When Virginia Tech coach James Johnson was asked about this Friday night's clash with #1 Michigan State, he replied "Our plan is to go up there and win." Presumably, that's the profit part of the plan (#3), with the first part of the plan being to travel to New York for the Coaches vs Cancer Classic, and part 2 yet to be determined. And usually, if history (or South Park) has taught us anything, it's part 2 that is the most difficult to define. Though the Hokies defeated VMI 105-92 tonight at Cassell Coliseum, the Hokies play was uneven late in the game. It provided some insight into our weaknesses for any future opponents who might be watching. We certainly will not beat Michigan State if certain behaviors are not corrected in practice this week.
Let's start with the good. The Hokies scored 105 points. That is the most in any game since VT put 110 on these same VMI cadets in December 1994, and the most since the Hokies put 102 on Georgia Tech in 2011. They got extremely balanced scoring, led by SR Jarrell Eddie and his 21 points which included a 5 for 5 mark from 3pt range. FR Ben Emelogu, who has been the modern answer to Vinnie Johnson's "Microwave" act for the 1980s Detroit Pistons, added 19 in just 22 minutes before fouling out. Junior CJ Barksdale, returning from his 3 game season opening suspension added 16 pts in 26 minutes off the bench. The starting backcourt added 24 points, with 13 coming from FR Devin Wilson before he fouled out, and 11 from r-SO Adam Smith.
How about that three point shooting? 11 of 17 tonight, highly efficient. By true shooting percentage, that's almost 100%. Eddie was 5 of 5, and Emelogu was 4 of 7, and we would have been 11 of 15 were it not for two attempts by less than desirable shooters (Wilson, Barksdale) with the shot clock expiring. Additionally, after shooting 23 of 41 from the FT line Friday night against Western Carolina, the Hokies were 22 of 26 tonight. This proved critical down the stretch in holding off the Keydet's late surge. The fact that Cadarian Raines can make his FTs is an incredible asset as he doesn't need to be removed late in games to shield us from pointless offensive trips up the floor; which is the reason i think we didn't see FR Trevor Thompson down the stretch. Thompson is 10 of 19 on the year, and had a bad night shooting FTs Friday vs WCU. Thompson did not play in the final 8 minutes, despite having 5 blocks and 7 rebounds in only 15 minutes.
The Hokies also dominated the glass 52 to 31, as Raines once again used his wide base to hold VMI SR pivot Rodney Covington to just 5 rebounds. In 2 career matchups, Raines held Covington to a mere 5 rebounds. Raines himself grabbed just 5, but his presence opened up the lane so that 6 other Hokies could grab 5 or more rebounds as well. Everyone crashed the painted area tonight and took advantage of the VMI misses in order to get out into transition. The only drawback was that VMI grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to our 12. This is the 3rd game we've given up more offensive rebounds than we secured. Despite a 24-11 second half advantage in rebounds, the Hokies were still outscored 45-35 over the final 13 minutes. Second chance points are not a luxury we can afford other teams when the games tighten up. Certainly not during this weekend's tournament.
Things were going swimmingly at the 8 minute mark of the second half as the Hokies appeared ready to go into victory mode. The lead was at 81-62, having built on their 44-33 halftime lead. That is about the time VMI coach Dugger Baucom opted to pressure the ball non-stop, and the Hokies didn't respond well. Turnovers have been a concern this season.With a young backcourt, we have turned it over 55 times in 4 games, including 16 tonight. I make a point to make a distinction between turnovers of the earned and unforced varieties. Obviously steals are earned, and VMI had 7 tonight (to our 1); but we had 5 traveling calls, including 4 by frontcourt players, with 2 by Raines. The Hokies need to correct this problem immediately. VMI by contrast, only turned it over 4 times, and it made all the difference in trimming that 19 pt advantage at the 8 minute mark to just 6 at the 1:18 mark with that 30-17 run. One more turnover due to the pressure, especially with Wilson out for fouls, and it could have been devastating.The talented VMI backcourt rode those turnovers to 22 pts each for SR Rodney Glasgow and FR QJ Peterson. They combined for half their points in the final 15 minutes.
