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Hokies End Two Game Skid, Handle Maryland-Eastern Shore 82-66

Hokies ring in the New Year with commanding win in their final non-conference engagement of the 2013-2014 season.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

"It's been a LONNNGGG December and there's reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last...."

-Counting Crows/ A Long December

The VT Invitational (aka the NIT) requires at minimum a .500 overall record for inclusion. With that criteria in mind, its safe to say that the Hokies mens basketball team's post-season prospects were on life support following last Saturday's embarrassing 55-52 home loss to UNC-Greensboro. The loss had dropped the Hokies to 7-5 overall, and reduced their RPI into the 160s; a precipitous drop of about 90 spots since the ACC opening win in Miami that saw VT seize control of the top spot in the ACC standings.

To earn an NIT bid, the Hokies will need to finish with 16 wins, and finding nine more wins in the hyper-competitive ACC is probably too tall an order for this team. Earning a win in their last non-conference game of the year vs. the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (UMES) Hawks was imperative. The Hawks came into the game 2-8, without a single close encounter in any of their losses. They were the proverbial lamb being led to slaughter. Though with this Hokie team, who had already suffered two ugly losses at home to USC-Upstate and UNC-Greensboro, little can be taken for granted at this point.

It was an unfortunate stroke of luck that found the basketball and football teams competing for viewers on New Year's Eve. The football team kicked off in the Sun Bowl at 2pm, with the basketball tip scheduled for 4pm. So it was little surprise that the Cassell Coliseum crowd numbered in the hundreds, though the loss last Saturday probably contributed to some of the malaise as well. Taking into account all the external factors, it was difficult to detect the sense of urgency that surrounded this game. And perhaps it was to the Hokies advantage that the atmosphere resembled a glorified scrimmage, as they worked through some early difficulty in prevailing, 82-66.

The Hokies had played UMES four times, never once winning by less than 26 points, and to the credit of this Hokie outfit, they had a 70-43 lead with a little over seven minutes remaining, so the victory was pretty much par for the course. Adding a little intrigue to the game was the return of former Hokie head coach Frankie Allen who spent 16 years on the sideline in Blacksburg. Allen was the head man for four years beginning in 1987, after having served as Charlie Moir's top assistant during the halcyon days of the Metro Conference, when VT basketball enjoyed it's greatest success.

In the wake of an ugly NCAA report that stated "in reviewing the academic records of basketball athletes, it is evident that most are not serious students"; and that not a single player who entered Tech from 1981 until 1986 graduated, Moir stepped down and in his stead Allen won Metro Coach of the Year, and National Rookie Coach of the Year in 1988 with a Bimbo Coles led squad. After that it was all downhill for Allen, who went 37-51 the next three years, before ceding the post to Bill Foster. Allen was also a trail-blazer in Southwest Virginia, as he integrated the Roanoke College basketball program as a player in 1968, playing for Moir and earning two All-American nods. Pretty impressive resume, though it is difficult to take him seriously, as he is a doppelganger for the character Montez on Comedy Central's Workaholics. Google image it if you're unfamiliar.

Coach Allen undoubtedly would have preferred to make the trip with his full complement of players, but the Hawks made the visit without starting PG and second leading scorer Hakeem Baxter (concussion), and their only real interior presence Francis Ezeiru (flu). Because of the short-handed composition of his roster, the Hawks started the game in a 1-3-1 zone, which is quite a bit different than the 1-3-1 trap most of us were weened on in the youth leagues. This defensive look gave the Hokies a little bit of pause as they entered the under-16 minute media timeout leading just 7-6.

After re-grouping, the Hokies junior forward CJ Barksdale, who returned to somewhat regular minutes after suffering from knee and ankle injuries went on a mini-run and scored the next five points; and VT never looked back in building a 46-23 halftime lead. Senior Jarrell Eddie responded to his worst performance of the season on Saturday in which he scored just four points, and none before the 12 minute mark of the second half, by scoring 17 points (13 in the first half) and adding nine rebounds. Freshman Devin Wilson added 16 points, with the bulk of his damage coming at the charity stripe where he went 7-of-8.

