Whatever remained of Virginia Tech's fledgling NCAA tournament hopes was left stranded in the half-empty confines of the Conte Forum. Barring an unlikely sequence of miracles, the Hokies will not dance this year. The 68-63 loss to Boston College followed the season's same disappointing script: hang around for 35 minutes, give fans a small sliver of hope that somehow the result this time may be different, and fall apart down the stretch. Rinse, lather, repeat. The setback to North Carolina on Monday night further cemented the inevitable.
It is a difficult pill to swallow particularly because many Hokie fans thought so highly of this team. This was a veteran group that returned most of their key pieces from last season. They had an All-ACC forward in Keve Aluma, a battle-tested point guard in Storm Murphy, and a promising young wing in Darius Maddox bursting with potential. Above all else, they had an experienced head coach who has forgotten more about the game of basketball than any of us will ever know.
And yet competition has a way of humbling the best of us. Every team has good players and good coaches. Every team wants to win. Here the Hokies stand at 10-9 and 2-6 in the underwhelming ACC, trying to figure out what has gone wrong.
If you've read my columns this year, you know why Virginia Tech has trouble scoring. They are undersized and largely unathletic. They lack guards who can create their own shot. Their forwards, outside of Aluma, struggle to finish in the paint. For these reasons, Tech also never gets to the free-throw line, and because teams are running them off the three-point line, their one true strength — perimeter shooting — has been negated.
I will kindly put this dying horse of offense to rest and instead focus on Tech's defense, which has been a much bigger culprit in their losing skid and is increasingly getting worse. The losses of ballstopping guards Wabissa Bede and Tyrece Radford, in addition to the departure of assistant coach Chester Frazier, have dealt quite a blow to the Hokies' defense, though it took quite a while for most of us to recognize just how much.
They Ain't Played Nobody
Virginia Tech currently ranks dead last in defensive efficiency during ACC play. Their slow pace (342nd in adjusted tempo) obscures the fact that if the Hokies played as fast as North Carolina they would be giving up over 81 points per game. What I find curious about this stat is that Tech actually had the fourth-best non-conference defensive rating in all of Division I, and their non-conference competition was by no means a cakewalk. The other teams at the top of that list include LSU, Iowa State, Texas, and Baylor, all of whom are putting together remarkable seasons. Something is missing.
Right now, everything about Tech's defense is bad. They aren't forcing missed shots; they aren't forcing turnovers; they aren't rebounding. Earlier in the year, the Hokies benefited from abnormally poor three-point shooting by their opponents. That was bound to come back to earth sooner or later, and it did: Tech's ACC opponents are shooting 35% from three, compared to 24% for non-league opponents. While three-point shooting can be fluky, the more reliable stats like 2P% defense and steal rate are also down. We tend to think that performance against lesser teams doesn't have any value, but in general, teams that dominate lesser competition tend to be good against quality competition as well. That is not the case for Tech: no team in the country has a larger decrease in defensive rating (-32 points per 100 possessions) from conference to non-conference, and it's not close. What gives?
Beaten on the Boards
We might as well start with rebounding, because it's been dreadful.
Traditionally, Mike Young-coached teams have not had great shooting defenses but they have been excellent at rebounding. Even since coming to Blacksburg, Young's Hokies ranked 71st in opponents' ORB% two years ago and 44th last year. This season, they are a cool 202nd. The loss of Radford is certainly a factor. But while the Hokies could do a better job of boxing out and being physical on the boards, a major issue is that their guards are constantly getting beat off the dribble. When that happens, the defense has to collapse and it puts the help defender in an awkward position if the shot is missed.
An example of this is this drive by Boston College's Jaeden Zackery (#3).
Zackery forces his way to the paint, and while Murphy (#5) does his best to contest the floater, he was just too small to seal him off without fouling. John Ojiako (#21) rotates over to block the shot, but was unable to do so even with his long reach, leaving James Karnik (#33) there to secure the offensive rebound and putback. David N'Guessan (#1) was unable to position himself for the board because he was spaced out too far. This is why guard play is so important — they need to stop the ball and minimize the number of defensive rotations.
From a schematic perspective, I have noticed one major change from earlier in the season in how the Hokies defend ball screens. Tech's coaching staff has made the decision to hedge almost every screen, presumably because they do not feel their guards are capable of defending rim drives, in addition to not having the positional versatility to switch.
Against Notre Dame, Tech did a lot of switching in the first half which presented issues when bigs got matched up against guards. It happened a couple of times against North Carolina, as well.
The Hokies switch a dribble-handoff leaving Aluma (#22) defending the shifty guard R.J. Davis (#4) and Cattoor matched up on the 6'9 Brady Manek (#45). Davis promptly blows by Aluma on his way to the bucket and draws a foul. The switch did not pay off.