Losing the final 13 minutes by 10 points is too long a stretch of losing basketball, the 30-17 run over that critical 7 minute stretch particularly. Defensively, the Hokies need to be fighting through the perimeter screens a little bit better, and they were fortunate that VMI nearly matched last year's horrible three point shooting numbers. VMI shot 10 for 36 last year, and 8 for 37 this year (an atrocious 5 for 33, if not for the surprising Craig Hinton who shot 3 of 4). The Keydets tendency to shoot them early and often, they missed their first 9 tries, which is a trait they shared with Western Carolina, worked in our favor. Had they worked for better shots, they almost certainly would have achieved greater accuracy. From having played my fair share of pickup games in the Cassell, i can verify that the sight lines take some getting used to. Your depth perception can be easily distorted if you are only there for a night. We are fortunate to have that built-in home court advantage. ACC teams who are familiar with our gym, and actually run disciplined offensive sets will have greater success. We need to work harder to make three point shooting more uncomfortable for our opponents.Just a few more makes, and VMI would have contended seriously.
Tonight I introduce Individual Player Grades. By minutes played (descending):
Jarrell Eddie (33 minutes): In today's pre-game poll, one of the options was whether Eddie could get his points with putting up too many shots, and remain efficient as he did in Friday night's victory over WCU. Eddie answered the bell with 21 points on (7-12, 5-5 3pts); if this is the Eddie we're getting all year, it's worthy of an All-ACC team selection. Letting the game come to him has never been a strong suit, and it's too bad because it suits him well. Eddie added 7 rebounds also, displaying a ball hungry attitude on the defensive glass. I love my Allan Houston comparison and i will continue to use it, sue me. Tonight's grade: Solid A...full dislcosure A+ will be tough to achieve....you have been advised
Devin Wilson (31 minutes): Wilson is our only true PG on the roster with Marquis Rankin still out for personal reasons (I have my doubts as to whether Rankin ever plays for the Hokies again). And to date, Wilson has done a fantastic job for a Freshman. He had 13 pts tonight, hitting all of his FTs, and running the offense well. He had a horrible step back 3 pt attempt from about 24 feet with nobody on him, which was bad. But his inability to handle the pressure from VMI was very costly as he was forced into 5 turnovers. Granted, the team wasn't helping him out enough in coming to the ball. Since the ball is in his hands so much on offense, his total of 14 turnovers on the year isn't horrible for his experience level. But 9 have come in the past two games, steadily increasing. For better or worse, Wilson will be playing 33 to 35 minutes a game this year. Personally, i feel we need to get Adam Smith on the ball some more, and develop Emelogu as a Point Forward to alleviate some of that pressure. Otherwise, by the time Wilson gets to game 10 of the expanded 18 game ACC schedule, he'll be running on fumes. Tonight's grade: C+
Adam Smith (30 minutes): Adam Smith is as he was advertised upon his transfer from UNC Wilmington. He is not afraid to shoot, and any shot is a good shot. I am actually surprised he isn't putting up the 3 pointers at the rate he did while he was playing in the CAA. He has only taken 10 on the year. Perhaps this is because he has found it so easy to get into the paint and try to get to the rim with his speed. But like so many speedy guards, his feet are moving too fast for his body at times, and he doesn't have the body control to finish. Tonight he had 11 points and 3 assists, which are in line with his career numbers. I hope we see some improvement. If not i favor making him a heavily played backup PG, and moving Emelogu into the starting lineup to create a very big starting 5; especially if Rankin really is done at VT. He did a good job early defensively on the VMI backcourt, before slacking a bit late. For his speed I would like to see more steals, but we aren't playing the passing lanes well. Tonight's grade: B-
CJ Barksdale (26 minutes): Welcome back, CJ! 16 pts, 6 rebounds, 3 assists. And he looks to have added a nice array of moves off the dribble drive. All you can hope for in your players is progress each year, and it appears that CJ now has the flexibility to play some SF. Fortunately for us we got 41 points tonight from our SFs, but going forward it's nice to have the versatility. Prior to this year, he was a back to the basket guy with limited spot up capability, but the effort was always there. I think he had some frustration at times with his minutes in the past, but play like this will keep his rotation minutes steady, and the 26 he got tonight was a bit of a surprise since he came off of the bench. In retrospect, i imagine that was a little bit of a motivator from Coach Johnson to let him know that even though the suspension was over, that he'd have to play his way back into his role. It didn't take long did it? Tonight's grade: A...his dunk to get us to 100pts, and earn us free corn dogs from Jackie Moon (nod to @hokietapes) was critical in putting the Keydets away.
