Last night on Twitter, in an understandable moment of personal chagrin during the late-going of the Hokies 68-67 loss at the hands of the Seton Hall Pirates, I let fly with a word that many of my people find offensive: Chokie. Now, this is a touchy word, because at its core it's a reminder of bygone times wherein we were ridiculed by our rivals, held down by selection committees, and left out of BCS bowls after having been described as not worthy of the honor, when we clearly were deserving based upon our merits. Now, I argue that as a Hokie, I am within my rights to exercise this word as part of my vocabulary, regardless of whether others find it offensive. And unlike other certain words that certain groups of people tend to claim ownership of, at least the word Chokie has some veracity to it in terms of describing the character, makeup, and history of our people. I will continue to use it when applicable, but I better not catch any non-Hokies using it, it's not YOUR word.
Last night's one point loss to the Seton Hall Pirates in the consolation game of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic was completely avoidable. The Hokies held a four-point lead with 1:32 to play at 61-57. After allowing a basket to cut the lead to two, Jarrell Eddie (19 points/11 rebounds on 6-19 shooting) took a bad shot with the clock winding down that went off the top of the backboard for a turnover, creating a dead ball. Seton Hall did us a favor and missed 2 FTs and C.J. Barksdale was fouled. In what has become a staple of the late-game Hokie diet, he promptly missed the front end of the bonus, and Seton Hall's Fuquan Edwin (18 points) nailed a 3-point shot near the right hash with 27 seconds remaining to put the Pirates in front, 62-61. After another Eddie miss and two Edwin FTs later, the Hokies had another opportunity with the shot clock turned off to go for the tie and force overtime. Instead, Eddie threw the ball out of bounds on the inbound pass, with his intended recipient Devin Wilson looking the other way. This time Pirate guard Sterling Gibbs hit both FTs to push the Pirate advantage to 66-61. After a 30-foot heave from Ben Emelogu found bottoms, the Hall's Edwards iced the game with two more FTs, nullifying Emelogu's 2nd make from 30+ feet as time expired. Chokies strike once again. By my count that was three serious unforced errors during the critical stretch.
I had a theory last night after the game, and it's been a sneaking theory of mine for many years. I developed it watching Seth Greenberg squads continually jump out to decent sized margins and then strangle their own offense to the end of the game. They consistently attempted to shorten games, extend possessions, and got away from whatever allowed them to build their lead. This is fine practice if you are a disciplined bunch like the Bob Knight Indiana Hoosiers, that knew how to run a secondary break and transition into effective half-court offense. Greenberg could not and did not ever do well in half court sets. We lived by hot shooting and transition off of turnovers. This is something that the James Johnson Hokies are trying to emphasize, along with a more up tempo style. Unfortunately, the half court offense is still lacking. Because of these similarities I decided to test a hypothesis.
Hypothesis: I will find that since ACC expansion (2004) that the Hokies lose 2 of every 3 non-conference games that are decided by less than one possession (under 3 points).
Here are the results:
- 2004: N/A (no close games)
- 2005: Losses to Bowling Green, ODU (0-2)
- 2006: Losses to Western Michigan, GW, Marshall....win vs. Illinois in NCAAs (1-3)
- 2007: Losses to ODU, Richmond (0-2)
- 2008: Losses to Xavier, Wisconsin, Georgia...win vs. Gardner Webb (1-3)
- 2009: Wins vs Penn St., UConn (NIT) (2-0)
- 2010: Losses to Purdue, Wichita State (NIT) (0-2)
- 2011: Losses to BYU, Minnesota....win vs. Oklahoma St. (1-2)
- 2012: Loss to WVU ....win vs. Bradley (1-1)
- 2013: Losses to USC Upstate, Seton Hall (0-2)
That's a 6-17 mark, more than proving my hypothesis. In conducting the same research for the Hokies in ACC play, they are a respectable 21-21 in such games. But that was bolstered by fantastic records in 2004 and 2006 when they went 4-1 each year. If you remove those two years, they were 13-19, much closer to the 1-of-3 estimation in my original hypothesis, which encompasses 7 of the 9 years of samples.
What reason can I give? Well, Greenberg for one. Most of these were under his watch. He always strove to keep the game close so that he could at least boast of having had the opportunity to win. Coming in on the heels of the Ricky Stokes era, and perhaps feeling a bit insecure at a football school that was hungry for a competitive basketball effort; after many years in the desert, he never truly played to win. He played not to lose. To his credit he did more early than anyone expected in turning the program around, but faltered later as the expectations mounted. He was never able to adapt his style to changing personnel, and with the highly-touted recruits he was bringing in, he never managed to stabilize the program above NIT level. It is up to Johnson now to examine this culture, and see about finding a way to meld his up-tempo style that makes for effective runs and double digit leads, with a feasible half-court mentality that can work to maintain those leads. So much of what a college basketball coach does is based on his own system, and sometimes this is a faulty premise, as the players you have might not fit your system every year. For instance, Duke employs as machinated a system as has ever been seen, parts have been interchangeable since the late 1990s, after his year sabbatical for surgery in 1995. But this year he has been gifted with the most NBA ready player since Lebron James in Jabari Parker. Even Coach K knows when the personnel doesn't fit the system, and has adapted his mentality, even if it's for just the one year.
