Without Justin Robinson, everything needs to go just about perfectly for the Virginia Tech men's basketball team to win.
They need to force turnovers, contest every opposing shot, and pray like hell that the open shots don't go in.
They need to make their own shots, and limit the number of possessions their opponent sees.
They can't run into foul trouble.
They need to make their free throws.
They absolutely cannot turn it over.
They need to box out and rebound.
They can't let their tired legs get the best of them.
They need to play with heart for 40 minutes.
That's a pretty big list of things that need to go right for the Hokies. And in their 72-64 loss to Louisville, and Tech checked just a few of those boxes.
They played great defense, forcing the Cardinals into 15 turnovers and numerous bad shots. They played with heart, coming back from double digit deficits multiple times in the second half, cutting a wire-to-wire Louisville lead down to six with just a few minutes left.
But the rest of it? They didn't quite accomplish as much.
While the Hokies shot 43% from the field, they shot just 34% from three and shot abysmally in the first half (37 and 20% respectively). They turned it over 13 times, and hit just over 70% of their chances from the line.
They just didn't play well enough to beat a top-15 team in Louisville. And who can blame them? Hokie fans know how devastating it is to lose a quarterback for an extended stretch of time, and losing Robinson is both losing the orchestrater of the offense and a primary scoring threat.
But there are no days to mourn the absent in the ACC, and Buzz Williams and company are doing all they can to remain competitive.
Sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker kept things close in the first half, draining threes when the rest of his teammates couldn't buy a bucket. Alexander-Walker's heroics had Tech down just five going into the break, despite the team scoring just four points in the first six minutes of game time.
And as time wore on, the Hokies continued to feed Kerry Blackshear Jr down low. And while the junior big man scored proficiently (a team high 21 points), he also found the offense running through his place on the block. Blackshear took advantage of one-on-one matchups, but also found the open man when the defense collapsed.
After a cold start, Ty Outlaw drained four of his final five triples, and NAW continued to get to the rack. But it wasn't enough.
Unlike his buzzcut brother Braxton Beverly, shooting specialist Ryan McMahon scored 12 points in less than 90 seconds to break things open. And each time Tech would make a run to get close, something would go wrong to not quite push them over the top.
The Hokies never lead, and the game felt just out of reach the entire way. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the fatigue in Tech's legs showed, and the short bench paired with the short turnaround finally looked like it weighed on Buzz's bunch.
"Our current team has practiced for an hour Friday morning, got back Saturday night, I thought it was the best play for us to be off yesterday," Williams said. "With the third game in 5 days I thought it was the right play. So we did our typical one day before prep this morning before they went to class. And then shoot around.
So I think they've handled it better than any group I've ever seen. What I've told them is that I have the utmost respect for who they are, for the families that they represent, and I thought we hung in there tonight. I just thought we had too many turnovers in the second half relative to what gives us the best chance to win."
Tech gets some much-needed rest, and will head to Clemson on a nationally televised contest Saturday. Though the Tigers have won just three ACC games, it'll be another slog for the Hokies to get through. The last two Robinson-less contests have shown that a win is not impossible, but much more needs to go right to secure it.
A few quick thoughts
These aren't good or bad things that happened tonight, but I just have some thoughts on Buzzketball's life as it currently stands.
And the first? It's going to be like this for the rest of the season.
"We know that right now, with a short staff because of J-Rob, our assist leader," Blackshear said after the loss, "we don't have the same flow. We're really trying to rediscover our identity right now. I think we've got to go back in practice and keep working hard. I think we'll figure it out."
The Hokies are at their best when they're flying up and down the court, making opponents focus defensively the moment possession changes. Due in part to Robinson's injury, in part to the general lack of depth, the team doesn't have the legs to run. They're going to have to milk the clock, run elite half court offense, and (after all that) hope their shots fall. Williams had an interesting comment after the NC State game to this philosophy:
"I thought the only chance we had was to have football style of possession," Williams said in his press conference. "How can we shorten the game? Their average possession time going into today was 16.5 seconds. That's the second fastest in the league and 13th in the nation. We couldn't get into that type of game defensively.
Offensively, our personnel doesn't suggest that that would give us our best chance to win. It is a delicate balance of when to attack their pressure to score, when to attack early in the clock, and that was just part of our prep in a quick turnaround."
For a team that was once one of the most potent scoring groups in the country, they now operate within the thinnest of margins. Each miss is more crippling, each bricked free throw is more rage-inducing, and each turnover that leads to an easy bucket is more devastating.
"It's almost like you have to be perfect," Alexander-Walker said after the game. "It's a bit much to say, but you've got to try your best. Trying to pick (Buzz's) brain as much as I can. I know I can speak for myself, I know my teammates work hard as well. I've just got to do a better job. I'll take the blame for my part, I'm not going to point fingers at anyone, we had 15 turnovers at home. I contributed to a third of those, so it's on me."
Put simply, offense is going to be hard to come by. Jay Bilas made a great point that the Hokies run a lot of great offensive stuff, but it's just harder for any of it to work without their point guard. I mainly agree, though the spacing seems wonky half the time, and the off-ball movement comes and goes.
According to our own Henry Skutt, there were 11 different NBA scouts in Blacksburg to take in the contest. The teams represented? The Nets, Rockets, Kings, Lakers, Jazz, Wizards, Hornets, Heat, Bucks, Mavericks.
Translation for those who don't keep tabs on the NBA standings: those are all teams who will probably pick between 12 and 25 in this summer's draft. In Jonathan Givony's latest mock, he has no Cardinals selected in either round, meaning the man most of these people had an eye on was Alexander-Walker.
Givony currently has him slotted 17th to Miami, I wouldn't be shocked to see him sneak into the lottery (top-14). If one thing's for certain, he's not sticking around for his third year.
This was going to be a tough turnaround for a fully staffed Tech roster, which means it's a borderline miracle for them to go 1-1 vs two top-25 opponents. But Buzz and his staff have prepared perfectly for these two matchups, and if Tech can avoid the slow starts that have plagued them the last two times out, they'll be in a solid spot moving forward.
That's a total testament to Buzz. He's back to his old ways of running all over the sideline with his jacket off, because he knows he needs to give his all (both physically and emotionally) right beside his seven available players.
It's easy to take him for granted due to the talent of his team, but Williams is a great coach who will earn every penny in his contract for the next six weeks.