The momentum didn't stop in Syracuse. Virginia Tech knocked off NC State 72-58 Saturday afternoon and built on its comeback victory against the Orange. The Hokies showcased their scoring ability and demonstrated a Mike Young plan for the undersized Tech to defend against bigger foes.
Followers of Tech basketball might glance at the flowing ball movement on the offensive end of the floor and think that Young and Buzz Williams' styles are similar. And on the surface, that's a fair assessment. Young and Williams love ball movement and shooting the rock. A lot.
During Williams' time at Virginia Tech (especially his final season), the offense relied heavily on a primary ball handler running a pick and roll offense with shooters spotting up beyond the arc. Now, with Young at the helm, the Hokies use a lot of off-ball action while a steady floor general, Wabissa Bede, distributes the ball and coordinates the offense.
On the other end of the floor, the undersized Hokies have been looking for creative ways to solve a difficult problem. How can their defense match up with, and slow down, a much larger player on the other team? And what if that team also has a dynamic guard who can score from the outside? Most of the time in ACC play, opponents have both. So Young and his staff face the challenge of coming up with a defensive game plan that allows a smaller and younger bunch to stay competitive in conference games.
Lack Of Switching On Defense Switches Things Up
Virginia Tech was presented with a tricky matchup on Saturday. The Wolfpack boast a two-pronged attack of Markell Johnson (#11, 6'1", 175) and D.J. Funderburk (#0, 6'10", 225). Quite simply, the Hokies didn't have a capable enough bigman to take on Funderburk alone. Young and Co. came up with an effective way of slowing down the Wolfpack's pick and roll action.
Brian detailed how Virginia attacked the Hokies on ball screens, and that game plan forced the less capable Tech defenders into poor matchups on defense because of their tendency to switch against them. Young tried out a different strategy against NC State. This is the base part of the defensive concept.
Big man Manny Bates (#15) sets a ball screen for Johnson (#11). P.J. Horne (#14), who accounts for Bates, hedges on the screen. It's not a hard hedge in which Horne positions perpendicular to Johnson, forcing him to slow down and redirect course. Instead, Horne slides with Johnson, leaving Bates completely. Normally, that is... not how to guard someone. However, as Bates makes a rim run, Nahiem Alleyne (No. 4) steps into the paint and picks him up.
That's the basic defensive concept from Saturday afternoon. The Hokie guarding the big man hedges and double teams the ball handler, a backside defender slides into the void left behind and (momentarily) picks up the rolling big. In the above example, it led to a quick shot and the progressions of matchups didn't occur. However, watch a play in which they do.
Same base concept, but Landers Nolley (#2) picks up Bates instead of Alleyne. Tyrece Radford (#23) does a better job closing out on Devon Daniels (#24), ensuring a three-pointer isn't hoisted up. Horne, after forcing a pass from Johnson, slides back down into the paint area, not really guarding anyone. Bates moves to set a ball screen for Daniels, and Nolley communicates with Horne, who steps up to pick up his man. And now Tech returns back to their base concept.
Horne works sideways with Daniels as Radford trails behind. Nolley once again steps over and matches up with Bates. Nolley slows Bates down enough on the entry pass to allow Horne to recover, and the double team forces a difficult hook shot from outside the paint.
Sometimes, a great offense beats a good defense. That's just how it goes.
Johnson and Bates are the two Wolfpack players in the pick and roll action above. Horne sticks with Johnson as Bates rolls. Alleyne stays in the paint and bodies up Bates. Horne recovers nicely with his hands up to prevent an easy post feed. So instead, Johnson distributes an absolute dime. He spins a bounce pass around Horne's legs and sets up Bates for a reverse layup.
And sometimes, a defender doesn't do what he's supposed to. Here's a clear example.
Johnson uses the Funderburk (#0) screen and heads to his left. Horne slides with Johnson, cutting off a wide open lane in transition. Hunter Cattoor (#0) initially does the right thing and slides down towards the paint to pick up Funderburk. Instead of staying with Funderburk, Cattoor darts back out towards his man, and the decision yields an easy dunk. It's probably a high-percentage shot even if an undersized Cattoor stays in the paint, but failing to bump the roller can't be a breakdown that happens consistently in this scheme.
The Hokies did a good job of adapting to wrinkles in NC State's offense.
Bates motions to set a ball screen for Johnson. Horne prepares to do what he's been doing all game. Johnson however, crosses over and goes back against the screen, leaving behind both Bede and Horne. As Johnson comes around the corner, Radford waits for him. Radford stays in the paint as his man went to the corner, and he anticipates having to slow down Bates. Instead, he steps up and forces Johnson to leave his feet. As all of that happens, Cattoor slides into the paint as help defense for Radford. That means there were two Wolfpack players on the left side of the floor with only Nolley left to guard both. Nolley does a good job recovering to the first pass from Johnson to Daniels and closes the gap quickly. This forces a swing pass to Pat Andree (#31) in the corner. Cattoor hustles back and contests the shot enough to cause it to clang off the rim. Radford gathers the rebound and he's off to the races.
And finally, the above play is just a great example of Virginia Tech playing defense as one cohesive unit. The same defensive concept on the ball screen develops as John Ojiako (#21) goes with Johnson as Isaiah Wilkins (#1) briefly scoots over to pick up Funderburk. Once Ojiako reestablishes himself with Funderburk, Wilkins shifts back to denying a pass to his mark, forcing the ball into the post. Cattoor plays some serious heads up defense, abandoning his man and swiping the ball away from Funderburk. Once the ball is on the ground, Cattoor goes all out after it and forces the turnover. That's his style of play. Scrappy, first to the floor, energetic. He may not be the best defender in terms of ability, but he brings a disruptive style of play to the equation when he's on the floor.
