Where's the story here? What's the lede? Something about the game itself? No, the outcome was too predictable. Something about the players? No, nobody really stood out. Some players definitely played better than others. But every player on the floor for Syracuse did about what they usually do; and every player on the floor for the Hokies played below standards, which is usually what playing Syracuse results in. It appears the lede is simply that Syracuse WAS (to quote the immortal Arizona Cardinal coach Denny Green) "exactly what we thought they were" in systematically dispatching the Virginia Tech Hokies 72-52 on Tuesday night in Blacksburg, VA. Unlike Denny's Cardinals though, the Hokies didn't let anyone off the hook.
Syracuse hardly even broke a sweat the other night. Please don't take this the wrong way and mistake that for me implying that Syracuse failed to work. It's more that the Hokies failed to make them work hard. Syracuse came in to the game averaging over 10 steals a game, and the Hokies came in averaging about 13 turnovers a game, with the Hokies turning it over at least 16 times in seven of their 13 games. Surprisingly this area of the game wasn't much of a factor, as the Hokies were very tentative, but careful with the ball facing the Syracuse 2-3 zone. They only turned it over eight times, and limited the Orange to just six steals in the process. The Orange were content to lay back and see if VT was capable of moving the ball effectively against their zone. Once it was determined that they could not, they remained passive and played sound positionally, rarely extending themselves and attacking the passing lanes. They allowed VT to nibble at the edges and settle for low percentage shots. Because some of the shots were so far off the mark, the Hokies managed to secure a surprising number of offensive rebounds early on. Even with 11 offensive rebounds for the game, the Hokies only managed nine second-chance points as the length of the Syracuse defenders frustrated VT's shooters all night. Syracuse managed 15 second chance points on their 17 offensive rebounds, a number that was no doubt impacted negatively by the absence of DaJuan Coleman, the Syracuse 6'9, 280lb sophomore who was nursing a leg injury. Coleman played just three minutes.
The Hokies were forced to start Trevor Thompson at the four spot due to a minor outbreak of the flu and two key contributors still nursing nagging injuries. But the three injured Hokies proved gutsy. Redshirt sophomore guard Adam Smith, classified as a "longshot" to play in the pre-game, played 30 minutes through his strained calf, knocking down three early three pointers that were all 25 feet out or further. Though he cooled off, missing his last four shots, the fact that he played more than 21 minutes for the first time in over a month is encouraging. Junior forward C.J. Barksdale was probably the player of the game for Tech, scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting in just 20 minutes. Not only was he afflicted with the flu, but he has battled a knee problem and an ankle injury over the past few weeks. Marshall Wood, though, was limited to just eight minutes as he is the second Hokie regular to have contracted the flu.
The game was supposed to feature a battle on the individual level between two seniors, who were neck and neck in the league scoring race going in. C.J. Fair and Jarrell Eddie were both averaging slightly above 17 point per game. While Fair managed to meet his standards with 17 points to lead Syracuse, Eddie was quiet in scoring just six points and contributed little else. Normally, Eddie adds somewhere between seven and ten rebounds, against Syracuse he finished with two. Eddie made just two baskets, both from long-range and wasn't aggressive at all. He didn't earn a single trip to the fhe free throw line. In my preview, I suggested that we give Fair a peek at some mid-range jumpers to encourage his sketchy shot selection.This was dismissed by one of my guest Syracuse readers as a tenuous proposition, and the reader proved correct. Fair calmly knocked down six-of-nine from the perimeter (excluding the two missed threes), displaying more accuracy there than anywhere else. To me, this embodied the whole theme of the game: Fair wasn't rattled in the least and neither was his team. They just executed their scheme well, and their team was well built towards the scheme they use. Right now I look at Syracuse and I see harmony, with roles being filled and their few weaknesses being well-guarded by the depth and system they use.
Another subplot to the game that was worth noting was the freshman point guard matchup between Devin Wilson and Tyler Ennis. While Ennis has drawn early raves for his mature play, ranking near the top of the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, Wilson has slowly rounded himself into a set of expectations that include him obliterating the VT record for assists as a freshman.Unfortunately, those expectations also included him being completely ineffectual in his first try at cracking the Orange zone. Wilson managed to hang in the game in his quiet way, but didn't really disrupt Ennis' flow. Ennis looked as good as the senior Keith Appling of Michigan State did when Tech played them in New York. The difference being is that game was at a neutral site for Appling, and this was Ennis's first ACC road game. Luckily for Syracuse the NBA draft is stacked with freshmen this year. In a weaker year, Ennis might be one and done.
