Three days removed from a frustrating performance in the Carrier Dome, the Hokies returned to the friendly confines of Cassell Coliseum to face in-state rival UVa and their Pack Line defense. The only problem was they failed to shake off the stink from their road trip to upstate New York. For the second consecutive game, the Hokies shot under 37% from the field and looked listless for long stretches.
While the halftime deficit was a manageable 12 points — remember, the Hokies came back last season at home from a 14 point hole to win in double overtime — the Wahoos used a 15-0 run in the middle of the second half to put the game out of reach, ultimately leaving Blacksburg 78-52 winners.
After a K.J. Blackshear fall away on their opening possession, the Hokies (11-4, 0-2) went scoreless over the next 6 minutes. Careless turnovers and brick after brick caused some anxiety within Cassell, as the nightmarish cold streaks of Tech's previous outing in Syracuse crept into fans' minds.
The Hokies had plenty of looks in the first 9 minutes of play, but many of the shots appeared forced. It was almost as though the spectre of the UVa (13-1, 2-0) defense loomed, subconsciously urging the home team to pull the trigger the moment they sensed an opening. What Tech's shooters failed to recognize was that an open shot doesn't necessarily equal a good shot.
At the time, it felt like a trend that would ultimately correct itself. Surely Buzz and his players would make the right adjustments to find success against the Hoos' stingy defense. But those adjustments never came. Instead, the Hokies regularly fed the post, waiting for a double team that never materialized and ultimately forcing a contested leaner or a low-percentage fall away. They struggled against UVa's extended pressure and aggressive hedging. Justin Robinson and the rest of the Hokie guards failed to breakdown that perimeter defense and create chances off the dribble. Paint touches were hard to come by, and as a result clean three-point looks were even rarer.
Blackshear (14 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks), Robinson (12 points and 4 rebounds) and Chris Clarke (7 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists) were the lone bright spots for a Hokies team that turned the ball over 16 times and shot 2-12 from distance. Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — the team's leading scorers on the season — shot a combined 4-15 from the floor for a grand total of 11 points. With the Hokies down 25 with just under 8 minutes to play, the trio had managed only 4 points between them. They were complete and utter non-factors, short of a handful of leaners from beyond the arc and three straight possessions early in the second half that featured Hill.
When asked about his team's offensive struggles in back-to-back games, Buzz highlighted the obvious common thread.
"We haven't shot the ball well, and I think the thing I would say on that is our turnover rate is just really high," said Williams. "It was 25 percent at Syracuse and it was 23 percent tonight. The pace of play was much faster tonight than it was at Syracuse, it was a 69-possession game. When you miss shots and you're giving them the ball 23 percent of the time, it just compounds the problems that we are having."
While the Virginia Tech offense will be the story of the game, Tech's performance on the other end of the floor was far from stellar. Defensive rotations were poor all night long, allowing an average-at-best shooting team to scorch the nets from distance.
Virginia entered Wednesday's game averaging 71.1 points per game (#263). They had exceeded the 78 points they tallied against Tech only three times this season — against Austin Peay, Davidson and Hampton — and their 12 3-pointers were 2 more than any other contest.
As UVa's shooters ran the baseline, Tech players continually ran over screens or failed to fight through them altogether, which provided guys like Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De'Andre Hunter eons to shoot. Those three players scored 13, 13 and 14 points, respectively, including a combined 8-15 shooting from beyond the arc.
In short, it was an incredibly difficult game to watch. The 9 PM tip-off on a frigid winter night during winter break noticeably sucked some energy out of a typically lively arena. Worse though, this was supposed to be the year Tech de-throned the Hoos as the Commonwealth's top team.
Pre-season hype aside, this matchup felt like it was trending in Virginia Tech's direction. The Hokies had a veteran team full of scorers, to go along with a handful of talented newcomers. The Hoos, on the other hand, lacked the veteran leadership of a Malcolm Brogdon or London Perrantes that helped Bennett guide them to five NCAA tournaments in the last six seasons. Instead, Virginia came away with their most lopsided victory over the Hokies during the Tony Bennett era.
A Few Quick Thoughts
Against UVa, the Virginia Tech offense looked slow and lacked the dynamism that usually carves up defenses and creates space for Tech's shooters. Virginia deserves credit for limiting the Hokies on the perimeter, keeping the skip pass and drive-and-kick games in check. At the same time, Buzz deserves some criticism.
Buzz has assembled a roster in his image, devoid of size but (seemingly) filled with athletic, high-IQ, solid shooting guards and wings; however, against high level opponents this season, that roster is really struggling to generate any semblance of cohesion.
Against two of the toughest defenses they'll face all season, the Hokies have looked like shells of themselves. Their non-conference schedule saw them light up the scoreboard, but Tech fans have been treated with an entirely different reality since the start of ACC play. It's only two games, but it's incredibly concerning.
Buzz was asked after the game if this was a two-game perfect storm or if the team needs to get back to doing things like it was earlier in the season.
"I would say that it is probably both," said Williams. "I think that's the case, very unique in what you are trying to do offensively against Syracuse, and very unique in what you are trying to do to attack Virginia's defense. It was a perfect storm, it was the worst we've played on both ends Sunday and tonight would for sure be worse. So, I think we will continue to get the same test, we are giving opponents things to work on to prepare against us. I think we will continue to get the same test until we figure out how to pass it."
It will be interesting to see what types of adjustments the staff makes moving forward, because what we've seen these last two games isn't working against ACC foes. Yes, the Orange and Cavaliers are unique animals, whereas Tech's next opponent (Pittsburgh) is — to put it kindly — having an up-and-down season. But to continue on the current path would be incredibly stubborn, and there's enough veterans on this team to ensure that doesn't happen.
15 games into the season and it's abundantly clear that this team is lacking the leadership of Zach LeDay and Seth Allen. They're missing that swagger; the eff you face. They're missing a dude with big [basket]balls who has enough savvy to snap offensive cold streaks and generate much needed runs. But that lack of alpha male doesn't necessarily spell doom for Buzz's bunch.
Many of the Hokies' faults are correctable: Cutting down on turnovers, being more selective with their shots (especially from distance), improving defensive fundamentals, and developing ways to generate open looks when the defense isn't falling into your trap(s).
In the four games since the loss at Kentucky, the Hokies are shooting 42.5% from the field (10% below their season average), including 26.8 from distance (15% below their season average). Remember, that run includes games against Presbyterian and North Carolina A&T. This team knows they can shoot it with the best in America — they just need to straighten things out and see the ball go through the hoop with regularity. Hopefully that occurs against a Pitt team that looked like an easy win one week ago.
To briefly switch gears, I wanted to add my two cents on the scheduling of Wednesday's game. In my opinion, it's shameful that the powers-that-be (I'm looking at you, John Swofford) would schedule a rivalry game between two 2017 NCAA tournament teams during winter break. The beauty of any rivalry game — especially in college basketball, where the fans are literally breathing down the players' necks — is a deliriously raucous crowd. Cassell Coliseum is known for providing such an atmosphere, but that ultimate potential was essentially taken away from the Hokies faithful. No one was confusing Cassell for Newman Library, but through no fault of those in attendance it just felt a little lacking. The performance was partly to blame, but so was the distinctly lower percentage of students compared to a typical game. It's a shame, and both Buzz Williams and Whit Babcock should do everything in their power to ensure that it doesn't happen again. Fin.