On January 23rd, fresh off a double overtime thriller against North Carolina, the Virginia Tech men's basketball team was 14-5, with a 5-3 record in the ACC. They were hot–surprisingly so, considering their lack of size, experience, playmaking, and defense–and found themselves on the way-too-early tournament bubble.
Just five weeks later, fortunes are a bit different in Blacksburg. The Hokies traveled to Louisville desperate to both clinch an above.500 season and find some semblance of a consistent identity. It's been a rough month for the young squad, mixing a few blowouts with a bevy of backbreaking losses. Just think about some of the ways Tech has fallen recently:
January 25th:They blew a 12-point lead at Boston College despite the Eagles shooting 40 percent from the free throw line.
February 8th: Lost again to BC, this time in overtime, despite 29 from Landers Nolley. Down two, the freshman missed a questionable three with 10 seconds to go.
February 19th: Lost to Miami in triple OT despite having the lead with less than 10 seconds to go at the end of regulation, first OT, and second OT.
February 26th: Tech comes back from scoring just 11 first-half points and ties Virginia with 11 seconds left. Cavalier guard Kihei Clark promptly nails a dagger for the win.
Young squads need to face adversity to set their foundation for the future, and this one is no exception. But losing's not easy, and the more you do it, the more it can make you question things. Players can get skittish, double down on mistakes, or forget the little things it takes to win–blocking out, for example–and coaches can start to doubt their rotations and plan of attack.
The Hokies put these types of identity issues on full display in their 68-52 loss in the KFC Yum! Center.
In the first half, Tech went punch-for-punch with the Cardinals. They found open shooters with ball movement and screen action. Jalen Cone and Nahiem Alleyne rocketed around multiple picks, hitting quick triples to take an early lead.
But when the shots began to cool, mistakes multiplied. A bad turnover here and a defensive gaffe there lead to stagnation on both ends of the floor. An early second half lead quickly melted away into a 10-point hole, which then ballooned to 17 as things got out of hand.
"I thought we were in good shape at the half," Mike Young said postgame. "We never turn the ball over and then we had seven first-half turnovers and 16 for the game, which negates our play on the perimeter. They shoot the basketball so well and we limited to two made 3s at the half. But we shot ourselves in the foot and kick it seven times, which is just unnerving. We had some turnovers and bad shots to start the second half and then you're down 10 and you've got a problem."
The Cardinals are loaded with veterans and played like it from the jump. Even when Tech got hot, they never panicked and stuck to their script. Jordan Nwora eviscerated the Hokies inside, shooting 75 percent from two (he did Tech a favor any time he took a triple), and Louisville relentlessly attacked the basket as the game wore on.
And while Chris Mack's game plan methodically ran his opponent out of the gym, Young's seemed to change with his personnel. A young group of Cone, Alleyne, Hunter Cattoor, Tyrece Radford, and a big (either P.J. Horne or John Ojiako) felt active and fast, if not always efficient. Cone would move masterfully between screens and make plays on the perimeter. And while not the most adept defensive grouping, the youngsters did well to hold their own.
Ball movement all-but stopped with Nolley on the floor, as Tech resorted to more isolation-heavy play. Nolley seemed pressed to make an impact, and often found himself taking contested shots in the post. The Hokies' leading scorer finished the night with just six points on 2-9 shooting, and even more disturbingly failed to contribute in any other way.
At his best, Nolley is a difference maker. Even when his jumpers don't fall, the wing can still make his presence felt. He can grab rebounds, act as a secondary distributor, and even show up defensively. But on Sunday night he racked up just one board and one assist, while giving the ball away five times. Despite the struggles, Young has the same message for his forward:
"Don't turn down a good shot," Young said. "If you turn down a good shot, I'm going to take you out of the game. I'm not going to take you out of the game for missing a shot. But he had a tough night. (Louisville) can put a Sutton on him, a big, strong athlete on him and he had a hard time getting to some spots that he typically does. But that's the only message I've had for him."
It's been a puzzling stretch for the redshirt freshman. He was influential in the Hokies' win against Pittsburgh and near-win vs Miami, despite shooting a combined 7-36 (19 percent) in the two contests. But in the last three outings, he's been a ghost:
@ Duke: 16 minutes, 3 points (1-8 shooting), 1 rebound, 0 assists
vs UVA: 32 minutes, 13 points (3-10 shooting), 5 rebounds, 2 assists
@ Louisville: 24 minutes, 6 points (2-9 shooting), 1 rebound, 1 assist
Is this the freshman wall? Him not adjusting well to the emergence of other scorers? The emotional toll of the losing streak? Maybe. But it could also simply be the wear and tear of a young player forced to bear too much of the scoring load since November. But whatever it is, it isn't the Hokies' biggest problem.
Louisville may be the best team in the ACC, but they also worked harder on the court, an unrecoverable sin when you're trying to make up as big of a talent gap as Tech. There were bad shots, horrid turnovers, and a group of young guys who play like they know exactly how many games they've lost in the last month.
"They made the winning plays," Cone said. "Like getting your team second chances on the offensive end, getting stops. There were sometimes when we got stops but would take some bad shots and some of that is on me. I took some bad shots and put my team in a tough situation. But they had more winning plays than us – more offensive rebounds, hustle plays. They came down with the 50-50 balls, just got about all of them. We've just got to get tougher."
It's only natural for a roster heavy on underclassmen to press as much as they have. But it's hard to see it getting much better the rest of the way. Though some may still be holding onto the hope of an NIT bid, maybe the best thing to happen to this young group is a fresh start next season.