The Virginia Tech men's basketball team is a lot of things.
They're fun, fast, and potent. They're scrappy. They're incredibly well coached. They're an amazing storyline in a year when the ACC could use one. They're talented, with a borderline-NBA player leading the way. They'll likely finish in the top half of their conference in the same season when they were picked to finish second-to-last. They're full of heart.
One thing they're not, however, is an NCAA Tournament team.
Before you jump to the comments and call me a hater, you have to know one thing–I love these guys. It's so great to watch a group made up primarily of leftovers, looked-overs, and very young freshmen figure out how to win on the fly. They care for each other, and have improved as a unit each time out. They represent Virginia Tech with pride, and their energy is endearingly infectious.
This squad is easy to root for, and raise the program's ceiling over the next three-to-four years. But if we're talking about this year, Tech's probably not going to make the dance.
The Hokies' chance to remain on the right side of the bubble popped after they went up to Chestnut Hill and lost a close one to Boston College 61-56. The Eagles are not good–though they're 4-5 in conference, they're the worst team by far according to KenPom. BC sits at 165, and the next closest conference opponent (Miami) is at 115. It's a bad loss on an already weak resume for Tech, whose strength of schedule already kept them as a "first four out" according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi.
But with 50 days still remaining before selection Sunday, it's foolish to chalk up one result as a do-or-die. A young team going into a sleepy environment on a Saturday afternoon has always been a recipe for a letdown game, and the Hokies' sluggishness shouldn't have come as a surprise. When a head coach has to play seven underclassmen big minutes, this is something he'll occasionally have to deal with.
Tech's uncharacteristically slow feet limited them offensively (14 turnovers, consistently stagnant off-ball movement) and defensively (19 fouls, losing shooters on the perimeter, constantly beaten to 50/50 balls.)
"I don't think it was as much what they did defensively as it was us and what we did to
ourselves offensively," head coach Mike Young said afterwards. "Our movement was horrific, our ball movement was horrific. I can't think of many times we've had a negative assist-turnover ratio like we had today. You get what you earned and we earned what we got."
It was a bad day from everyone, and those performances tend to happen on the road. Falling to Boston College won't single handedly reject the Hokies from the tournament, but did highlight two huge problems ahead.
The ACC is down in 2020. Duke, Florida State, and Louisville are all potentially worthy of a top seed, but after that? There's not much. Over the last few seasons, the Hokies have been able to counteract their weak non-conference schedule by picking up wins over solid conference foes. Wins over Syracuse and NC State and Notre Dame meant beating other opponents with postseason aspirations. They could pad their resume without needing to upset multiple top teams.
But now? North Carolina, Virginia, Notre Dame, and Syracuse are all down, Pittsburgh and Miami still have yet to turn the corner, and the rest of the recently bad programs are still just that. After averaging eight postseason bids between 2017-2019, Lunardi predicts just four to go dancing this March. The league is filled with bad losses and expected wins, leaving no room for error and just a few chances for redemption.
Let's break down the rest of Tech's schedule:
@ Miami (10-9, 2-7 ACC, 115th KenPom)
vs Florida State (17-2, 7-1, 16th KenPom)
@ Georgia Tech (9-11, 4-6, 82nd KenPom)
vs Boston College (10-10, 4-5, 165th KenPom)
vs Pittsburgh (13-7, 4-5, 80th KenPom)
@ Duke (16-3, 6-2, 2nd KenPom)
vs Virginia (13-6, 5-4, 53rd KenPom)
@ Louisville (17-3, 8-1, 8th KenPom)
vs Clemson (10-9, 4-5, 83rd KenPom)
@ Notre Dame (11-8, 2-6, 62 KenPom)
For reference, in 2019 the lowest at-large tournament team was 60th in KenPom (Seton Hall), but most programs on the bubble sat in the upper 30s and 40s. Outside of the FSU/Duke/Louisville triad, Tech's best chance for a "statement" win comes against Virginia–another squad on the outside looking in.
Instead, the Hokies' path to the postseason is filled with landmines. Trips to Miami, Atlanta, and South Bend. Home contests with Clemson and Pitt. With such a soft slate, the committee will expect Tech to go above .500 in ACC play (last year, both NC State and Clemson were cut for going 9-9). Assuming the Hokies go 0-3 against the Seminoles, Cardinals, and Blue Devils, that would allow them just two more losses to finish 11-9 in the league.
That means nearly every game is do-or-die, adding pressure to a young group. There's no more room for sluggish starts and playing down to opponents. There's no time for cold first halves and hoping the threes start falling. To get to the postseason, the Hokies need to beat every team they're supposed to be better than, and then hope things shake out in their favor. They might be up to it, but Saturday's showing in Massachusetts showed otherwise.
Tech's penchant for inconsistency stems from the way they play. It's the reason they can smash NC State and Wake Forest, epically come back at Syracuse, and then play poorly against two of the worst teams in the conference (UNC and BC).
The sport is changing. The reliance on the three pointer started as an analytical movement in the NBA, and has now trickled down into every layer of the game. Youngsters want to shoot like Steph Curry, high schoolers keep expanding their range, and colleges can make up for a lack of size and talent by chucking triples.
Mathematically, it makes sense. It doesn't take an engineering major to realize three points are worth more than two, and making more (even at a lower percentage) means your points-per-possession improves. But there's one thing people tend to overlook when they talk about the rise of shooting from deep: getting to the basket.
There's a reason the shots are distributed the way they are in Kirk Goldsberry's chart. A bunch of triples and a bunch of chances at the rim are how you space the floor, and you don't get one without the other. If a team can attack the hoop with impunity, the defense collapses and will leave shooters open for a three. If teams are on fire from behind the arc, the defense widens out and surrenders driving lanes and one-on-one opportunities.
The Hokies can do half of this. They take (and make) more threes than any power five team in college basketball. But their opponents know this and overplay the perimeter, daring Tech to take it inside. Last season Justin Robinson thrived on these chances, attacking downhill relentlessly. Kerry Blackshear also took advantage in the post, as defenders were too wary to double him and give up an open look elsewhere.
But this Tech squad isn't the same, and their consistency suffers because of it. Wabissa Bede's playmaking has improved, but he's still more suited to play as a secondary creator. Tyrece Radford and Nahiem Alleyne don't have a reliable enough handle to take on defenders, and Landers Nolley lacks the foot speed to always beat his man into the lane. Jalen Cone has both the quickness and ball handling, but his lack of size seems to make him hesitant amongst the trees inside.
This results in stagnant offense, and far too many reluctant Nolley triples from the top of the key. When they make them, anything can happen. They can mount both comebacks and onslaughts, and can compete with anyone on their schedule. But a cold streak can bring a loss to anyone, as we've seen over the last week.
The Hokies are exciting, and will be a blast to watch for the next two months. Assuming they pick up two more wins we'll see them in some form of postseason tournament (and hey, the NIT is fun!) But as of now, it doesn't seem like it will be the type of tournament many were hoping for just two weeks ago.