This Hokie team is supposed to be getting out in transition and pushing the tempo, but that is only working on teams that have decidedly weaker personnel. For one the team isn't forcing turnovers. We have forced just 8 a game, while turning the ball over 15 times a game ourselves. Tonight, Seton Hall was on the receiving end of 14 gifts, 11 of them unforced, as they only stole the ball three times. Whatever advantage the running game affords us on the scoreboard is immediately negated by this massive margin, and it's not even freshman point guard Devin Wilson to blame. Tonight featured six Hokies who turned it over at least twice. Wilson actually improved his assist-to-turnover ratio from 15/13 to 28/20 this weekend, with a respectable 2-to-1 ratio during the tournament (in spite of 5 turnovers last night vs MSU). For a team that wants to use their defense to generate offense, it appears that if the blocked shots aren't occurring, that we aren't getting out unless teams are brick-laying from 3 and we pick up the long rebounds, which was a key to the Hokies getting out to a 26-16 lead tonight. As teams tighten up their offenses and work out of the half court, we in turn are being forced to face fully set defenses, and our offense is bogged down all too often.
Tonight saw the Hokies INCREASE their already incredible three point percentage to 46.9%. With shooting like this it should be impossible to lose. Unless you're shooting 105/242 from 2-point range on the season for 43.4% like we are. This is unheard of, and to put it crassly: ass-backwards. The Hokies big three (Eddie, Emelogu, Adam Smith) shoot 46/91 from distance, all others just 7-of-22. We are holding teams to 38.8% shooting on D, that is excellent, another reason to be confused at losing the two games against Seton Hall and USC Upstate. One simple explanation is that we don't share the ball well outside of Wilson, who shares it to a fault. Wilson doesn't look for his shot, and opponents know this, content to collapse their defense and deny any type of interior pass. The young PG's insistence upon picking up his dribble 10 feet above the top of the key to initiate the offense is not a threat at all, and he needs to keep his dribble alive until the moment it's time to get rid of it. He also saw a great deal of early success on his dribble drive, and make it or miss it, the aggressiveness was the key. We have just 74 assists on the season to our opponents 85, and assists on 2-point baskets make up less than 1/3 of the total. I don't take much pride in dribbling across the timeline and making one pass to a 3-point shooter coming off a screen who buries it. That's not working the offense. The backcourt needs to get past that first line of defense and into the paint, that way we can get back to being the dominant FT shooting team we need to be in order to distort opposing coach's game plans, and alter opposing team's rotations by causing foul trouble.
Last night the Hokies played very good defense in my opinion. The Pirates were just 20-of-62 for the game (10-of-26 from 3, which was a little above average), but horrendous from in close, converting just 10-of-36! We altered anything close, and used our fouls wisely, though Cadarian Raines left with his fourth foul just a minute into the 2nd half. In a very close game, it was the FT count that decided the game. The Pirates shot 15 second half FTs to the Hokies 2. This is a function of our PGs not getting into the high-traffic areas and finding the bigs who can power up and draw the contact. Though Seton Hall was 10-of-36 from 2, VT was only slightly better at 13-of-38, including a woeful 4-of-16 in the first half, which I attribute to their gun shy hangover from Michigan State's domination on Friday night. They went for near 50% in the 2nd half and made a concerted effort to find Raines and Barksdale down low, but they were getting pushed off the block, and were left too far away to initiate their own personal offensive moves comfortably. When they get to their spot, they need to hold it, and the guards need to get them the ball quicker. And if they don't have their offense immediately, the bigs need to avoid putting the ball on the floor in a futile attempt to improve their positioning. Just toss it back out and reset. This is coaching at its most fundamental. Wasted movement leads to turnovers, and we have a problem with turnovers.
Here are a few numbers before we get to the grades:
- Officiating was even for a while and then it wasn't, we got whistled for 22 fouls to their 15 despite being the more athletic group up front. It's not blatant enough to call it home-cooking, but it was frustrating in the 2nd half attempting just 2 FTs to the Pirates' 15, and then getting called for a couple weak touch fouls on our end.
- The Hokies were 13-38 from 2-point and 10-19 from 3. Balance should be the mantra in preparation for Furman and the rest of the season.
- Eddie, Emelogu, Smith combined to take 39 of the 57 shots. Again, we need to look more at how we can better share the rock.
