"WE'RE GOING STREAKING!" OK, OK, so maybe i'm not prepared to get undressed and run through the streets like Will Ferrell's Frank the Tank in the hit movie Old School, but I am hopeful that tonight's 79-61 win over the visiting Western Carolina Catamounts marks the beginning of a significant win streak that the young team can build on. The Hokies jumped out to a 38-18 halftime lead and never looked back, in thoroughly handling their visibly exhausted guests.
The Hokies were led by the steady hand of SR Jarrell Eddie who finished with 17 points and 6 rebounds. Eddie finished 6 of 10 (3-5 3pt) from the floor, and got all of his points within the flow of the offense, rarely forcing a bad shot. When Eddie went to the bench, his relief was almost equally as effective, as FR captain Ben Emelogu continued his hot shooting start to the season by going 5 for 9 (2-5 3pt) on his way to 16 points. The Western Carolina attack is guard heavy, and they didn't have a defensive answer for the SF position tonight. But once again, as he was in the West Virginia game, my personal MVP was FR post player Trevor Thompson, who went for 15 pts and 11 rebounds, and jump started the Hokie attack with 3 consecutive monster dunks in the span of a minute and half midway through the 1st half. Trevor is tremendously coordinated at his age for having such long limbs. I won't hesitate to say he's the most coordinated, athletic big man the Hokies have signed since the ACC expansion in 2004. I am sure Coach James Johnson is already qualifying his failure to play Thompson in the season opening loss to USC Upstate as his biggest mistake of the season to date.
Though these three players stood out for the Hokies tonight, they received a balanced contribution from the other 5 rotation players. Each player had at least one stretch where they carried the play. Devin Wilson wrought havoc in the first half by continually beating his man James Sinclair into the painted area and finding the open cutter, or drawing the foul. Unfortunately, there was a lid on the rim for FT attempts tonight, adding a degree of difficulty the team could not master until it truly mattered late in the 2nd half. R-Soph Adam Smith also found an easy path to the basket early on and had 3 nice alley oop passes that made up the sum of his assists. Smith was the Hokies' worst shooter on the night at 3 for 12, but several of his misses were layups that rimmed in and out. He missed his only 3 pt attempt.
The frontcourt of Cadarian Raines, Marshall Wood, and Joey Van Zegeren (JVZ) made some serious waves with their block party against WVU on Tuesday, blocking 13 shots total. Tonight, the numbers were far more modest as the team only blocked 4 shots. But it was apparent that our reputation preceded us, as the perimeter-oriented Cats were allergic to the dribble drive and were content to hoist 3 pointers throughout the game. The Hokies were only so happy to allow the illusion of open 3 point shots, as WCU only converted on an abysmal 3 of 25 (1-12 in the first half). Their legs deadened by the cross country travel after the loss to Oregon only 48 hours before, it was quite a sight to witness as their jumpers in the first half barely connected with the rim on a number of attempts.R-SR guard Trey Sumler and his two veteran teammates Tom Tankelewicz, and James Sinclair Jr, combined for 2 of 15 from distance. Sumler increased his streak of double digit scoring games to 12, but his streak of 20+ pt scoring games ended at 3. The Catamounts top offensive performer was primary ballhandler James Sinclair who finished with 16 pts on 6 of 15 shooting. If the Hokies continue to defend the interior, and utilize their length, they will intimidate other squads into becoming jump shooters before the opening tip. It's a nice feature, and one we will keep an eye on as we move towards the ACC docket.
Though the final margin was 18 points, i will put it bluntly and tell you the game should never have even been so close. The Hokies only shot 23 of 41 from the FT line, and were only 3 of 13 at the half. It would have been nice to have seen some of the misses, but ESPN3 was having technical difficulties throughout, and didn't have a camera behind the locker room tunnel end basket in Cassell Coliseum. We were left to rely on the shooter's body language to ascertain the result. Coupling this with the audio outage in the first half, and you have to grade ESPN's effort an F on tonight's coverage. The Hokies started the 2nd half 4 of 7 from the line, bringing their lackluster output to 7 of 20 at the 11 minute mark. This letdown at the stripe worked in tandem with several turnovers, and a brief offensive spurt by the Cats that saw the Hokies lead whittled down from a high water mark of 42-20 to 53-43. The Cats, however, relied too much on the "Hack a Hokie" strategy, and got into foul trouble from which they could never extricate themselves. 2 players fouled out, 3 others had 4 fouls, and everyone who played significant minutes for them had 3 or more. The Hokies settled down at the line and converted 16 of their final 21, with Trevor Thompson leading the way, making 5 of 6. It has been obvious that these new handchecking rules are going to play a prominent role this season in trying to increase the pace and quality of play. To date, they've largely worked counter to that purpose, resulting in endless strolling between the foul lines. Hopefully, players begin to adapt to the new rules, but in the event they don't, showings like tonight will hamstring the efforts of a young team who needs to rely on every advantage to gain respectability in the hyper-competitive ACC.
