfpack to the wire in Raleigh. It's no stretch against UVA and UNC, but games like this will decide if the Hokies can land a double bye in the ACC Tournament, and what line they'll (probably) land on in March.
The Starting Five
Here are my five favorite things I saw tonight.
5. Ahmed Hill: Energy Guy
Long ago, before he developed a (slightly hitchy) three point stroke, Hill was a gangly freshman who relied purely on athleticism and hustle. He could hardly dribble, his shot was reminiscent of a baby bird (while in flight you had no idea if it would get there, and if it did you had no idea where it would land), and his defense was spotty.
But no matter what kind of holes Hill had in his game, both his talent and his heart were obvious.
And that's why I love what we've seen from him the last few games. Yes, I've been critical of the peaks and valleys of his long distance shot, but against the Hurricanes he showed that he can impact the game in a variety of ways. He got out in transition, attacked the basket with straight line drives from the perimeter, and drew contact to get to the line. He even bailed the Hokies out of a few end-of-shot-clock situations with contested mid-range jumpers.
And he did all that while only taking two shots from deep (making one of them). This is the kind of Ahmed Hill, the one from the last three games, that Williams and his staff need to see for the rest of the season. This Ahmed Hill could be the difference between a first round tournament exit and a run.
4. Ty Outlaw. Terminator.
You can't leave him open. You can't let him drift away from the ball on a pick-and-pop. You have to make him dribble and give up his chance from behind the arc. Coaches know this. The scouting report has been out on the millionth year senior since his career in Blacksburg began.
Yet somehow, some way, Outlaw gets open. And he knocks them down. The sharpshooter is draining 48% of his three point attempts, which would tie him for fourth best in college basketball (though he may not qualify due to number of attempts.) He's great, and it's getting to the point where opposing defenders look defeated any time Outlaw rises and fires.
3. Buzz's Micro Machine Lineup
P.J. Horne's absence puts an obvious strain on Blackshear. But before we get all up in arms about Buzz's lack of a front court (remember, this team should also have tenacious rebounder Chris Clarke and seven footer Khadim Sy on the roster, so it's not all poor team construction), I think it's interesting to note how effective a super small-ball lineup of Robinson, Alexander-Walker, Hill, Outlaw, and Wabissa Bede/Isaiah Wilkins can be in short bursts.
It won't always work, but that five man unit concerns me much less than one without Robinson and Alexander-Walker on the floor—which, as North Carolina so politely pointed out, is completely unplayable. Against Syracuse, Outlaw and Hill controlled the glass (13 combined boards) while the rest of the team chipped in, and they rebounded well again against the Hurricanes.
And while it presents challenges defensively, the Hokies can, at the very least, weather the storm when Blackshear finds himself in foul trouble.
(Notice how I said when, not if.)
2. Schedule Angst
A lot has been made recently about Tech's conference opponents, particularly the cumulative record of each school the Hokies have beaten. And yes, while the combined 2-13 record of Notre Dame and Wake Forest doesn't look particularly sexy, I don't see it as a cause for concern at all. In good leagues, there will always be cellar dwellers, a few squads that the rest of the conference routinely beat up.
Do those wins inflate the Hokies' record more than, say Louisville (with five of their seven ACC wins coming against the bottom third of the league) or NC State (whose four conference wins have a combined ACC record of 6-24)? The league is clearly broken down into tiers. There's the elite (Duke, UNC, UVA), the really, really good (Tech, Louisville, State, Florida State, Syracuse), and everyone else.
But in a league as top heavy as the ACC, even the best teams will take their lumps. Carolina lost at home to the Cardinals by 20, who had lost to Pitt just days prior. The Orange was thumped not just by Virginia Tech, but the other Tech as well. Hell, poor Florida State lost to the top (Duke and Virginia) and the bottom (Pitt and BC).
Two 20-point meltdowns on national television are less than ideal, but far from a sign of larger dysfunction. I'd even argue that the game in Chapel Hill was there for the taking pre-foul trouble. Tech is good. They're not perfect, they'll face issues and probably drop a game or two they shouldn't. But there's no need to panic.
1. Bow Down to your Lottery Pick
One of the biggest knocks NBA people have on Alexander-Walker was his inconsistent defense.
He finished with six steals against Miami, but that wasn't even indicative of his full defensive effort. When the Canes made it a little too close for comfort with two minutes to go, Williams didn't play conservatively and try to drain as much clock as possible. Instead, he called for the press and let NAW and Bede go to work. Alexander-Walker gave jitterbug point guard Chris Lykes (a mutant hybrid of James Harden and Muggsy Bogues) the business for the entire length of the floor, eventually forcing a bad pass and a turnover. He also helped force a 10 second violation, and generally used his length without committing reach-ins.
He's really good. Should Robinson miss a game, I expect the sophomore to fill-in as the primary ball handler (Bede is now, and probably will forever be suited better for an off-ball role). Should Robinson miss multiple games, I'll begin to weep for what this season could have been, unless Alexander-Walker truly puts on his cape.
Which, given his talent, isn't out of the question.