- If you remove Joey Van Zegeren and Trevor Thompson from the FT totals the team is 92-117 from the stripe. A very nice 78.7%.
Individual Player Grades. By minutes played (descending):
Jarrell Eddie (37 minutes): 19 poinst, 11 rebounds, 4 assists. Looks nice right? But all games can't be won or analyzed on paper alone. His play in the critical stretch belied his role as the senior leader. Without him, we don't stand a chance. But with him shooting 6-for-19 (a lot in common with his 6 -or-21 game vs USC-U) leaves us with a defined formula for failure. This team can't be too reliant on the Eddie 3-point shot. It is our best weapon, but it needs to be used within the flow of the offense, of which there was little to speak of. His jumpers will come open and easy when we work inside out. You can hardly blame him for playing hero ball at times, making multiple threes leads one to believe they can do anything on the floor. Yet when you shoot 3-for-11 inside the arc, it's time to reassess how much time you're spending working on that one area of your game. Nice work though on the glass, in obtaining the Hokies second season double-double (Trevor Thompson, WCU was the first). I would have graded Eddie a bit higher, but since he was the "goat", I can't in good conscience. Too much room for improvement. Tonight's Grade: B-
CJ Barksdale (30 minutes): 9 points, 5 rebounds. Critical missed FT, his first miss of the year. He held down the frontcourt through Raines foul trouble, going toe-to-toe with Seton Hall giant Eugene Teague (10 points, 10 rebounds, same as last night vs. Oklahoma). He was a big reason Seton Hall shot 8-for-30 from two in the 2nd half. That said, he needs to do a better job making himself available to Wilson in his scoring areas. He drifts too far away, and we waste valuable shot clock trying to get him involved. He also doesn't move without the ball, waiting to slash or dive to the basket if by chance Wilson or Smith drives the lane. It'll come for C.J., it's just his third game back, and I have high hopes. His 11/6 averages will improve as we share the ball better and he gets into familiar territory. Tonight's Grade: B-
Devin Wilson (30 minutes): 2 points (2-2 FTs, 0-3 FGs), but 8 assists vs. just 2 turnovers. Again the assists were often "cheap", not a product of him getting the offense going. He did a good job on the Pirates leading scorer Sterling Gibbs holding him to 4 points on (0-8, 0-2 3pt) shooting. Gibbs came in averaging 18.8 ppg to lead Seton Hall. Wilson has the tallest order to fill on the team, with little to no safety net. Patience is certainly in order, and we all should have high hopes for his Hokie career. The big stage and being thrown off calibration by Keith Appling last night were both significant factors. The only true complaint that I don't attribute to learning on the job is his recent lack of will in getting to the paint. He often crosses the line makes one hop step in either direction, picks up dribble and finds the first open perimeter teammate. This isn't doing anything, it reminds me of Myron Guillory in the late 90s, who was perhaps the most ineffective PG I've watched closely for an extended period. Wilson though in his six games has shown flashes of being able to dominate opponents athletically. I hope he shakes off the road woes and returns to his dynamic self. Tonight's Grade: C
Adam Smith (26 minutes): Factoring in his final 10 minutes of the MSU game, and the first 10 minutes of the Seton Hall game, Smith went for 33 points in a little over a half. The rest? A disappearing act. His tendency to put the blinders on when his offense is going pushes the needle on his irrational confidence meter into the red. It's nice to have that, but I don't like it alongside Eddie for so many minutes. It stagnated the offense. I once again move for Smith to move to the bench as our sixth man and backup ball-handler (partly to get his game under control, and to give the second unit some offense). Moving Ben Emelogu to the 2-guard allows us to boast a big lineup and a second guy who can help us initiate some offense down low. Smith is hampering our ability to utilize our size advantage, and single-handedly killing Raines offensive season as he never even looks down low when the two are on the floor together. It's a simple tweak and it won't mess with Smith's minutes, just the composition of them. Finally, Smith was the victim of specialized substitution down the stretch. On every dead ball he came in for offense and exited for defense. It appears Johnson has recognized his liability in facing up on 3-point shooters on D. He wants length on the floor. Smith and Wilson allowed little used Pirate backup Jaren Sina to shoot 4-for-5 from three on his way to tripling his season scoring average in just a five minute stretch of the first half; which eliminated the Hokie advantage, and gave the Hall momentum that would carry them the rest of the way. The late game strategy is something to keep an eye on going forward. Tonight's Grade: C
Ben Emelogu (24 minutes): Ben needs 4-6 more minutes a night. He can handle the load. He had 18 points tonight in 24 minutes, further adding to his "Microwave" legend (Though 6 of those points came on desperation threes. They sure looked easy though), he continues to operate at high efficiency and contributes size on the perimeter defensively. He is only showing us the tip of the iceberg. I think his skill set could provide us a point forward look, or even a backup point guard. He's extremely versatile, and the fact he's team captain as a true frosh is enough proof that his makeup is rock solid. When he's giving Eddie, a senior, pep talks it means he's ready for as much as Johnson will give him.. So what's the hold-up? The young man is 16-for-30 from 3-point range and is averaging a bucket every 3 minutes. Tonight's Grade: B+ (in a loss nobody gets an A)
