For the first time in a long time, the expectation for Virginia Tech men’s basketball was that they would make the NCAA Tournament this season. Six games into ACC play, the Hokies’ Tournament hopes are already in big trouble thanks to a 2-4 start to ACC play that included a disappointing home loss to Florida State.
Over the past three weeks, the Hokies’ high-scoring offense has slowed down while their defensive flaws have been exposed with VT’s only 2 wins coming against the ACC’s bottom 2 teams.
The Hokies have a few major problems that ACC teams will look to take advantage of if they can’t be fixed. Some of these problems have proven to be advantages in the past while others are problems that will require some sort of change quickly.
So, let’s take a look at the Hokies’ three biggest problems six games into ACC play.
1. Defense, Especially on the Perimeter
Virginia Tech’s defense has become a major issue in ACC play with the Hokies allowing the second-most points per game (78.8 points) and second-highest field goal percentage (49%). The biggest issue is on the perimeter as the Hokies have the worst perimeter defense in the conference with ACC teams shooting 44.8% from three-point range, more than 5.5% worse than the next team (Duke at 39.2%).
In past years, we’ve seen the Hokies switch back-and-forth between zone and man defense but lately, the Hokies have stuck with their man defense much more often lately which hasn’t worked too well.
Going forward, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Buzz Williams try to use some more zone defense, and it’s something that should be happening more often. Even though the Hokies’ zone defense hasn’t always been the most effective, it’s done well at keeping teams off-balance when VT has regularly rotated from man to zone and back.
One smaller issue that Virginia Tech has at times is overcompensating on help defense initially leading to every player having to rotate and eventually a three-point shooter opening up. While help defense isn’t a bad thing, it must be done properly because it’s going to cause someone to be open.
Help defense is best in the post when it’s clear that shot is coming from down in the paint or when there’s a great opportunity to force a turnover, but only then should help defense turn into a double team. Otherwise, help defense should have good management of the floor to cut off the lane, but also be close enough to the player you’re guarding to be able to quickly recover and get in a good defensive position without having to have another player rotate over or even leave an open shot.
The Hokies have sometimes collapsed too much into a double team when it hasn’t made sense, leading to open shooters on the perimeter. This is an area where the Hokies need to find their defensive feel and put themselves in proper positions on the defensive end especially when providing some help defense.
One fan concern that is an inaccurate hot take is questioning the toughness and work ethic on the defensive end. I don’t think that’s an issue at all, but I think this team does get stuck in defensive ruts at times. However, to think that this team has a hustle issue on the defensive end is a stretch as partly shown by VT’s improved defensive rebounding in conference play against larger opponents.
When you have a team with poor defense, some people will always question the energy on the defensive end. For the Hokies, that’s not the defensive issue whatsoever.
2. Facing Zone Defense
Virginia Tech’s offense once again had issues attacking a zone defense after Florida State made the smart adjustment at halftime to go to zone. The zone has slowed the ball movement of the Hokies while VT has struggled to attack the rim against the zone when Kerry Blackshear isn’t in the game.
The zone has hurt the Hokies’ ability to attack the rim to get a layup or make a pass to the outside for an open shooter, leading to more contested shots. The difference showed in the FSU game as the Hokies shot 57.7% from the field and 40% from 3 in the first half, and 50% from the field and 31.6% from the 3 in the second half.
Now the Hokies did take a significantly higher number of threes in the second half, but the major drop in shooting percentages is a sign of how FSU’s adjustment to zone defense worked. The Hokies did show some improvements at times against the zone relative to other games where zone defense stymied the Hokies’ offense especially against Syracuse. However, Virginia Tech still has a long way to go to fix that problem.
Part of the solution will involve keeping Kerry Blackshear on the floor and out of foul trouble. Blackshear has proven to be a force in the paint, and if he and Chris Clarke can be effective ball distributors, they can create great post opportunities.
One thing a zone defense can do is collapse quickly on someone in the post which is exactly when you want to kick it outside to an open shooter with the defense giving the shooter lots of space. If the defense doesn’t collapse, you have a one-on-one opportunity in the post and with the way Blackshear has been playing, that’s advantage Virginia Tech.
While attacking the rim is more difficult, the zone defense does give you ways to create space on the outside. To do that, the Hokies will have to adjust more to allow Blackshear or Clarke to at times run the offense from the free-throw line to attack the rim or kick out to an open shooter depending on the defense’s reaction.
3. Three-Point Shooting
After being one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, the Hokies’ three-point shooting has gone ice-cold. In conference play, the Hokies are shooting 31.9% from beyond the arc, ranking tenth in the conference.
There are a couple of reasons for this with part of it simply being the fact that the Hokies are missing a good amount of open threes. There’s not much you can do to fix other than just finding your rhythm and feel in practice. The Hokies have shown that they have the shooters but right now, their talented three-point shooters are in a cold stretch.
This inconsistency showed Saturday with Justin Bibbs and Justin Robinson each going 4-7 from 3 while Ahmed Hill and Nickeil Alexander-Walker went a combined 2-13 from three. This comes after Hill and NAW had been the go-to three-point shooter in previous games, showing how spread out the Hokies’ inconsistent three-point shooting is.
The other part of it is due to the fact that the Hokies have taken more contested threes. Now part of this is due to the Hokies’ issues with zone defenses. Another part of it has been their lack of ball movement (which has improved) and the increased hesitancy with some passes that has given opponents time to recover defensively and take away an open shot. That’s more of a confidence and rhythm issue that takes some practice and game time but once it clicks, the Hokies will be able to get that issue solved quickly.
Virginia Tech has a few issues, but they’re all fixable issues. However, the Hokies have limited time to do so ahead of tonight’s must-win game against the highly ranked defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels.