Road games. They're never easy in the ACC to win. Even when the opponent is say a Pittsburgh squad trying to snap an eight-game losing streak.
No. 22 Virginia Tech battled through foul trouble and double-digit turnovers on Saturday evening to beat Pittsburgh 70-64. The Hokies picked up their 20th win of the season, moving to 20-5 overall. It was also Buzzketball's 9th ACC win of the 2018-19 campaign, which guarantees the Hokies will finish at least .500 in conference play for the fourth-straight season.
The good news is that Virginia Tech looked like a top-25 team again. It took five games, but there were moments against the Panthers when the Hokies' product on the court didn't look like it was missing a key player. Buzz Williams was faced with the daunting task of reworking an already thin rotation when Justin Robinson was put in a walking boot. And while there were certainly some growing pains (looking at you, Clemson game), it seems like the coaching staff has found the right balance.
And the key component to that balance? Three words for you. Jonathan. Kabongo. Dynasty.
Well, not really.
But, to be fair, Kabongo did knock down two clutch three-pointers. And played more minutes that P.J. Horne did. The Kabongo Dynasty is making a resurgence.
The freshman was forced into playing double-digit minutes for the first time since the Maryland Eastern-Shore game because of the foul trouble Virginia Tech was in. Nickeil Alexander-Walker picked up three first-half fouls, and only ended up playing 17 minutes total. Ahmed Hill and Kerry Blackshear Jr. also finished with four fouls. Somehow, not a single Hokie fouled out. But the fouls piling up forced Kabongo into action.
The real key component to the Hokies' balance is how the players have settled into the 'new team' look that was harped on following Robinson's injury. So far, the 'new team' has gone through Blackshear.
Against the Panthers, Blackshear continued his stretch of dominating play. After tying a career high for assists (8) against Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, the big man put up a big boy stat line against the Panthers. Try this on for size.
Twenty-nine points, 9 rebounds, 8 for 9 from the field, 3 for 3 from deep, 10 for 11 from the free throw line. All while sitting for less than 90 seconds total.
Last season, Blackshear scored a career high 31 points against the Panthers in Blacksburg. And after another dominating performance from the senior, it's hard to wonder if Alexander-Walker was the right shoulder to tap to carry the load of Robinson's absence.
When Robinson collapsed to the floor holding his foot, an immediate reaction was Alexander-Walker was about to prove why he's a projected lottery pick. The offense would flow through the sophomore guard, he'd put up gaudy scoring totals, and he'd will the Hokies to victory. The only difference between prediction and reality now is that the offense hasn't gone through the sophomore guard. It's gone through the senior forward.
Alexander-Walker has gotten his points, there's no argument on that front. But the shooting performances from NAW have been less than ideal since Robinson got injured. In order, Alexander-Walker has gone: 4 for 10, 4 for 9, 3 for 14, 5 for 12, and 2 for 5. Compare those shooting performances to Blackshear's, (5 for 11, 6 for 13, 5 for 8, 5 for 10, 8 for 9), and it's clear who Virginia Tech needs to be feeding with Robinson out.
It wasn't very long ago (read: last article posted) that this was written about Blackshear.
His offensive skill set has grown in a way that makes him a nightmare for opponents. When he receives a pass outside the arc and a defender closes out too fast, he'll spin right on by and drive the lane. If a defender sags off, Blackshear will just knock down the three. And even if an opponent ends up guarding Blackshear perfectly, he's got the vision to find the open man for an easy basket. Oh, and he's 6'10". Good luck.
If the Hokies continue to get consistently dominant and versatile showings from Blackshear, the impact of Robinson's injury will be drastically softened.
Ty Outlaw is still the backup center apparently. Against Pitt, Outlaw tied Blackshear for a team-high 9 rebounds. Horne is slowly making his way back into the rotation, and only played 12 minutes. As such, Outlaw continues to be the second best rebounder on the team. Couple that skill with his ability to swat shots into the seats, and the senior makes a legitimate claim to be the backup center. Heck, he was even in the center circle for tip off.
Bede didn't score much and that's okay. Bede got the starting nod over Wilkins again, and didn't really produce much in terms of making shots. However, the sophomore did dish out seven assists, swipe two steals, and had one clutch shot block with time running out in the second half. And there were points where the point guard looked like he wanted to actually attack the basket. Which, as sad as it sounds, is progress! It seems like Bede is just mentally hesitant and needs to find some confidence.
14 turnovers is uh, not great. Reading through the final stats, the turnover column immediately pops out. It was a sloppy game from both the Hokies and the Panthers, but it never felt that sloppy. Virginia Tech takes on Virginia Monday night, and if the Hokies turn it over even close to 14 times, it's going to be a long night. It's a quick turnaround for Buzzketball, but ball security will need to be an emphasis in however little practice the team gets.
Appreciate what's happening in Blacksburg. With this win, Virginia Tech secured their 4th straight 20 win season. That's a level of consistency for the program missing since the 1981-86 stretch of 20 win seasons. And additionally, this will be the fourth-straight year of at least a .500 record in conference play. Just five years ago, Virginia Tech finished last in the ACC for the third-straight year. This type of steady winning might not be winning championships, but it's a whole lot better than what had become the norm for Virginia Tech basketball.