Cadarian Raines (18 minutes): He hit a huge lefty jump hook off of a duck-in move late in the game to put us up 59-57 and I almost cried. I need more of this. I need the guards to look more for the redshirt-senior on offense. He works harder than anyone on the team, and is not being rewarded. Tonight saw some foul trouble, but he was a force in altering the looks the Pirates tried to get in the paint. I bleed for Raines. I was hoping he could get some All-ACC recognition this season, but he's just not a big enough part of the gameplan. My fingers remain crossed. Tonight's Grade: C (foul trouble and all)
Marshall Wood (14 minutes): Wood lost his starting job tonight. Unless his play improves drastically he will have to wait until next year to regain it. He should be a matchup nightmare with his agility and length, yet he's far too content to linger at the 3-point line on offense. He doesn't assert himself, and looks disinterested in the process. He had 3 points, 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers last night. Just a blase game. Tonight's Grade: D (he should have appeared pissed off for not starting and lit a fire)
Joey Van Zegeren (13 minutes): JVZ didn't get off the pine in the VMI game til late, and moped. In the two games since, he's made the most of his minutes, and that's exactly what the Hokies need from their bench. Guys who will stuff the stat sheet in short periods, like Trevor Thompson WAS doing, and JVZ is currently doing. Just 1 point for the Dutchman, but 4 rebounds (3 offensive, with a couple more tips to keep plays alive) and 3 blocks. He also used 4 of his fouls, perhaps a bit too aggressive in terms of fouls per minute; but the attitude is one that I hope becomes more pervasive in our bench players. Tonight's Grade: B
Trevor Thompson (8 minutes): Just 1 offensive rebound, 2 missed FGs, and nothing else in his line. Trevor is going to rely on the scraps and the dishes from the guards as they attack the paint, and since they aren't doing that, he is of little use right now. He has displayed some nice touch and has a nice jump hook, but if he can't root in his position (he has a slender base), then that isn't an option. His game has dipped this week, and will likely be up and down all year. He has me the most excited of any freshman simply because he is a skilled big man, and we have had precisely zero of those in 25 years (all due respect to Coleman Collins and Jeff Allen who were undersized and often underachieved). Thompson's time will come, and he will wow us when it does. Tonight's Grade: Incomplete
Coach Johnson: Coach where is the half-court offense? Where is the secondary break? I'm not even going to go into anything further than that. If Johnson wants to break the Greenberg mold, he HAS to develop ways for us to score that don't involve transition. We need to manufacture baskets. Greenberg would have had it way worse in his years in Blacksburg if Dowdell and Delaney didn't take it upon themselves to generate contact and shoot a ton of FTs to keep games close. So far we don't have that. It can't all be silky smooth J's off the high screen or fast break points. The ACC game is a grind just like everywhere else. Finesse in itself is but a piece of the puzzle. I didn't expect to win Friday night, but I did last night. The short turnaround being the only grace I allow to keep Johnson from a failing grade here. Tonight's Grade: D- (seriously, the conference schedule is here in two weeks)
This concludes the most grueling stretch of my fledgling writing "career". In 5 days i posted about 20,000 words on Hokie Basketball. My editors hate me and I'm now blind, though I'm not sure it's from watching the two losses or staring at the small print on my screen. Luckily for me, there isn't a game until Tuesday, when the Hokies take on the Furman Paladins back home at Cassell Coliseum (7 p.m. tip, ESPN3 again).
If you haven't had the chance to check out the piece on VT vs. #1 teams, I encourage you to do so. It's a history lesson for youngs, and a trip down memory lane for the olds. Either way, you'll learn something you didn't know before. And though the game schedule was condensed, there is still some great stuff in the previews for MSU and Seton Hall about their programs and histories that will make you richer for having read. I hate to pander, but that's a lot of material in a short amount of time, and a lot to digest, so take your time with it and savor it. Since this upcoming week is a short week for many of you, with bosses leaving early, it's a prime opportunity for you to get acquainted with what you can expect from me on a going-forward basis this season. I love to do it, I can only hope that you love to read it and pass these stories onto fellow Hokies and get everyone in the mood, and behind the team. Unlike years past, the team is watchable.
Oh, and Chokie? That's our word. I'll go on First Take with Skip Bayless and Stephen A any time to debate who should be allowed to use it. Carry on.
As always, mi Cassell es su Cassell. I'll return Monday night(ish) with a piece on the game with Furman. Until then enjoy the NFL and UVA/Thanksgiving preparations!