You can tell a lot about a team when things don't go according to plan.
In their game against NC State, the Virginia Tech men's basketball team went 3-10 from three point range (bad). They shot a hair over 50 percent from the free throw line (abhorrent). And, they were up against an opponent with three serious post threats (not ideal).
None of those things is a roadmap to a Hokie win. So what did they do when their usual plan went haywire?
They gave the ball to Justin Robinson, and got the hell out of the way.
The junior point guard took a blowtorch to the Wolfpack with a career-high 32 points as the Hokies won 85-75 in front of a rowdy crowd in Cassell Coliseum.
For those who missed the game, close your eyes and imagine this lone scenario: Robinson has the ball at the top of the key. Kerry Blackshear comes to screen on the right. Robinson fakes like he's heading towards Blackshear, but instead goes left.
Got it? Now repeat that visual 15 more times, with him getting to the bucket every single one of them. His explosive first step continuously baffled the hapless Pack backcourt, hitting 11 of 17 shots, with just two of those connections coming from behind the arc.
But he couldn't do it alone. Blackshear ended up with a quiet 18 points, while Justin Bibbs and Chris Clarke each had a few key baskets. But the biggest change made within the game was Buzz Williams' decision to start senior guard Devin Wilson over the ice cold Ahmed Hill.
"It's kind of that message where (Williams) knows that when he gives someone an opportunity, you already know that message that he's putting you in for a reason," Wilson said. "I thought my reason was to be that spark plug, be that defensive guy. I thought I was able to maybe give these guys some juice."
Though he doesn't quite mesh with the team's offensive identity, Wilson indeed brought the juice to both ends of the floor. The intensity on defense was noticeable immediately, and it was clear that Tech understood the message behind this matchup: "lose it, and you won't make the NCAA Tournament."
This isn't to say that the Hokies will dance come March. But had they dropped a home game to a conference foe similarly on the bubble, it would take a miracle to get back in the conversation.
In fact this sentiment was echoed by ESPN's Jay Bilas in his ranking of the 68 best teams in the country:
Early in the season, the Hokies looked like a team that would get better and better and be tough to guard all season. Well, the defense didn't come along for the ride. Virginia Tech is good, but the Hokies need to play hard all the time to win.
It's a perfect assessment. In their last two home losses (to Miami and Florida State), Tech came out flat and without purpose. And when that happens defensive rotations get lazy, shot selection tanks, and they quickly find themselves in a deep hole.
Against NC State, Tech was ready to go from the jump. They weren't perfect by any means, but their tenacity in both tempo and running out on shooters caused a lot of problems. The Pack hit 10 of 31 threes, and many of those makes were contested. The Hokies will never be a great ball-stopping unit, but effort there can lead to enough stops to pick up a win.
"We're not good enough to not play incredibly hard," Williams said in his press conference. "We're not good enough to take possession off. I thought Devin Wilson was incredible. Really helps us stay connected in what we're trying to do defensively. Every player played, I thought they were all pulling in the same direction. I thought they tried really hard. That's the highest turnover rate defensively we've had all year long."
It's a needed win to bounce back from the loss to the Hurricanes, especially as the Hokies come up on their toughest stretch of the season. Three top-15 teams in 11 days, starting with a trip to Charlottesville to play Virginia on Saturday.
A victory at JPJ is a tall task, but at least we all know the first step to a positive result: having a little extra juice.
A few quick thoughts
GIVE ME ALL OF YOUR FRESHMEN.
Tech has a really nice core of guys to play down the stretch. The lineup of Robinson/Bibbs/Clarke/Blackshear and either Hill or Nickeil Alexander-Walker is really tough for opposing teams to stop. But they also need energy minutes from the other guys on the bench. The core started to get worn down with so much playing time, and it showed on the defensive end.
Do Wabissa Bede, Tyrie Jackson, and P.J. Horne look overwhelmed at times? Yes. But their intensity on the perimeter increases, as does the commitment to rebounding.
The flip side to this is that it skews the offense's spacing in a somewhat awful way (imagine Wilson driving as Horne and NAW stand in the paint), but it's worth it for stretches. And when Robinson pushes the ball like he did against the Pack, it's much less of a problem.
I've often had issues with some of Clarke's man-to-man habits on defense, but good lord was he at his best as the second defender on Omer Yurtseven. State would throw it to their big man, and Clarke was all over him like a rabid hyena bringing down an elephant.
And speaking of Clarke, I'm in for any weird Chris Clarke things he wants to do. The hair? Great. The full-court, Logan Thomas-esq pass to Robinson at the end of the first half? Super. The weird half-court bounce passes through traffic to break the press? Sure, why not. Though he can befuddle us at times, he's by far the most exciting guy on a play-for-play basis.