The Hokies shot 11-for-25 inside the arc, and just 7-of-24 from beyond, well below their average. Until the almost eight minute scoring drought that sunk VT in the middle of the second half, when Syracuse stretched a 44-40 lead into a 64-42 funeral march, the Hokies weren't faring too poorly, with Barksdale finding some holes in the zone and attacking. But after Ben Emelogu's three cut the lead to four, Syracuse responded with an Ennis three and Tech coach James Johnson began some odd substitutions, very herky-jerky. The repeatedly changing lineup led to a barrage of missed threes and a lack of cohesiveness that doomed VT during their drought. The Hokies were 0-for-9 with two turnovers during those eight minutes, including 0-for-4 from three-point range. There were no second shots allowed by the Orange. Defensively, Syracuse pitched a shutout for 20% of the game and the Hokies lack of creativity on offense didn't force Syracuse into an uncomfortable spot from tip to finish.
Because of the Hokies lack of wide-bodies down low, the Orange opted to play Baye Mousse Keita a good deal more than Rakeem Christmas. And with Coleman out, the Orange always had three very agile, versatile defenders in the baseline of their 2-3 zone. With Jerami Grant and CJ Fair, along with Tyler Roberson and Michael Gbinije, the Orangemen supply of long, disruptive defenders was inexhaustible. The Hokie made a game effort of trying to generate some offense on the block, but every shot was contested, and VT doesn't have elite finishers to begin with. VT had at least three dunks challenged. To the Hokie big mens' credit they battled hard defensively and held their own most of the night.
Game Grades (Minutes Descending):
Ben Emelogu (31 minutes): Ben didn't have a very good game but he competed hard. He wasn't able to follow up on his nine assist outburst against MD-Eastern Shore, finishing with zero against Syacuse. He shot just 3-of-9, with eight of the attempts coming from beyond the arc. Most of the Hokies makes from distance were very deep, as impatience crept in during our attempts to probe the zone. Facing that zone is a learning experience, and that's all he'll really take away from this one. His performance wasn't typical, and he'll return to his efficient self when he sees more man to man defense. He guarded Fair some on the other end, and he did a "fair" job. Grade: C-
Adam Smith (30 minutes): Single-handedly kept VT in the game in the first half. Played a very surprising 30 minutes after having left practice early a few days earlier due to re-aggravation of the strained calf that's been hampering him. He was 3-of-6 at the half, but finished 3-of-9. His makes were from very deep, and he never got a clean look from right on the arc, Syracuse wouldn't allow it. Aside from his mini-streak, he did nothing the rest of the game. This doesn't make him any different than the rest of the guys. He fostered a little bit of hope, and for that we thank him. If Smith for some reason isn't able to go full-load in the winnable game we have coming up at home vs BC, then we will have to question the decision to continue playing Smith deep into the Syracuse game in a no-win situation. Grade: C+ (the + is for the gutsy effort, though for the minutes he should have given us his usual 13 points)
Jarrell Eddie (29 minutes): Came in like a lion went out like a lamb. He won the first ACC game for Tech with his overtime floater in Miami. Against Syracuse he was just window dressing. I am not sure what exactly the problem is with the territory in-between the arc and the rim, but Eddie has just not gotten comfortable shooting anything worth two points. After the Syracuse game he is now an even 36-for-100 from two point range and 44-of-94 from three. He is disciplined enough to know that the long two isn't worth shooting, so most of these two point attempts are runners and lay-ups. Why can't he convert those? It's going to be extremely difficult for him to keep up production if teams won't guard him except for threes. Maybe he was coming down with the flu also, because the rest of his game was lethargic and lacking outside of him not fulfilling his scoring duties. Syracuse had 17 offensive rebounds, and the effort wasn't there from the whole team, and with Eddie usually among the top rebounders, some of that is on him. Like Emelogu, Eddie also defended Fair to no great "fanfare." Grade: D- (I tend to think A.D. Vassallo would have risen to the occasion, and that's Eddie's measuring stick here)
Joey Van Zegeren (28 minutes): He played hard. He played aggressive. He gave up nothing easy. He missed a couple chippies. He missed all three of his free throw attempts. All in a night for JVZ. His strengths show up strong, his deficiencies just as equally. Luckily he didn't have to deal with the wide-bodies, but unfortunately the Orange replacements were mostly just as long and athletic as he is. The free throws aren't so much a sticking point in a game where VT never had a shot, but what do we do with JVZ when the games do get tighter? Six points and five rebounds, and two critical turnovers with Johnson running him up into the high post to try and pass over the zone. Definitely ill-advised on Johnson's part with JVZ commanding no respect for the jumper or his driving ability, teams welcome him putting the ball on the floor. Yet, JVZ had the ball up high and still managed to get it swiped...twice. Grade: C