NC State entered the contest on Saturday averaging 46.8% shooting from the field while shooting around 22 three-pointers per game. By cutting off the entry pass to the post it limited the Wolfpack's ability to get to the rim. NC State finished the game shooting 31% from the field and took 30 three-pointers. Tech's defense changed how NC State played on offense, helping the Hokies to victory.
The Bread And Butter Of Virginia Tech's Offense
The Hokies started slowly against the Wolfpack, finding themselves down 10 points before most folks were even in their seats. Young called a timeout and went back to his basics to jumpstart the offense. This set best illustrates the Hokies' base scheme.
Bede starts with the ball up top and center. Horne and Nolley each position on an elbow. Horne on the left elbow is the target when Tech wants to get into their base motion offense. Bede feeds Horne and motions as if he's going to set a screen for Alleyne. Instead, Alleyne rejects that screen, cuts baseline, and Bede circles back up to get the ball back from Horne. Horne then motions to set a ball screen for Bede, which was promptly refused as the senior elects to drive baseline.
Young loves using the baseline drive to his advantage. It opens up the floor to counter movement. As Bede drives, a whole lot of stuff off the ball happens. Nolley uses a screen from Horne to fill the space that Bede just vacated. Alleyne spots up in the opposite corner, ready to fire away. And Radford, who had started the set in said opposite corner, circles around and makes a hard cut to the basket.
Bede is presented with a bevy of options at the point of hitting the baseline. Braxton Beverly (#10) decides to cut off the corner pass opening up the lane to Radford for an easy finger-roll, and the Hokies get on the board.
This sequence demonstrates what Young's offense is capable of when baseline drive is cut off.
Jalen Cone feeds Horne and circles back for the handoff. Cone hesitates for a moment once Horne sets the ball screen which allows Johnson (#11) to get set and ready to defend either direction. If Cone takes off right after receiving the pass back, his speed probably gets him around the corner with all the options Bede had. Instead, the youngster backs it out and feeds Nolley who comes around the off-ball screen from Horne. Nolley thinks about hoisting the shot, but instead brings it back center. While that happened, Horne sets a down screen for Alleyne. Horne then sets a ball (butt) screen on Bates for Alleyne to use. Radford receives the dribble handoff and gives it back to Nolley for a center iso. Nolley does what he does best, creates just a sliver of space, and calmly knocks down a deep three.
This play stands out because it shows the layers the Hokies' offense has. Even when the primary attack (baseline drive) gets shut down, the rest of the set still works. Instead of Nolley simply filling the void that is left by the baseline drive, he's now a viable passing option for Cone via the Horne screen. Then, off-ball screening and moving forces the defense to switch and think, even without guarding a ball handler. And those switches lead to mismatches, like the one Nolley ends up with against the slower and less agile Funderburk.
Above was a different play out of the same two elbow set. Horne flashes to the elbow, and receives the pass from Cone. Instead of 'screen rejection, circling back to get the ball' action, Cone settles in the corner as Radford slides up the wing. This intends to keep the two defenders occupied and their attention away from the other side of the floor, where the actual action happens.
Horne has the ball at the top of the key. Nolley runs down as if to set a screen to spring Alleyne open for a three. Instead, Alleyne darts towards the paint, essentially setting a screen on Daniels, opening up Nolley to flare out and receive a feed from Horne. This misdirection was extremely effective, as Funderburk looks completely befuddled on who to guard, leaving Nolley with more than enough room to get off the trey ball. The only issue was that Nolley literally jumped for joy at how open he was, and that's a travel.
This isn't an overly complex play, but it showcases how much movement and misdirection Young's offense has.
As Cone brings the ball up the floor, Bede motions towards the right wing. Cattoor vacates that space and circles behind the two elbows towards the left wing. Instead of passing to Ojiako on the elbow, Cone feeds a cutting Bede. Notice how much circular movement was present during that cut. As Bede moves towards the left, Cattoor stops and runs back to the right. As Bede drives baseline (there's that baseline move again!), Cone initially motions towards the right side of the floor. He then stops on a dime and uses the Ojiako re-screen to get open for a three pointer. It doesn't go in, but it's a great look for the youngster.
And finally, one more play that demonstrates how Young uses movement and screens to get his players open heading towards the baseline.
The Hokies start in a different look than the two elbow set. As Bede brings the ball up, Cattoor uses Horne's screen to receive the initial pass from Bede. Horne immediately moves to re-screen, this time freeing Nolley up for a cut towards the ball. Jericole Hellems (#4) and Bates switch on that screen. Bates tries to recover and hedge on what appears to be a ball screen by Nolley. But instead of setting a screen, Nolley slips towards the baseline. He works wide open and Cattoor provides him with a wonderful bounce pass. It doesn't lead to points on this possession but that's a shot that the sharpshooter will usually make.
Additionally, the motion of Nolley to the baseline forces the off-ball defender guarding Bede in the corner to collapse to the paint and help. If the man in the corner is a better three-point shooter (perhaps Cone), Nolley could have a skip pass for a wide open trey as well.
Ahead of Saturday, according to Pomeroy NC State was ranked 9th in AdjO (points scored/100 possessions adjusted for opponent). Virginia Tech's defense was 88th in AdjD. Young's decision to use his bigger players to double team Johnson slowed down the Wolfpack's dynamic offense enough to give the Hokies a chance. On the offensive end, Tech was efficient in the first half (40% from the field, 7 for 13 from deep) after a slow start. They held on in the second frame and shot 35% overall and 2 for 9 from beyond the arc.
Because of that, in year 1 of the Young era, Virginia Tech basketball is 12-4 (3-2) with five straight winnable conference games ahead of them.