There is no perfect strategy for ball screen defense — each one has its pros and cons. If you want to hard hedge, as the Hokies do frequently, you must have a mobile big that has good defensive instincts. Aluma can do this fine, but Ojiako struggles with it.
The 6'10 Ojiako (#21) hedges on the Eagles' Makai Ashton-Langford (#11), but he was too late to recover and Ashton-Langord finds Karnik (#33) on the slip. N'Guessan was in position, but at this stage in his development he struggles to defend without fouling.
Another example here: Aluma (#22) hedges, DeMarr Langford (#5) passes, and Karnik (#33) slips and scores. Mutts could've been a little quicker with his rotation but there isn't a whole lot he could've done here. This is simply the risk you run with hedging: the roll man is always going to be temporarily open. If the play develops too quickly and the rotations are slow, the defense is toast.
This play was pretty similar, but the Hokies did a poor job of defending it. Murphy (#5) tags Karnik (#33) — "tagging" is a technique where the closest help defender will briefly bump the roll man and then get back to his original defender. Murphy does an okay job with this (though he probably could've been more in front of Karnik). The main culprit here was Nahiem Alleyne (#4) — he needs to be under the basket to at least slow down Karnik rather than giving up an easy dunk. That would have allowed Aluma to recover and perhaps block the shot from behind. Unfortunately, the Hokies had no answer for the 6'9 center. Karnik scored 26 points because he got incredibly high-percentage shots.
Big Time Players, Big Time Plays
Armando Bacot put together a dominant rebounding performance on Monday night, hauling in 20 boards, including eight on the offensive glass. According to David Cunningham, that was the most rebounds any player had recorded against Tech since they joined the ACC in 2004. Bacot was a five-star recruit for a reason — he's incredibly quick for his size and is able to get boards that few other centers do. Rebounding is partly a product of positioning and anticipation, but it's also a product of who wants it more, and most crucially, who can get it first.
To win in sports, you need to have the Jimmy's and Joe's. Most ACC teams have guards and wings who can hit contested shots and finish through contact; Virginia Tech rarely, if ever, does that. NC State had Jericole Hellems go right after Hunter Cattoor in iso matchups and it worked pretty well for the Wolfpack. Caleb Love of North Carolina hit multiple deep threes and midrange jumpers, several of which were contested. There are many talented players in this league who can make special plays, and the Hokies just can't keep up with them.
I have reflected at length about Tech's propensity to fall apart in the final five minutes of games. In addition to the personnel issues described above, I think the starters are just gassed. Tech ranks 345th in bench minutes, and that doesn't even reflect the fact that the starters have to work so hard to get open because they are physically outmatched by almost every ACC team they play. That level of exertion takes a toll over time. Even so, there is no excuse for players such as Murphy to not close out on open shooters, or Cattoor to lose track of cutters like he's Otto Porter and then fail to communicate a switch. Both of these things happened in the last four minutes of Monday's game.
With a date against conference-leading Miami looming tonight, followed by a visit to the ever-talented Florida State Seminoles on Saturday, Young will likely extend minutes to his bench players to preserve his starters' tired bodies. Unfortunately, he can't change his roster — that is a job for next season. At the present moment, the Hokies will have to take their lumps as their young players grow and develop and learn how to play together. But for the optimist in us all, I end with an old adage: bumpy roads lead to beautiful places.
I'll take this time to remind everyone that VT is -5 against the number 1 team in the ACC tonight incase you were looking for bad vegas lines.
Edit: Now that I finished the article.
I've been harping on this slow rotation on screen switches since before conference play I specifically pointed out Ojiako but I'm pretty sure I noted Aluma getting lazy frequently too. If we hedge like that your switch back has to be big quick and aggressive. Meandering back to your man is going to get beat every time, for the most part Aluma does a good job hustling back arms up and usually makes contact with his man when he gets back downlow but as the game progresses Aluma will occasionally be a step slow, not sure if he's getting worn down or what I know he took a beating vs the bigger bodies in Bacot and Karnik.
Ojiako is wayyyy too slow taking his first step back on the hedge. Its not even a timing thing he just doesn't change direction very fast and I'm not sure what the solution is.
I think Ojiako's main issue is that his development was delayed due to the fact he only played basketball for 2 (?) years in high school. It's hard to translate that lack of experience to the ACC. Not unheard of, but very rare.
In all reality I think Ojiako would've been processed out if Tech had been able to hit on their top F/C targets over the past couple recruiting cycles.
Another thing that hurts us is just the variability of several scorers. You never know if Mutts/Alleyne/Murphy will each score 5 points or 15+, and I think a team just needs some consistency (like Aluma or Cattoor). Having one starter do that is no big deal, but when it's 3 out of 5, it's just too much to overcome. Mutts is a consistent scorer, but he just really struggles with staying out of foul trouble. Everybody has an off-night once in a while, but you need to know your guys will go out and get at least close to their average.