Devin Wilson (27 minutes): Completely overshadowed by freshman counterpart Tyler Ennis. Took just three shots, missed them all. Had just two assists. He wasn't helped out much by an offensive game plan that led to more standing around than seventh grade boys at their first school dance. Nonetheless, as Wilson isn't yet a threat from three point range, teams don't play him that tight when he retreats to spot up, essentially leaving the rest of the guys four on five. His forays to the hoop aren't an effective means of attack against the 2-3 zone. If we had other back-court solutions this would have been a game for him to sit a little bit more. But since we don't have guards, he had to play. Grade: D (if anything, he seemed more tentative and confused as the game progressed)
C.J. Barksdale (20 minutes): Battling the flu, the ankle injury in one leg, the knee injury in the other. The three-game suspension to start his season. One could understand if C.J. couldn't fight through all of these setbacks from a mental standpoint. Yet, his performance against Syracuse proved to be a little cathartic. He scored six of the final 11 points in the first half for the Hokies as they narrowed their deficit to six entering the break. And then he scored the first six points of the second half to keep the Hokies close. Once the game got out of hand, Johnson removed him for the night and he sat almost the entire final eight minutes. I've played with the flu before, and there is a period that you're out there running around light-headed where you feel more explosive and lighter on your feet due to your fever. Then of course, something happens to break that momentum, and you wind up going back to playing like you feel. If I had to wager, I'd say that Barksdale's outburst was performance-enhanced...by fever. Grade: B+ (and as in the case of Smith, he needs to be ready for BC, we need to win that game)
Cadarian Raines (14 minutes): Not Raines best game by any stretch. He was beaten repeatedly to the defensive glass by Syracuse rebounders. Rebounds were going through his hands.He did have once nice offensive move where he scored in the post on an up and under. The lack of steady minutes is eating away at the skill and anticipation he was exhibiting earlier this year. He has zero confidence in his ability to make a mistake and remain on the floor. It really is a shame to see a fifth year guy struggle to find and maintain his role here. Grade: D
Trevor Thompson (10 minutes): When he gets stronger, he's going to lead the ACC in dunks. Trevor got the start, presumably because Coach Johnson rewards the players who are able to practice, and Barksdale and Marshall Wood weren't able to practice full-strength. Thompson managed to score the first of the Hokies eight baskets in the paint (two of them completely meaningless after the game had been decided). He has so much work to do on his game before he is of value to VT in a game like this where the opponent runs a zone. He has been making his FTs lately though, and calmly sank his only two attempts late in the game. At this point, I am glad to see him getting minutes instead of wilting on the bench. Grade: C (this output is pretty much what he's been offering since the Western Carolina game)
Marshall Wood (8 minutes): Wood missed his only shot and picked up three quick fouls in his limited time. Definitely was affected by having missed practice time due to the flu. Hopefully he gets better and others don't get ill before Saturday's game. Grade: Incomplete
Coach James Johnson (200 minutes): Distracting sub patterns. Didn't have any answers in the half-court. But in his defense, this is Syracuse, the number two team in the country and it has an established identity, something the Hokies are clearly searching for. We achieved our expected result. Grade: D (would be an F, but again, it's Syracuse)
So far this year, the Hokies are -3 in my opinion. They should have beaten USC-Upstate, Seton Hall, and UNC-Greensboro. They should have lost to Michigan State and VCU. That would have put them at 11-2, and they would have only needed six wins in the league to earn an NIT bid. Technically only five wins to go .500 or better, but the NIT might have a tough time taking someone who couldn't even win one of three in league play. To be -3 at this stage of the season is difficult to do considering the patsies that major-conference teams tend to schedule. This underachievement is not reflecting too well on Johnson as the new athletic director takes inventory. You can't lose those kinds of games.
With that said, nobody looks at Syracuse and projects a win, so we are able to take this loss and put it in the rear view. It's games like this upcoming Saturday's home tilt against BC that you circle and you say, "WE MUST HAVE THIS ONE." If we lose to BC, that game will put us at -4 with relativity to games we expected to win but did not. Saturday's game vs BC is at noon in Cassell Coliseum. Hopefully more students will be trickling back onto campus for that one, as the attendance for the Syracuse game was understandably low due to the late start, winter break, and the cold; thereby rendering what should have been an exciting home date into a lopsided scrimmage at Cassell Mausoleum.
Usually you can take some new insight from a loss, but with this one, there is no new data. It went down just as we expected, as anticlimactically as ever. Keep your eyes posted for info on the BC game. Until then mi Cassell es su Cassell.