Seemingly everything changed for Virginia Tech last week when Justin Robinson drove to the hoop against Miami early in the second half of a blowout game. That moment went from forgettable to pivotal for now with Robinson suffering a foot injury that has him out indefinitely.
Since his injury, the Hokies have had mixed results with a 47-24 win at previously-ranked N.C. State followed by a 72-64 loss at home to No. 16 Louisville. Despite the up-and-down start to this stretch without Robinson, Buzz Williams has been impressed with how his Hokies have handled it even as they've needed more time to adjust than they've been able to receive due to the schedule.
"I think they've handled this better than any group I've ever seen," head coach Buzz Williams said. "I think all of their roles have changed dramatically and I think we need some more reps to figure out how we can be better."
The Hokies have been forced into using a six-man rotation for the past two games and will do so until either Robinson or P.J. Horne, who is also out indefinitely due to a leg issue, returns from injury.
Luckily for the Hokies, they have had a few days to recuperate, and continue to adjust into new roles in a low-stress situation before they travel to Clemson on Saturday to play their 11th ACC game of the season.
"We're not going to be able to replace anybody," Williams said. "What we have to do is share those responsibilities. All of their roles have changed and it will be that way for the rest of the year."
Kerry Blackshear reiterated Williams' sentiment that the team needs more practice and more time to figure out how to improve.
"Everyone's still learning their spots, everyone's still getting a feel for playing with different people in different positions," Blackshear said. "It's a learning process and we just have to battle through it."
On the defensive end, the absence of Robinson means that guys are more tired and playing more minutes. Still, Williams seemed pleased with his team's defensive performance on Monday against Louisville.
"Fifty percent of their shots were from three," Williams said. "That's pretty good. If we can do that, that means we are keeping the ball out of the paint. They did make a high percentage of them, but it's pick your poison. If we give up a high percentage of paint touches, we're going to be in a bind."
The Hokies will play three games in what will feel like five days once again next week given the Wednesday night game against Georgia Tech, with Williams stating that the reps the team will get in practice without Robinson and Horne will be critical especially in the continuation of this adjustment process.
"We do have to figure out how to be more efficient," Williams said. "Obviously one thing would be not to have as high a turnover rate. Some of that is they are trying to do right, but some of that is we have to figure out how to do right better."
While the Hokies forced 12 turnovers against NC State and 15 turnovers against Louisville, they also turned the ball over 12 and 13 times in the two games, which hurts their ability to close the gap in total shots, though VT's rebounding has helped minimize that gap at times.
Out of those 25 turnovers given up in two games, Alexander-Walker was responsible for 11 of them.
"It's almost like you've got to be perfect," Alexander-Walker said after the Louisville game on Monday night. "I'm not pointing fingers at anyone, especially with turnovers. I contributed to a third of those, and at home too. I've just got to do a better job."
Alexander-Walker and fellow sophomore Wabissa Bede shared the role of running the offense in the two games Robinson missed with 14 assists in those 2 games. As the numbers show a large burden has been placed on the shoulders of Alexander-Walker and Bede in trying to fill in the shoes of Robinson as the offensive initiator to varying degrees of success.
Because of that. Bede's playing time on the court as the point guard has increased while Alexander-Walker's role on the ball has increased given his increased role initiating Virginia Tech's offense.
In those two games, the Hokies were able to find plenty of open looks from three-point range but despite that, they shot 16-45 (35.6%) between the last two games from three-point range.
"I think it kind of felt like NC State," Alexander-Walker said. "We were getting great looks, just not making them. I think Ahmed [Hill] had four in the first half, all wide open and the other day he's making it and he it changed the game. We were shooting with confidence, thinking they were going in.
Robinson's drive and kick penetration helped turn the Hokies into a high-efficiency three-point shooting team. The question remains of whether or not the Hokies can get back on track without him getting those paint touches that collapse the defense and open additional space for outside shooters.
Should the shooting woes continue, many adjustments would most likely be made to the offense which likely would start with the increased emphasis and balance of Kerry Blackshear becoming an even more important offensive cog in the post and stretching Blackshear out to create lanes for the Hokies to attack the rim.
Virginia Tech now heads to Clemson after their first significant stretch of time off and practice since the Justin Robinson injury. As for how much the Hokies have improved through practice this week, that will be seen on Saturday.
Photo Credit: Bobby Murray
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