With the defection of Marquis Rankin this past week (didn't I tell you that this would happen before the WVU game?), the Hokies are starved for ball handlers. With Adam Smith sidelined with a calf injury for the third time in five games, and not having played more than 21 minutes since before the Miami game, the Hokies have virtually zero options at backup PG. It is imperative that Smith return to full-strength as soon as possible, because the increased intensity of ACC play will wear down anyone, let alone a true freshman like Wilson.

That said, we may have found a band-aid in Ben Emelogu. Since the VCU catastrophe, Emelogu has been handling the ball more and initiating the offense more. He continually found the weak spot in the UMES defensive set and served up multiple easy looks to the Hokie front-court players, serving up a season-high nine assists. He sublimated his own offensive game in order to get the team's offense flowing. Typically the assists the Hokies have generated come on three-point conversions, which are kind of cheap assists a lot of the time, since VT has a lot of one pass possessions, and shoot early in the clock. Though Emelogu only scored two points, he might have been the MVP of the game.

Because VT is short-handed in the back-court, this is leading to a larger load of minutes for Will Johnston, who played 25 minutes and had nine points. Against MEAC caliber opponents, Coach James Johnson can get away with this, but Johnston is not a long-term elixir. ACC teams will dare him to put the ball on the floor and take it from him. Johnson's best bet is to find opportunities to insert him for perimeter looks, and then extract him before opponents can pick on him at the other end of the floor. In what might amount to Johnston's highlight of the year, he had a steal and a breakaway "lunk" or "dunk-up", I'm not sure what you want to call it. Whatever it was, the finish was less than emphatic.

Here are a few key stats to takeaway:

  • This game marked the 5th time this season the Hokies have allowed exactly 20 field goal conversions by the opponent. Saturday's game vs UNC-Greensboro they allowed 19. Formulaic or crazy coincidence?
  • The Hokies allowed 5 or less three point conversions for the 7th time in 13 games. If this kind of effort can translate to ACC play the Hokies may garner surprisingly positive results. The Hokies boast a 10 man rotation where only one player is less than 6'4". That kind of sneaky length contributes heavily to success in defending the perimeter.
  • VT is 337th in turnover margin at -5.9 per game. This will prove to be the team's Achilles heel. If the team hasn't been able to remedy this against lesser opponents, I fear we are stuck with this problem until the team matures some in the back-court.
  • VT is 345th in steals. We do not play the passing lanes, which confuses me since the team has the interior length to cover for mistakes, and defend the rim. Perhaps we can take some more risks when Smith returns. Sound positional D has helped us keep the opposing three point shooting at bay, but not putting pressure on opposing guards is detrimental too. Johnson needs to find a way for the team to strike a healthy balance.
  • After the VCU game VT dipped from 7th to 10th in the nation in 3 point %. They were right at their mark on Tuesday, 42%.
  • Joey Van Zegeren ranks 58th nationally with 2.08 blocks per game. Devin Wilson is holding steady right inside the top 40 with 5.4 assists per game, very impressive for a freshman on a team that doesn't always convert their opportunities.

Game Grades (Minutes Descending):

Jarrell Eddie (31 minutes): Eddie almost had his fourth triple-double of the season. In the Hokies two losses to VCU and UNC-G, Eddie played beneath his standards and the Hokies scored 52 points in each game. He will be the focus of every opponent's defense this season. Is he consistent enough to meet the challenge and maintain this level of production? Grade: B+ (had he not let up in the 2nd half, it's another A)

Devin Wilson (27 minutes): A career-high 16 points, and his second three point basket on the year. Not a bad day at all, and I am extremely happy he played less than 30 minutes for once. Wilson had an abysmal outing against VCU, and gave all ACC opponents a blueprint for attacking the Hokies. He doesn't handle the press well at all. Radford also threw the press at him, and it led to them cutting a 20 point lead in half. Fortunately, most ACC teams don't feature the press at all, opting instead for man to man. Wilson still picks his dribble up way too soon upon crossing half-court, and needs to keep the dribble alive and work areas other than the top of the key. He does extremely well with dribble penetration, and can finish at the rack. He has also changed his release point on those shots, and has eliminated those from the hip layups which offered him a false sense of ball protection. Releasing the ball higher will result in more contact and trips to the line. Next Tuesday's ACC home opener vs Syracuse and their vaunted 2-3 zone will prove to be a stiff challenge, and I fully expect for it to frustrate him. Syracuse is 13-0, very disciplined, and might only lose one or two games all season. I'll be happy if the Hokies get to 60 points. Grade: A-

