How does one look at an 18-point win and barely breath a sigh of relief? How does a team shoot 60.4% from the field (70% in the second half), and still feel lucky to have gotten the win? When a team shoots the lights out as the Virginia Tech Hokies did in their 81-63 win over the visiting Winthrop Eagles on Tuesday night, you'd want to see a little more cushion in the margin with eight minutes remaining. Yet, the Hokies only led by two points at 55-53. Coach James Johnson had a quick fix at his disposal, which were the immediate substitutions for Christian Beyer and Will Johnston. After replacing those two, the Hokies gathered themselves defensively and went on a 26-10 run to the final gun, including a game-finishing 14-2 spurt.
Before I get to senior Jarell Eddie's incredible effort (34 points and 7 rebounds in extended time running the point), I have to say the following: We need Ben Emelogu (post-concussion symptoms) and Adam Smith (strained calf) and their 28+ points per game back at full capacity by the time the ACC season starts. Unfortunately with the two "unexpected" losses to USC-Upstate and Seton Hall, the Hokies have little wiggle room in the loss column. Assuming the Hokies finish with a record of 8-4 out of conference, this is the following prognosis: With predicted wins against UNC Greensboro and Maryland-Eastern Shore, and the loss coming at VCU, we can't afford to be worse than 7-11 over the 18-game ACC schedule. If VT wants to earn an NIT bid they will have to be above .500, and even at 7-11 they would be forced to win an ACC Tournament play-in game. Without Emelogu and Smith at full-strength, VT will struggle to win even four games in the league, which would match last year's total.
Behind redshirt sophomore Joey Van Zegeren's early dominance in the post, scoring eight of the Hokie's first 10 points, the Hokies jumped out to a 13-5 lead. Then Johnson pulled Jarell Eddie at the 13:44 mark. Just under two minutes later, the Hokies lead was slashed to 13-12, and Johnson called an ill-advised timeout. He called the timeout with just under 12 minutes remaining. And this was with the mandated under 12 minute media timeout coming at the next dead ball. He'd have been wiser to tell his players to kick it out of bounds on purpose, if his sole purpose was to get substitutes in for Johnston and freshman Trevor Thompson. The time elapsed between timeouts was just 13 seconds. Wasting a timeout like that in ACC play will prove deadly when you have coaches like Roy Williams holding onto all of their timeouts as time winds down in the second half.
Jarell Eddie was just sensational. Scoring 20 in the first half, 17 in a row at one point, and then firing up the afterburners to finish strong with 10 points over the last 8 minutes to help put the game out of reach. Both times Winthrop got in real close (13-12) and (55-53), it was Eddie who provided the necessary breathing room. His 34 points covered both his and Adam Smith's scoring averages on the season. This was able to mitigate against having to start Will Johnston at the shooting guard spot. Since having a great game last week against Furman (12 points) off the bench, Johnston has shot just 2-of-9 from three-point range in 52 minutes against Radford and Winthrop. That is extremely inefficient, extremely low usage. Luckily, Winthrop's starting back court were both smaller than 5'10", so the Hokies were able to get their shots off with ease even though the Eagles defenders were bodied up on a lot of shots.
Another byproduct of Smith's absence was the lack of another proven ball-handler. Freshman Devin Wilson is already playing too many minutes due to Marquis Rankin's extended absence for personal reasons, and was showing some fatigue throughout the game. He was tasked with chasing around very quick guards on defense and doing his usual solid work on the ball offensively. Wilson finished with five turnovers to lead the Hokies, who had 18 as a group. The Eagles only had six steals, which left the other 12 turnovers to be categorized as unforced. This is the number one area the Hokies need work. Eddie also ran the point for extended periods, which allowed for him to probe for his own offense, as opposed to waiting for Wilson to bunny-hop around and let the defense set before getting him the ball. He is not a bad third option to run the PG in the event Rankin never returns.
Something else that has been noticeable to me is that our offense in the half court can almost be described as a bastardized version of Mike D'Antoni's "Eight Seconds or Less" offense that he ran with Steve Nash in Phoenix where the intent was to maximize shot attempts. Coming into the game as the #4 three point shooting squad in the country, we have seemingly made the most of it. We have been shooting between 45% and 50% most of the season. The question is, and the answer is almost never positive, whether or not we can maintain that figure without substantial regression. We often try to get a shot up before the defense can get set, and in transition this has a decent chance of succeeding, if you have guys who can catch and shoot off the curls like Eddie and Emelogu. But after made baskets by the opposition, this team continues to struggle to score. We have to have some variety in the sets, and we need to utilize more back door cuts and swing the ball quickly to use pin down screens on the opposite block. As is, if we don't get an immediate shot, the offense bogs down and the players become too deliberate with their movements. If only I had access to the advanced stats that detail the efficiency of our possessions with regard to when the shot was launched in the shot clock. The NCAA is not yet up to par with the NBA on this yet.
