Saturday's road win in South Bend wasn't exactly pleasing to the eye. Frankly, it was largely boorish. Then again, aesthetics have largely gone out the window since Justin Robinson's foot injury nearly a month ago.
The Hokies used a smothering defensive performance to overcome yet another underwhelming shooting night and win 67-59, earning their fourth consecutive 10-win season in the ACC. That's an incredible accomplishment for any program not named Duke and North Carolina. It's all the more impressive considering the depths from which Virginia Tech has risen to reach such an achievement.
Tech's recent offensive woes continued without their starting point guard. But, once again, they rode a dynamic performance from fleet-footed forward Kerry Blackshear, Jr. to notch their 5th ACC road win ahead of their Super Tuesday matchup with top-ranked Duke.
The Hokies dominated Notre Dame on the glass, finishing with a 49-27 advantage. Despite entering Saturday's game ranked last in the ACC in rebounding and facing conference leader John Mooney (10.9 rpg), Tech used strong perimeter defense to force low-percentage shots and thin out the lane. Though KJ led Tech with 14 boards, Wabissa Bede (8) and Isaiah Wilkins (7) highlighted a great team performance on the glass.
The Hokies jumped out to a double-digit lead early by limiting Notre Dame's paint touches, with the first coming at the 13:18 mark (by my count). Tech's rotations were quick, keeping the Irish in front of them and contesting all shots. Though the Irish are the worst shooting team in the ACC (and #339 out of 351 teams, nationally), it wasn't like Tech was leaving them with open looks they were unable to cash in on. Notre Dame had little room to breathe, constantly forcing low-percentage shots that left them in poor position to contest the rebound.
That early defense provided the Hokies with some cover as their shooting regressed to their recently inconsistent form. Tech started out 4-6 from distance to build an early cushion, but hit only one more from behind the arc over the remaining 32 minutes. Were it not for Kerry Blackshear, Jr., we would almost certainly be discussing an entirely different outcome. KJ continued his all-around tear, combining his nifty post moves and soft touch with some deft passing out of the block. And while he only finished with 3 assists, his ability to facilitate has been invaluable as more defenses collapse on Tech's current offensive leader. The best example was the bullet pass to Bede on the perimeter from the opposite block, which Bede swung to Ahmed Hill who finished with a highlight reel dunk.
Saturday's performance makes three consecutive 20-plus point games for KJ, during which time he's averaging 24.7 points and 12 rebounds. To be honest, the box score doesn't capture the impact he had on this game. He was a steadying force when shots weren't falling for his teammates. The offense has lacked its creativity in Robinson's absence, often highlighted by a slow-developing drive-and-kick game that is failing to breakdown opposing defenses.
Blackshear's ability to back down defenders, pass out of the post, and pull up from behind the arc have opened things up for Tech. He is forcing defenses to collapse on him in the paint and extend on him when he has space from 16-plus feet. When the offense sputters, it's Blackshear who has steadied the proverbial ship and provided some much-needed consistency. It has been Zach LeDay-esque.
"He's just become so integral to literally everything we do on both ends," noted Buzz Williams. "We tried to protect him for two or three game minutes when he picked up his first foul because of what I just said. When I took him out in the second half, he was just exhausted because he is so important to what we were doing."
Isaiah Wilkins had another strong performance off the bench, logging 8 points and 7 boards in only 16 minutes. He was active on both ends of the floor — including a clumsy foul on an Irish three-point attempt — and quietly efficient in a game that was anything but. Buzz certainly noticed, remarking:
"I thought he was the player of the game. He was not here in summer school, a very late signee — the latest in my time as a head coach. And our plans were to redshirt him. With all that's transpired this month, he's become so important to what we're doing."
Despite shooting 2-8 from the floor and turning the ball over 5 times, Nickeil Alexander-Walker finished with 12 points and 3 rebounds. Ty Outlaw finished with 9 points and 6 boards and Bede added 6 points and 8 boards.
The Hokies will be forced to quickly pivot, as #1 Duke rolls into Blacksburg on Tuesday night. A Zion-less Blue Devils squad could be primed for an upset in the Cassell, provided Tech is able to shake off some of their recent shooting woes. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM on the Worldwide Leader.
Smaller Look at the Bigger Picture
More Like Woe-bissa, Amiright? Stature aside, I don't think anyone has ever confused Bede with Ty Outlaw. While not characterized by his shooting ability, Bede has been known to knock down open threes when called upon. But after another 0-3 performance from behind the arc, I feel obligated to ask the question: Should Bede lay off the distance shooting for a bit?
Listen, I understand that it can be tough on the psyche to be instructed to pass on open shots. It would certainly be easier if Bede channeled his inner Devin Wilson and had the self-awareness to seek a higher percentage shot. Is there a point where Buzz asks Bede to pump the breaks? I doubt it — Buzz strikes me as the type of coach who encourages his players to shoot themselves out of a funk. But there's a slightly worrying trend in Bede's performances of late.
Since hitting 3 of 4 3-point attempts against NC State, Bede is 0 for his last 11. That bucket may start to look bigger to him if he can nail an early three against Duke. If he continues to struggle, there could come a point where Buzz needs to have a talk with his young deputy.
Help Us Justin Robinson. You're Our Only Hope. The Hokies improved to 4-3 in J-Rob's absence, including road wins at NC State, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. While Tech has figured out ways to win despite a significant drop-off in offensive firepower, it's hard not to worry about the sustainability of such a style when the level of competition ratchets up to an 11 in a few weeks time.
Tech's offense continues to struggle without their point guard. On Saturday afternoon, the Hokies shot 36.5% from the field and 5-18 (27.8%) from distance. There is such a stark contrast in the way that the offense functions under Robinson compared to deputy Bede. Three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff (32% in his absence) and both Alexander-Walker (12.7 ppg) and Hill (10.8 ppg) have looked offensively neutered sans Robinson.
Playing a bigger role as the team's primary ball handler, NAW seems to be struggling to create his own shot. Not only are teams more talented, defensively, but they're aware of what NAW brings to the table at this stage. They've limited his ability to take guys off the dribble by cutting off his drives. His three-point shooting has suffered a bit, due to the reduction in catch-and-shoot situations that Justin Robinson helped create by breaking down defenses. And a larger share of his scoring output is coming from the free-throw line, highlighting the drop-off in shot making during open play.
No sooner were we breathing a sigh of relief that Med had finally overcome his in-conference inconsistencies when J-Rob's injury threw a grenade into that fine tuned machine. Prior to Five's injury, Hill had logged double figures in 12 of his previous 14 games and 16 out of 20, overall. In the 7 games since, Hill has scored 10 or more points three times and is shooting 14% from behind the arc.
The common thread in all of this is how much Robinson was able to create shots for others by taking defenses off the dribble. His ability to recognize openings and explode into space forced the opposition to collapse, leaving Tech's shooters one pass away from an easy jumper. Bede, Wilkins and NAW don't possess that same trait, which has slowed the offense down to a crawl relative to when Robinson was at the helm.
I don't think it's fair to rhetorically ask when the aforementioned players will add that component to their game — it's something that makes Robinson so unique as a player. But I do think it's fair to wonder what other ways Buzz and his staff can tweak the offense to try and create more open looks for his shooters. If Tech is looking to make a run in either of the coming tournaments, they're going to need their distance shooting to be on display. Otherwise, it could be another season of quick exits for the good guys.
Obligatory second-look at that Ahmed Hill highlight dunk.