Virginia Tech is on a skid.
The Hokies (18-5, 7-4) lost to Clemson (15-8, 5-5) 59-51 on Saturday afternoon. It's the Hokies' second-straight loss without star point guard Justin Robinson, who is out indefinitely with an undisclosed foot injury.
Tech continued its recent offensive regression, this time against a .500 ACC team. The Hokies finished the game 15 for 53 (28.3%) from the field and 5 for 19 (26.3%) from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Clemson shot 19 for 46 (41.3%) and 11 for 28 (39.3%) from distance, burying 7 threes in the first half alone. Shelton Mitchell led the early onslaught going 5 for 6 from bonus-sphere in the first 20 minutes. He paced the Tigers with a game high 22 points. Clemson also tallied 12 blocks against the undersized Hokies, 7 courtesy of senior forward Elijah Thomas. In short, the injury-riddled Hokies were outclassed.
After the Hokies' 72-64 loss to Louisville, the consistent message emerging from the locker room was that this is a new basketball team. Between suspensions, injuries and eligibility questions, the scenario certainly wasn't ideal, but the Hokies sounded confident they'd return to form given a week of practice time. That was the soundbite on Monday night.
Five days later, it's tough to maintain the same level of optimism.
Lack of offensive firepower seems to be the most glaring issue. With the scoring load being distributed, the supporting cast of Wabissa Bede, Isaiah Wilkins, and Ahmed Hill struggled miserably. Hill went 3 for 11, all in the first frame, and 0 for 3 from deep. Jonathan Kabongo made more shots (1) than Bede and Wilkins combined (0). Add in Kerry Blackshear Jr. fouling out and Nickeil Alexander-Walker continuing to look uncomfortable handling the ball, and it's easy to see why the Hokies are slowing the pace so considerably.
However, stats can be rehashed all day long. The bigger picture is what's more important for the Virginia Tech team right now as March draws near. But the bigger picture isn't a necessarily pretty one.
Let's revisit the post-Louisville checklist Marcolini outlined for a winning effort and see how that went.
They need to force turnovers, contest every opposing shot, and pray like hell that the open shots don't go in.
Virginia Tech forced 12 turnovers, but failed to close out on countless Clemson shooters in the first half. And their prayers went unanswered.
They need to make their own shots, and limit the number of possessions their opponent sees.
Virginia Tech did not do that. The Hokies made 6 more shots than NC State did last Saturday.
They can't run into foul trouble.
Blackshear and Alexander-Walker fouled out. That's a red 'X'.
They need to make their free throws.
Here's the first checkmark. The Hokies went 16-17 (94%) from the charity stripe. That's a drastic improvement from the 71% effort against Louisville.
They absolutely cannot turn it over.
Eleven turnovers sans Robinson isn't terrible, but 5 from Alexander-Walker is concerning as he shoulders more of the offensive load. Call this one a push.
They need to box out and rebound.
Check. Buzzketball outrebounded the Tigers, 37-31, including an eight-rebound performance from backup "center" Ty Outlaw.
They can't let their tired legs get the best of them and they need to play with heart for 40 minutes.
The Hokies played with heart for about 32 minutes. Virginia Tech cut a 47-40 Clemson lead to three, 47-44, with 7:35 remaining. However, the next made Tech basket would come with 13 seconds remaining. It was an Outlaw triple drawn up in a timeout so the Clemson margin of victory ended up less than 10. Because that matters in the new NET metric the NCAA created to replace the RPI. Seriously.
Marcolini seems to have created a good measuring stick for this team without Robinson. Both losses with Five on the bench have been nowhere close to checking off that list.
47. 64. 51.
Those are the three point totals by Virginia Tech since Robinson went down. If given a guess, and without knowledge of the outcomes, which game sounds like a win?
The fact that Virginia Tech beat NC State is still surprising. The Wolfpack were historically bad.
Here's a look at the shot chart for the lowest-scoring game by a ranked team in the shot clock era (since 1985-86).NC State hit just 17% of their field goals, the worst mark in program history. pic.twitter.com/7fWALQejXK— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 2, 2019
And in reality, winning a game by 23 points while only scoring 47 probably provided false hope. False hope to the fans (ranked win on the road!) and false hope to the team (we can win without Robinson!). Throw out an inept performance from the Wolfpack, and Tech is on a three-game losing streak.
A mid-week tussle with Georgia Tech awaits for the Hokies, as Buzz Williams' crew will try to build momentum against a reeling Yellow Jackets squad sitting at 3-7 in the ACC. And it's difficult to underscore this game's importance.
Take a look at the schedule for the rest of February following the game against the Yellow Jackets. At Pittsburgh, UVA at home, at Notre Dame, Duke at home. Given how difficult road wins are in the ACC when full strength, it's hard to chalk up either of those trips away from Cassell as Ws. And Virginia and Duke are 2nd and 3rd in the country for a reason.
It's time to consider that without a win against Georgia Tech, the Hokies may enter the coveted month of March on a significant losing streak. Wednesday night looms large for a team that is now struggling to stay afloat.
The Hokies' season has gone from lofty expectations to salvage operation in short order. In November, the chatter consisted of sunshine, an NCAA tournament run, and ACC double-byes. But now, that upbeat outlook has been replaced with worried murmurs of whether this team is one dance and done, or worse.