Shooting threes above the break early in the shot clock increases opponent offensive possession time and your own defensive work effort. I hate to penalize effective offense for being too effective, but as Dan Marino can attest, his 80 yard TD bombs and too-quick scoring drives often left his defense tired during crunch time in the Miami sunshine. Sometimes you can score too quickly. I am not a proponent of spreading the floor, and holding the ball to shorten the game either. I just happen to believe that there has to be a philosophy in between. We have big men who can score the ball for once. If the secondary break doesn't reveal the open look immediately, we need to be grinding the ball into those fellows and get them started on putting the other team in foul trouble. There are far too many empty possessions right now for VT to come close to going .500 in the ACC. Especially when the emphasis on defense is more slack than it has been in the past under Greenberg.
The big man rotation of Barksdale, JVZ, and Raines was 11-of-17 for 30 points, 17 rebounds and 6 blocks in 66 minutes of play. If you divide by two to create two separate 33 minute per game players that's two guys in the post giving you 15/8.5/3. That's high-quality production. C.J. Barksdale, if he can just shed a few of the bad shot decisions and footwork turnovers, will be one of the top power forwards in the league by the time he exhausts his eligibility. Joey Van Zegeren almost fouled out again, and his aggressive play on both ends really jump starts the team. I actually don't think we lose anything by starting him over Raines. I just think that Johnson needs to make sure Raines gets minutes AND touches, since he is the more offensively gifted of the two at this point. It appears the Raines saga is over for now, although most other publications don't mention that it was an injury to JVZ that required medical attention (blood/scratch) that finally got Raines on the floor. Who knows how much longer his stint in the doghouse would have been had officials not stopped play there.
Defensively the Hokies held an Eagles team that had been shooting 41% from long-range to just 7-of-22. Though without guard Andre Smith shooting 1-of-10, they were a far more respectable 6-of-12. They did attack the paint aggressively due to their foot speed, our lack of depth, and unwillingness to take contact and create potential foul trouble. For all the Hokies size advantage they only managed to outscore the Eagles by four points in the paint. It was all Johnston, Wilson, and Eddie could do to funnel the Winthrop guards into the paint so they could run into our post players. The Hokies absolutely dominated the glass 37-22, which when coupled with the hot shooting should have made this about a 30+ point win. Ultimately turnovers and some defensive lapses kept it way closer than it should have been.
A couple of notes before we get to the grades:
- Devin Wilson had eight more assists. This gives him 50 through nine games. Hank Thorns had 113 to set the Freshman record. Look for Wilson to break this record a little more than halfway through the ACC season. At his current pace we have him pegged for the third-best season in school history. Not bad for a spring signee, and most fortuitous since Rankin has been unavailable.
- The Hokies blocked eight shots again. Joevor Van Thompgeren joined this time with two by Cadarian Raines. VT ranks sixth in the nation in blocks per game. But last night it was a shot Devin Wilson practically blocked with his arm pit that got my vote for block of the game.
- The Hokies are tied for 226th in the country in turnovers per game. Even worse, we are 334th in turnover margin, just five spots above dead last!
- Currently the Hokies are 74th in opposing three-point field goal percentage at 30.3%. This amounts to a 45.4 true field goal percentage. Very respectable, and i also predict this will regress as opponents get tougher. Just me being smart again!
OK, now to the player grades (minutes descending):
Jarell Eddie (37 minutes): 13-of-18 from the floor, 6-of-8 from three-point range, falling just one short of Malcolm Delaney's school record seven three pointers set at UNC in 2011. Just two turnovers throughout all of the backup PG duty. I don't need to say more. But I will ask this: Does he look draft-able? Right now, yes, he is still a poor-man's Allan Houston. If he works on his D, he could be one of the coveted defensive swingmen/corner three point specialists the new rules in the NBA have emphasized in recent years. Grade: Mr. Eddie, congratulations because you have received Gobbler Country's first A+ of the 2013-2014 season.
Devin Wilson (37 minutes): We are going to kill this kid if we can't get him down to 30 minutes. The two week break after the Miami game this weekend should help him out (December 21st is next game). He's averaging over 33 minutes a game. He's big and strong for his age, but that much high leverage on the ball activity can wear even the strongest down. He had 8 assists to 5 turnovers, which is less than the two to one ratio that has been established as the universal benchmark for replacement level. He displayed some aggressiveness in getting to the painted area and finishing, though I am not sure how well that layup from the hip he has developed is going to be shielded from the bigger, more physical ACC guards. He needs a higher release point in my opinion. He once again knocked down the critical free throws to ice the game, which to me is a way underrated facet of any primary ball handler's game. Considering the lack of depth and how well he wore it, I am grading on a curve here. Grade: A-
C.J. Barksdale (30 minutes): 13 points, 6 rebounds. Sounds like a regular night for C.J. since his return from suspension. Add in two blocks and "we got a stew goin." If we can bottle that up right now and tell me that I can have the 13/6 every night in ACC play, I sign on the dotted line and hand deliver it to the devil myself. He will do his disappearing act at times, and in order to compensate for that, I'd like to see him get more than seven shots on basket. Run more offense for him JJ! Grade: A- for turnovers and shot selection.