Here is the "scoring range" for several players since Christmas (w/ dropping the lowest game as a bad night):
Tyrece Radford (6-13)
Also, if you have recruited and developed well enough, you will have enough production off the bench to make up for a starter having a bad game. Our bench is almost non-existent. The few minutes they get usually go without much production.
Definitely. Depth and production off the bench are critical issues too. There are a couple of brights spots in Maddox and Pedulla who I think will really pan out once they get more minutes, but overall our recruiting has been subpar. We're basically living off of the transfer portal.
Honestly, there's no excuse for Mike Young's team to be this bad.
Extremely frustrated with his coaching this year, he'd be my nominee for the anti-COY if that award existed.
Adding to the frustration is the lack of a Scooby-Doo logical explanation for the drop off other than fatigue. So many hopes were high early in the season and then they got dashed, yet there were no injuries to key player or anything like that.
Too bad there is no offensive coordinator to blame everything on.
I am not super worried about the basketball team. I am not real pleased about the current state, but it was pretty clear what this team's weaknesses were during the early season wins. They have to get longer on the wings and have a point guard that can stop the ball and is a threat to get to the rim while still being a good distributor. That can't change this year, but this recruiting class is solid and, with the portal those issues can be addressed with veterans. But, if Mutts is one of your two best players (and I love his energy and effort), you are not winning in the ACC. Reality is, VT is starting four really good G5 players and Aluma, who was a G5 player but is now a solid ACC starter. There is a talent gap.
Now, here is what they can control. First, they have to be more committed to getting Aluma POST touches. Part of that is Aluma working harder to get post position. That can be helped by giving Big Jon and NGuessan more minutes to keep him fresh. Second, they have to find a way to get to the foul line with more frequency, and that means attacking the rim off the dribble with the intent to finish. Third, I think increasing the minutes for bench players will mean better rebounding.
I thought you only spoke pigskin :-)
I think this part is overlooked the most when you factor the drop between Bede and Murphy and is a huge reason our guard play is lackluster and inconsistent. Bede was never a threat to shoot but could distribute the ball well and give our shooting guards good shots, the assist column wasn't jrob but far from abysmal.
Right now its the same 'motion' every possession. Murphy gets rid of the ball right when he crosses half court we go through whatever our initial set is and then Alleyene and Catoor just sit at the 3 point line. We don't have a ball handler that can distribute enough to have people just sitting on offense. I don't know if there are any analytical numbers on our shooting % after our initial set play but we're seemingly dead in the water after that. With our shooting guards our point guard needs to be averaging far more than 2 assists per game to signal any sort of success.
And the offense ground to a halt as soon as defenses realized that he wasn't going to pull up, and when he went to the rim, it was a low percentage proposition. So they played Bede to pass and the offense came to a standstill.
Same thing now with Murphy. They aren't collapsing on him, so players who were shotmakers when wide open now have challenged looks.
What is worse is that over the last couple games (last night as an exemption) Murphy has actually driven to the basket unopposed (they are looking for the pass) and MISSED!
Great write up; I really appreciate the statistical explanation for the in-conference drop off.
This season has certainly been disappointing, but I think coming to terms with the personnel that CMY has brought a sense of reality to the situation.
I do however have faith that he will adjust this offseason and come out swinging the next couple of years. He knows what's going on more than we do and I'm sure he is even more disappointed than any of us are.
Some of this is due to the schedule. Only three home ACC games so far, and five road games.
Of those 5 road games, three were ones that are tough to win: Duke, UVA & North Carolina. The NC State road game was a win, The only head scratcher was Boston College.
At home, the Wake loss is turning out to be one that isnt too surprising. That team is very likely to be 20-4 in a week. Add in the Covid return against NC State, and the 1-2 at home at this point isn't to difficult to understand.
Six of the next eight games are at home. That will tell the story. Is this a top 3 ACC team as we thought it might be? No. But its not a bottom three as they are now either.
Last season set us up feeling we could do much better than we really could this season to me. Radford was a massive loss as his ability to drive to the rim and his defending were very underrated looking back on it. Combine that with Alleyne doing his best casper the ghost impersonation the offense has to be way to reliant on Mutts and Aluma and without either this team struggles to consistently find points in the paint. Murphy hasnt been the upgrade we all though he could be and as many have said the level of the team simply isnt cut to finish top half in the ACC. Hopefully we defend cassell well the rest of the season steal a win or two here and there and keep developing and giving Pedulla and Maddox more minutes.
This is a great article. The choice of stats is perfect and gets right to the root of the problem. Also loved the French style film review. Awesome content keep it up!
Hey look what we did again!
VT started the season playing for a five seed in the Big Dance and are now trending to being off the NIT bubble.