Offensively, the Hokies took fantastic care of the ball in the first half on the way to building their huge lead, only turning the ball over 2 times. The Cats came into the game averaging 11 steals, but tonight were stymied in that category, notching only 6. Which meant that of the Hokies final tally of thirteen turnovers, 7 of these were of the unforced variety. Personally, i expect growing pains from Devin Wilson, who is learning on the job; and have been satisfied with his handling of the ball. Because our offense is geared to be high pace, we often initiate our sets with an aggressive dribble drive that finds cutters or kick-outs to open shooters at the 3 pt line. It has been effective against lesser opponents, but if often calls for Wilson or Smith to pound the ball a great deal, and against more pressurized defenses, that may wind up being a problem. Even when one of them gives the ball up, Johnson calls for them to run right back to the recipient and take the ball back if that players' offense isn't immediately available. The Cats tried to run a 3/4 court press after made baskets, but since they were so erratic in that regard, the press never wound up being an obstacle to deal with. Late in the game, Wilson split double teams with ease, which was encouraging as he has a nice deceptive change of speed at his disposal. While Smith is more of a burner end to end, Wilson lulls defenders to sleep before accelerating. I find the latter to be more devastating to defenses. Breakneck speed is a nice luxury, but controlled bursts are far more effective.
Defensively, we had an easy night. The Cats didn't have the post presence to command any double teams, and we had the length to smother any looks they might have gotten. And since WCU lives and dies out at the arc, we were content to see what kind of rhythm they had early and go from there. Not only were they just awful in their 3 pt shooting, they were exceedingly content to jack them up early in the shot clock. I am shocked their coach Larry Hunter did not put a leash on their shooters in the first half and try to shorten the game; by decreasing the number of possessions they were handing us on a silver platter. Their wayward attempts led to numerous opportunities in transition and the mini-dunkfest that got the crowd roaring in the first half. It was as entertaining a first half i've seen since Malcolm Delaney dropped 30 against Miami before the break once a few years back. Naturally Seth Greenberg couldn't allow a run out that day, and his "Groundhog Day Coaching" (afraid of his own shadow) allowed Miami back in the game and made the contest much closer than it needed to be, with VT escaping in overtime. To that end, let's hope Johnson is an improvement on Seth in not allowing minor cuts to turn into major gashes. Though the Hokies were outscored 43-41 in the 2nd half tonight, it wasn't enough to generate a serious sweat on my brow.
Games like these where you see one team get out to a gigantic lead and coast will often skew the numbers, and i don't put a lot of emphasis on what the other team does trying to come back. It's equivalent to a QB putting up huge numbers trying to erase a 3 touchdown deficit. The fact that we were outscored in the second half is of little concern, the sloppiness exhibited was a function of trying to play out the string. I am sure Coach Johnson will stress playing the full 40 minutes in practice tomorrow, and he won't be wrong. The team though, should take pride in the effort tonight. Pride in that they played within themselves, and let the offense come to them. Pride in that they handled a veteran laden team with their man to man defense, with little need for help. The only negative takeaway is the FT shooting, and i'm sure there will be due diligence paid to that tomorrow in practice. This was definitely a win to build on.
The Hokies tip next against VMI in Cassell Coliseum on Monday night at 7pm, with the game on ESPN3. We will see CJ Barksdale return from his 3 game suspension and make his season debut. This will be the Hokies last game before heading to New York for the "Final Four" of the Coaches vs Cancer Classic next weekend. Another win with a total team contribution will be a great confidence builder because the #1 Michigan State Spartans will be waiting. They are currently ranked #2, but beat the current #1 Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday night.They will assume the top spot this Monday, as they won sluggishly at home tonight over Columbia 62-53. The last time the Hokies played a #1 team out of conference was in 1996. #10 VT battled Marcus Camby and UMass at Cassell Coliseum when VT was a member of the Atlantic 10, and after a close first half UMass pulled away and won 74-58. It was the only time i was in college that anyone camped out in front of Cassell for basketball tickets. Stay tuned this week for a feature on the Hokies history playing #1 opponents, it is an interesting history to say the least.
For those of you fortunate enough to grace the Cassell's seats tonight, many thanks for your support. I know it's my job to embrace the team i am covering (objectively of course), but some of the things i am seeing thus far lead me to believe that the doomsayers who have us pegged for last in the ACC, will be dismayed that their prognostications were off the mark. After all i'm always right, aren't you? Have a fantastic weekend and look for me early Monday with a pre-game on the VMI matchup. Until then, I remain Count Chuckula. Mi Cassell es su Cassell.