Ben Emelogu (22 minutes): 19 pts in 22 minutes. We anoint you MIcrowave 2, oh Captain my Captain. The Freshman from TX is playing beyond his years, shooting 11 for 21 from 3 pt range on the season. Since Emelogu opened up the artillery vs WVU, the team has looked completely different. He is a bench weapon unlike any we've had since a healthy JT Thompson, and even JT wasn't this prolific. Ben fouled out tonight, which I don't mind because he's a bench player, and one of their most attractive attributes is fouls to give. He's aggressive, he's smart on the ball, and he knocks down his shots. What isn't to like? Tonight's Grade: A
Cadarian Raines (21 minutes): 3 of 3 shooting, 3 of 4 from the line. Great job boxing out Covington. 3 turnovers again, and he wasn't quite quick enough for Covington at times on defense. Covington averaged 21.5 ppg in two head to heads with Raines. Cadarian isn't a featured part of our offense. He had 17 pts vs USC Upstate, and a monster 2nd half. Since then he's scored 18 total. This is partly a function of us not running many plays in the post. He'll often flash to the block but then relocate to set a screen on the ball with his wide base, allowing Wilson or Smith to drive into the paint and dish or kick. It's been extremely effective, as he sets a fantastic screen. A negative byproduct of this though, is that when he does get the ball in close proximity to the goal that he gets over-excited. And he either travels or holds onto the ball too long and gets trapped. He needs to work on making his move quicker or getting the ball out of the double team. Raines has put in a lot of work and is a tremendous leader. It's kind of a shame for him personally that we finally have depth in what was to be his year to shine. I am sure playing just 21 minutes per game is a bit of a disappointment. Nonetheless, his FTs tonight helped down the stretch, and he makes the most of his time on the floor. Tonight's grade: B
Trevor Thompson (15 minutes); The freshman continues to impress. Though he was only 2 of 7 from the floor, one of these baskets was an absolutely beautiful, indefensible jump hook. The fluidity on the shot is not something you can teach a big man, otherwise Dwight Howard would average 30 a game in the NBA. He also stuffed the stat sheet with 5 blocks and 6 rebounds. Barksdale's return is going to take 5-7 minutes off of everyone's previous averages, but Thompson brings an energy and athleticism nobody else on the team can match. His inability to hit FTs means that he'll likely get the lion's share of his minutes in the first half this season. He didn't play in the final 8 minutes tonight, having scared Coach Johnson off with his performance from the charity stripe on Friday night. Tonight's grade: B+ ....considering production vs minutes
Marshall Wood (14 minutes): The sophomore had 7 pts and 8 rebounds in his limited floor time tonight. After seeing his versatility last year, i was dismayed to see his production dip to start this season. He had just 10 total points and 11 rebounds entering tonight's game. He nearly matched that in 14 minutes tonight. His body language is often languid and he appears a little too loose, which could be deceiving if you don't watch regularly. I personally think that his future is bright. He was forced into a lot of playing time he wasn't ready for early last year, and adapted nicely as the season went on, though the team results didn't bear that out. With the depth as it is this year, his minutes might be the most volatile of anyone on the team depending on match-ups. He needs to stay ready, as he is a kid who could win a game for us this year. Tonight's grade: A-
Joey Van Zegeren (4 minutes); Joey had been averaging 17 minutes and doing just fine by me. Obviously the return of Barksdale (really a shame Terrell Bell graduated is it not, it denies me my B&B moniker #TheWire folks) was going to severely alter somebody's minutes, and it appears that somebody is JVZ. I remarked on Twitter that he appeared aloof in the huddle during a TV timeout, and looked upset at having been on the bench the entire first 12 minutes. He finally got his chance with 4 minutes or so to play and he was all over the place in his limited opportunity tonight. In a 3 minute stretch of the first half, he put up 3 pts, 4 rebounds and blocked a shot; adding a rebound in the 2nd half. JVZ has put in the work and improved his hand-eye coordination a great deal, and i hope he stays engaged. He may never be more than a 15-20 mpg game player at his peak. But he could easily be in Raines role next year if he keeps working hard. I already trust his hands more than i ever trusted Victor Davila's, but I suppose that's not saying too much. Crunching the numbers: In 32 combined mpg, Thompson and JVZ average 4.5 blocks per game. That's enough to be top 5 in the NCAA (for one player) most years. Tonight's grade: A
Will Johnston (4 minutes): Will didn't play well in the first half, seemingly allergic to the ball. In one sequence throwing it to a defender, grabbing it back, and then getting it stolen. He calmed down in the second half being called upon to be the designated FT shooter when Wilson left due to fouls. He converted two FTs and grabbed a rebound. He did his job. And i always give the deep bench guys a good grade when the team is winning, because the job they do is unheralded. They serve as the scout team, take a beating in practice, and show up every day even knowing they aren't going to get too much PT. I'll take this opportunity to give attention to Beyer and Donlon as well. The team is 3-1. Keep up the good work gentlemen. Tonight's Grade: A- ....the minus is for the first half ball handling.
