Breaking Down No. 10 Virginia Tech's Recent Defensive Struggles

Breaking Down No. 10 Virginia Tech's Recent Defensive Struggles

Robert Irby | @Rob_Irby

Jan 26, 2019

If you’re a fan of Virginia Tech athletics, the last 10 days have been, for lack of a better term, awful. Not only did the football team suffer a wave of transferring players, but the men’s basketball team seemed to take a few steps back after being considered one of the top programs in the nation. The Hokies have gone 1-2 over the last 10 days, and it hasn’t been pretty. Tech lost to UVA and UNC, both top 11 teams, by a combined margin of 43 points. Their only win in that span came against Wake Forest, who his tied for last in the conference. The question that many fans are asking (other than “how much longer must we suffer?”) is “what happened to our elite defense?” UVA and UNC combined to score 183 points against the Hokies. UNC scored 102 points, marking the first time Buzz Williams’ team has given up over 100 points since January 4, 2017. For a team that was supposed to be one of the best defensive teams in the country, these stats do not bode well. Perhaps some of this disappointment is due to overhype. The Hokies’ strength of schedule doesn’t even crack the top 100 nationally, and their four ACC wins are over teams with a 6-17 combined conference record. The Hokies have had no problem defending the Quadrant 2-4 teams in the NET Rankings, but it’s the Quadrant 1 teams that have given them fits. Their only other time giving up 80 points this season came against Purdue, who recently cracked the top 10 of the NET (the Hokies are 11), a game in which Tech had to score its second-highest total of the season in order to win. Unfortunately for the Hokies, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. They still have to play UVA, Duke, Louisville, NC State, Florida State, and Syracuse, who are all NET top-50 teams. Let’s break down what’s gone wrong, and how Buzz Williams and his team can fix it: Here we see a critical mental error by the Hokies. If you read my previous article, you saw that much of Williams’ defensive philosophy involves a lot of switching and helping. This play shows the dangers of that defense. Both Kerry Blackshear and Ahmed Hill switch onto the ballhandler, putting three defenders on one man and leaving small guard Wabissa Bede to guard both a seven-footer and the best shooter in the ACC. Yikes. The other fault in this play is that neither Hill or Blackshear get into the face of the ballhandler while helping, giving him plenty of space to find the open shooter. In this situation, one of two things would have been better: Hill could have rotated more quickly to the ballhandler and gotten into his face, forcing a trap with Alexander-Walker, or Alexander-Walker could have sprinted to the corner to defend the shooter. Let’s look at another example: On this play, we see Blackshear and Nickeil Alexander-Walker fail to properly rotate to the shooter off a screen. Both players have a chance to get to the shooter, but both rotate to the same side (the wrong side) in what is a downright laughable attempt to contest another of the ACC’s best shooters. If either defender would have rotated around the right side of the screener instead of the left, they could have contested a shot while also surrounding the shooter on both sides. A trap would have been set, and Justin Robinson was ready in the lane if the screener tried to cut to the basket. Here we see another mental mistake, as PJ Horne fails to pick up his man in transition due to a miscommunication with Ty Outlaw, and Hill offers no help from the back side. This results in an easy layup. If Horne and Outlaw's communication would have been quicker, Horne could have picked up his man before it was too late. And if he hadn't, Hill could have rotated into the lane to play help defense. At the very least, the layup would have been contested. Most of the Hokies recent defensive struggles can be credited to mental errors and poor execution. However, sometimes plays like this happen: Or this: Sometimes players make tough shots. I mean come on, how does Ty Jerome make that shot for UVA? Unfortunately for the Hokies, both UNC and UVA shot over 50% in those games. UVA shot 71% from the three-point line in the first half. When you’re facing a top 15 team who is shooting the lights out, it becomes much more of an uphill battle defensively. That, however, does not excuse the mental mistakes the Hokies made in these two games. If they are to prove themselves down the stretch to be one of the ACC’s best teams, they have to play more disciplined and intelligent. Here is what can happen if they do: The rotation of Robinson and Blackshear in help defense plugs up almost every hole for the ballhandler. He has no angle at the basket, and every passing lane is blocked except for one: the shooter in the corner. Bede then has the awareness to anticipate that pass and intercept it, setting up the transition offense and a big-time alley-oop. A thing of beauty. Tech’s next test comes this Saturday against Syracuse. This will be the first game in a gauntlet of three out of four games against top 50 NET teams. If Buzz Williams can get his team to play smart and disciplined, the Hokies can finally take that huge step into the ACC’s elite class.

Photo Credit: Harley Taylor

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