Will Johnston (30 minutes): Yes, 30 minutes. Sigh. Please, no more. Just 1-of-7 from distance, which is his primary redeeming quality. I have to think he's not accustomed to all these minutes that the Raines saga and the injuries have pushed him into. He isn't such a severe liability as he once was, but a lead can evaporate quickly when he's on the floor for extended periods. He's better suited to match-up specific scenarios where we can exploit his shooting for 3-4 trips down the floor and get him out of there. He had to run the point some also before Coach Johnson gave the reins to Eddie. Because it's not his fault, I grade on a curve Grade: C- he needs to make his threes or cede the playing time. It's a tough world when you are one-dimensional on the floor like that. Kind of like a FG kicker.
Joey Van Zegeren (21 minutes): Joey won the race against fouling out with just four personals. He jump-started the VT team with 8 early points and intimidated defensively at the goal. JVZ has made all the progress we could have hoped for this past off-season. His minutes should be right about where they are now as he has lapped Thompson in terms of currying Johnson's favor and on-court production. Grade: A
Marshall Wood (20 minutes): Marshall has taken to his role off the bench it seems. The past few games have seen his performance spike as he no longer waits for the action to come to him, he takes his activity to the game. He is stuffing stat sheets, particularly on the rebounding end where he grabbed seven against the Eagles. He still can be clumsy on the offensive end at times when his body doesn't obey, and his three turnovers were fairly critical in Eagles flurries to come back. Grade: B- gotta watch the turnovers, particularly during short playing shifts
Cadarian Raines (15 minutes): Got the largest applause of the night, as apparently the crowd on hand and I both failed to see what transgressions led Raines to the doghouse in the first place. As I stated prior, practice isn't for our consumption, and what goes on there obviously plays a large part in how minutes get distributed. To his credit most of his quotes after the fact were conciliatory and "the right things to say". His performance in the game was typical for him. He had 8 points, 4 rebounds and two blocks. On a starter's diet of minutes, that's 16/8/4. Better than pretty much anything we've had as a true pivot in years. Grade: A
Christian Beyer (8 minutes): I am a Beyer fan. He always hustles, he crashes the boards. He's just brutal on the offensive end. He commands no defensive respect, and sometimes appears as if he couldn't hit a layup in an empty gym. He had three turnovers against Winthrop in only eight minutes. He is probably hell to score on in practice, and I continue to applaud his practice efforts. I just hope we don't have to see too much of CB on the floor in ACC play like we did last year. Grade: D+
Coach James Johnson (200 minutes): I thought you were 3-time league defensive player of the year at Ferrum. So far, we are holding teams to favorable percentages, but not getting what one would deem the critical stops. This isn't so much a commentary on the game vs Winthrop. It's more of a running commentary on the season. Any time a team shoots for as high a percentage as the Hokies shot, they should be up on the scoreboard by a bunch. I don't know if it's the turnovers sparking the opposition, that margin of -5 per game is quite daunting, or if it's too much running out on the threes that we allow easy penetrations. But the defense needs to tighten up. As for the "Panic" offense, where we get it up before the other team can get set, I am not a believer yet that this will sustain the team and create 7-8 league wins. JJ got it done with a little less on Tuesday night though, considering the injuries, so the criticism of the season at large will be left out of the game grade. Grade: B points off for that horrible timeout
That does it for grades. Hopefully the next time I'll be able to speak to Emelogu and Smith and their performances. As it is, we are fortunate to have made it out of a tough game against a squad ranked 49th in the RPI coming in. Winthrop should win about 20 games this season in the Big South. VT has some things to work on as the ACC season rapidly approaches. I sincerely hope that the injury curses that have plagued us for so many years don't become prevalent in yet another season's rhetoric.
I will be back this weekend with a look ahead at Sunday's ACC opener in Miami (ESPNU, 12:30pm). From what I understand we will have ChicagoMaroon in the house for that one, so you might have him replacing me on the recap. I will supplement that with a piece post-game with statistical analysis and player grades.
As I mentioned, there will be a two week gap following the Miami game for final exams. During this time here at Gobbler Country we will continue to cover the team, as well as provide an early look at the ACC season, and we will have at least one roundtable discussion on what we can expect from the Hokies and the league as 2013-2014 ACC season kicks into full gear.
Thank you for making GobblerCountry one of your many stops for Hokies basketball coverage. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Mi Cassell es su Cassell.