Coach Johnson: Since i graded according to minutes played, I feel that it's important to address Coach Johnson and substitution patterns. He now has 10 players at his disposal, and prudently distributing the 200 available floor minutes is going to be a huge part of our success. His rotation has been very consistent thus far. And ordinarily this is something i would commend, because players usually perform better when they know what their role and minutes are going to look like. However, this is the time of the year to experiment a little. We haven't done much of this. I am especially concerned that all of our eggs are in one basket with Wilson at the PG. Whether or not Smith is an indiscriminate gunner with the ball in his hands the majority of the time is immaterial at this point, because those behaviors can still be corrected. We need to have a second option at the PG. I'd also like to see an extended look at a big lineup with either Eddie or Emelogu at the two. And also a small lineup with Eddie at the 4. We can flex our depth and versatility everywhere except the PG spot, and i'd like to see a few things that might cause opposing coaches to have to adjust. I'd also like to see a few different defensive looks moving forward. I understand that our primary look will be a hybrid man to man that can disguise itself as a match-up zone. But a little pressure, or zone with our length (comparable to Syracuse) might be nice to have at our disposal. It would be tough to get shots off with Thompson, Raines, and Barksdale up front, and Wilson and Eddie up top. It would result in a lot of contested threes above the break, which is a low percentage shot. We will not be seeing future ACC opponents shoot so often or poorly from long distance unless we tighten up some, and mix up the coverages. Tonight we didn't really adjust for what the opponent did over the final 15 minutes, which was somewhat unacceptable. Tonight's Grade: B-
The most important takeaway from tonight was the win. The rest is merely the devil hiding in the details. We have some work to do in practice this week, and I am eager to see what we look like against a team that plays a completely different style than we do. Personally, i hate to watch Big 10 ball. They grind out possessions, and play glorified wrestling matches. For the worst example of this, see the 2000 Final Four matchup between Michigan State and Wisconsin which single-handedly set basketball back about 50 years. They barely broke 40 points each. To me, Tom Izzo puts a tremendous amount of athletic ability to waste in his system each year. Despite this, they win, and win, and win. We will not be able to get out and run against them, and they will be physical with us. For once, i think we have the bodies, and am eager to see our guys put to the test. If nothing else it will build character, and better prepare us for the UNCs and Dukes; and most importantly UVA--i want to knock UVA off that top 25ish perch.
Once again, i enjoyed putting this together. I hope you enjoyed it as well. Thank you to the folks who made it out to the Cassell on Military Appreciation Night, and thank you to the folks who watched the game on ESPN3 and followed along with me on Twitter. It was fantastic fun. I'll take this opportunity to remind you once again that Friday night's game vs #1 Michigan State will be available on your big screen HD TVs on TruTV as opposed to your computers, and the tip is at 9:30PM. I will be back with a piece on Wednesday or Thursday, and then the pregame on Friday. I hope you'll join us here at Gobbler Country for more Hokie basketball.
Como siempre mi Cassell es su Cassell. Have a great Tuesday!