Quick. Off the top of your head, what's the first thing you think the Virginia Tech basketball team needs for the 2020-21 season?
Your gut might have said "size." And while it isn't a wrong answer, that issue will be somewhat alleviated by the addition of 6'9" Keve Aluma (who sat out due to transfer rules) and 6'8" commit David N'Guessan to play alongside P.J. Horne and John Ojiako. The Hokies may not have plenty of size, but they'll have more of it.
Your reaction might have also been "rebounding help", a separate-yet-similar issue to the one above. And yes, the globs of offensive boards racked up by teams like Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina stick out like sore thumbs, but the glass never cost Tech a game. Sure, they were lower in the conference in total rebounds, but they allowed just 171 offensive boards in ACC play, good for third best in the league (a stat that stunned me when I first saw it.)
No, Mike Young's next squad needs playmaking more than anything.
Think back to the Buzz Williams era, which may have been some of the most offensively efficient teams in program history. Why did they find so much success? They strived to accomplish one tactic more than anything else–get the ball in the paint.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard Williams say "paint touch" in an interview or press conference I'd have enough money to buy toilet paper before the world ends. While it doesn't take an Xs and Os savant to understand what the phrase means, it was often misrepresented in its execution.
Whenever Kerry Blackshear or Zach LeDay caught the ball in the mid-to-low post, color commentators would talk about how much Tech's staff encouraged "paint touches." But while dumping it down to a low post operator was one example, it was not the only (or even best) reference how to do it. In fact there were many ways to get it inside that better showed why it was so important to Williams.
This clip from 2019 is a very simple example of a good paint touch. Wabissa Bede comes around Blackshear and immediately jets into the lane. Duke knows Kerry is a threat to both roll to the rim or pop out for a three, so their attention is on him. As Bede gets into the lane there's now a numbers game at play. Bede is in the paint, Ty Outlaw is in the corner. There's one defender who has to make a choice–surrender a wide open layup or crash down and leave Outlaw with nothing but clean mountain air in front of him? (Shout out Jon Laaser.)
If you asked an analytics person, they'd probably say give Bede the layup 10 times out of 10. Outlaw shoots at such a high clip that the right call is to give up the two and keep playing. But numbers can only make you react so much in a situation. It's a tie game, and giving up an easy run to the rim could be the difference between a win and a loss. I don't envy Alex O'Connell here because everything you've been taught for years says to contest Bede, which is what he does. Outlaw gives Tech a lead and they never look back.
Another quick, but important example. Justin Robinson's on the move — making it a little different from getting it inside in the halfcourt — but two clear things happen here. The first is Robinson has the explosiveness to blow past his man, something the 2020-21 Hokies need more of. Once he does, Boston College makes the opposite decision from the first clip. Both defenders stick to their shooters in the corners and Robinson makes the easy choice to race to the basket. What looks like an easy bucket is predicated on attacking quickly and having a guy who can make plays with the ball in his hands.
This is where Mike Young's roster overhaul comes into play. After their hot start in conference play, the tape was out on his Hokies. Guard them tight, stick on the shooters, and force someone to make a play off the dribble. And routinely, no one could, with Bede and Landers Nolley bearing the brunt of the lack of playmaking.
It must have been apparent early on, because Young and his staff immediately went out to rectify the issue. They signed four-star shooting guard Joe Bamisile in July, who 247Sports's Jerry Meyer says has:
Sturdy build with some length for a shooting guard. Good athleticism, especially off the dribble with some space. Can score from all three levels but likes to attack the basket. Very good rebounder for a wing. Has versatility as a defender. Solid all-around player.
And then went out and got four-star combo guard Darrius Maddox, of which Meyer says:
A good athlete with solid size as a shooting guard. Has a quick release on his jumper. Can score at all three levels. Thrives at creating space off the dribble for his jumper. Expect his 3-point percentage to improve. Handles ball well and is [an] adequate passer. Rebounding has room for improvement. Has potential to be a quality defender.
Notice anything similar between the two commits? They're both guards who can create space for themselves and others. And with a group of youngsters on the roster who thrive off the catch (Jalen Cone, Nahiem Alleyne, Hunter Cattoor), the Hokies need some initiators.
But that's a lot of playmaking to burden two young combo guards with. And especially after a season with one of the youngest rosters in college basketball, Tech needed playmaking they could count on.
Enter Cartier Diarra.
My main takeaway from K-State's basketball opener: Cartier Diarra was getting it done on both ends of the court https://t.co/czJYKsfhKc pic.twitter.com/iFoIf4pZHP— Kellis Robinett (@KellisRobinett) November 6, 2019
The senior grad transfer from Kansas State comes to Blacksburg on the heels of a somewhat rocky year in Manhattan. His run-ins with Bruce Weber and an unbased attack from ESPN's Fran Fraschilla saying he was "too focused on the pros" marred Diarra's first year as a primary contributor. Though his points and assist averages increased, his turnovers skyrocketed and his shooting percentage plummeted.
He's not perfect. But luckily for Cartier, the Hokies don't need him to be.
When you watch those highlights a few things should immediately stand out — a nice first step, an ability to finish around the rim, and an unrelenting confidence with the ball in his hands. He's a great addition to this roster, a veteran presence who can both score on his own and facilitate for others.
In some ways, he reminds me of the Seth Allen addition in 2014. Allen wasn't a perfect combo guard by any means, but his strengths (shotmaking, secondary creation, swagger) greatly outweighed his weaknesses (defense, turnovers) in the way he impacted the Hokies. It's not a one-for-one comparison — Diarra isn't as smooth as a passer but a much better defender — but both brought veteran leadership and scoring to Blacksburg.
If Diarra can draw defenders and find teammates like Cone, Alleyne, and Cattoor, the offense will run much smoother. It seems clear why Young and Chester Frazier pursued him, and that Diarra knows his expected roll:
"He [Young] loves my game and what I bring to the table," said Diarra. "He felt like I definitely could have had a better year, for sure. We talk about even my assists and turnovers. My assist numbers were really high early in the year, they kind of went down, but my turnovers were way too high (led K-State with 3.2 per game). They were careless ones, they weren't forced ones, I could've avoided them. When it comes down to it, he admires how hard I play, my energy, everything I bring to the table. My goal is to be an all-around player, get rebounds, get steals."
Hokie fans everywhere seemed to tug at their respective collars when Nolley announced his transfer, and Tech will miss his size and shooting. But the addition of Diarra (alongside Bamisile and Maddox) have made one thing clear — the plan forward has never been clearer in the Mike Young era.