Disaster struck Virginia Tech Tuesday night as the 13th-ranked Hokies suffered their first loss sooner than anyone imagined falling 63-62 on the road at Penn State in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. The loss was a bad loss not because it was like last year’s loss to Saint Louis, but rather because this team has earned higher expectations as a top 15, second weekend NCAA Tournament caliber team.
So what went wrong for the Hokies at Penn State? Here’s a look at three main reasons why.
1. Sleepwalking at Penn State
In front of a light crowd and a relatively quiet environment in State College, Virginia Tech struggled while failing to show up well on their own for one of their biggest non-conference games.
While many talk about the challenges of playing in loud road environments, this game reminded us how some of the most dangerous environments come when facing a solid team that knows how to play in an arena that lacks any energy. Boston College’s Conte Forum has been considered a tricky place at times because it can feel like a library that can suck the energy out of a game.
Combine that with the Hokies trying to sleepwalk through this game and you have a recipe for disaster.
This could be seen in multiple areas including the general lack of aggression and intensity attacking the rim from the Hokies’ backcourt, taking away the staple of VT’s offense that sets them up to be highly efficient on offense. In addition, the Hokies fell into isolation basketball at times with their ball movement being significantly less than normal (more on that soon) and their movement without the ball not being at the same level whatsoever.
While the 9 total assists shows the Hokies’ struggles with ball movement, the movement without the ball is less obvious as the Hokies seemed to not be nearly as active as usual. When they were, there was some miscommunication including on Ty Outlaw’s late turnover inside the final few minutes during a possession that appeared to be a good opportunity for the Hokies.
Penn State is a good enough team to beat a sleepwalking Virginia Tech and if anything, the fact that the Hokies still nearly found a way to win is a good sign about the overall talent level of the Hokies’ featured 5 lineup of Robinson, Alexander-Walker, Hill, Outlaw, and Blackshear even if that didn’t show last night.
2. Rebounding Issues
Rebounding was once again an issue for the Hokies as it was against Saint Francis just a few days earlier. Unlike that game, the Hokies faced a good enough opponent to take advantage of the significant rebounding advantage with the Hokies’ defense not being at the same level as it was a few days earlier.
Size has been an issue for the Hokies and though Blackshear led all players with 9 rebounds including 5 offensive, the lack of size elsewhere caught up to the Hokies against a Penn State lineup that has a lot more 6’6” to 6’8” players than VT. However, part of the rebounding issue came down to Virginia Tech’s defensive over-rotation once again happening that gave Penn State better positioning or even gave PSU a couple open shots including a late, wide-open layup inside the final 2 minutes after an offensive rebound.
Now part of that should improve for the Hokies whenever the NCAA decides to let Landers Nolley play. Before then, the Hokies will have to get better at protecting their rebounding positioning and avoid defensive over-rotation.
3. Turnovers Instead of Good Ball Movement
When the Hokies get dominated in offensive rebounding, they have to have a clear advantage in turnovers to prevent themselves from having to rely on being hyper efficient shooting the ball, something that they are capable of. However, that was not the case at all as the Hokies’ ball movement was non-existent while they also had 15 turnovers, one less than Penn State’s 16.
When the Hokies are at their best offensively, they usually are in the 20+ assist range. Instead, the Hokies finished with only 9 assists as their offense was disjointed while also relying a lot on isolation basketball that isn’t VT basketball’s offensive identity.
Justin Robinson exemplified the Hokies’ struggles the most with only 1 assist compared to 6 turnovers in what was one of his worst games in those two areas in a long time. Those type of struggles won’t usually happen for Robinson, but were a big reason for the Hokies’ struggles on the offensive end of the floor.
While Robinson exemplifies it statistically, the final play shows why the Hokies struggled offensively with Kerry Blackshear only having one option in Robinson creating tow isolation options instead of the usual high-passing offense that relies on lots of movement without the ball. That’s not what happened for much of the game and was a big reason for the Hokies’ offensive struggles.
When the Hokies are at their best offensively, they’re moving the ball with ease and have plenty of movement on the offensive end without the ball. Instead, the Hokies fell into isolation basketball that has never been the mold of a Buzz Williams team and it showed as they finished shooting only 44% from the field.