Will Johnston (25 minutes): 9 points, efficient shooting, no turnovers. No major defensive gaffes. This is the perfect game to keep an "elastic reserve" (elastic means he might play 25 minutes, or 2 minutes, it's match-up dependent) loose. The "lay-unk" was the highlight of the game. At least he converted it, because we all know that VT is known for it's missed dunks just like the football team is known for it's inability to convert in the red zone. Deron Washington, Coleman Collins, Victor Davila, and Dorenzo Hudson all nod their heads in agreement. Grade: A-

Ben Emelogu (24 minutes): This was the first game Ben played that he didn't knock down at least one three-point FG. His shot was off, but he wasn't really looking for it after a bit, since he was having so much success facilitating. Nine assists and zero turnovers! As a true freshman, his court awareness is an asset this team desperately needs. He seems to understand what the team needs and just goes out and does it. Filling in gaps like that is what makes a winning team, and seeing a player whose attitude reflects that is refreshing. He has embraced the secret. Grade: A- (if he'd knocked down a couple more shots, that'd be an A+)

Joey Van Zegeren (22 minutes): The Hokies had a tremendous height advantage, so his lack of production surprised me. Cadarian Raines did more offensively with his nine minutes by comparison. JVZ had an early dunk and kind of faded into the woodwork the rest of his time on the floor. I was hoping he'd follow up his 11 and 7 performance from Saturday with a strong game, but his inconsistencies shone through once again. He'll gradually work through that though, and has already demonstrated great improvement in his right handed jump hook. As he gains confidence in his growing array of moves, he will be a force in the ACC. Right now I think he likes having a larger player on his back; when there are those short guys back there he worries about turning the ball over and is hesitant with the ball. As long as he keeps the ball high, and gets deep enough position, I'd like him to throw caution to the wind and look for his offense. He is Johnson's starting center it appears, as Raines only got seven minutes in Saturday's loss and nine against UMES. We need to take the good with the bad for now. Grade: C- (or even a D+, big men need to rebound even when they don't score, and he only had one)

Marshall Wood (21 minutes): Marshall Wood is going to have some very good games in the ACC this season. He is also going to throw up some stinkers. He has the irrational confidence gene, and that might have been what sank us during Saturday's late collapse against UNC-G. He was 4-of-13 in the loss, and shot early in the clock. Granted, with Eddie struggling, we had to get points from someplace. Wood is always good for five to six rebounds, and stays busy in his minutes. He just needs to work on his consistency and he will be very tough to guard, even for the more elite teams in the league. Tuesday's effort was a typical performance for him. Grade: B

CJ Barksdale (17 minutes): His conditioning is suffering due to the long finals break and the injuries he's been suffering. He had seven of his nine points early and looked winded later on. But nine points and six rebounds in 17 minutes is stuffing the box score no matter how you view things. He hit an ill-advised three point attempt, but missed a couple easy ones. Hopefully his injuries don't cause him to miss additional games. He is a veteran presence on a team that sorely needs it. Grade: B+

Christian Beyer (13 minutes): I doubt we see this type of workload from CB again now that the ACC play is beginning. He made the most of his minutes with five points and four rebounds. He works hard, but he plays mostly PF. Which makes me question once again why a redshirt senior who is obviously the stronger player continues to play less minutes. Raines should have gotten half of these minutes. Grade: B+

Trevor Thompson (10 minutes): I have been glad to see Thompson re-join the rotation. After a strong start to the season, he played very little (or not at all) for five games. He is settling into what I feel are the perfect number of minutes for his skill set and energy. A couple of dunks, solid rebounding, a swat or two, and sit him down. He even converted all four of his FT attempts, which I felt was the reason Johnson wasn't going to play him in the second halves of games. His future is bright, and I am eager to see him face up against ACC caliber opponents. Grade: B+

Cadarian Raines (9 minutes): He didn't get to play at all against VCU in his return to Richmond. He hails from Petersburg, which is not that far away. I felt for him, because he undoubtedly had family there, and as a senior it was his last chance to play in front of his people. Johnson gave him seven minutes against UNC-G, and over-played our rusty starters, even though we were plagued by injury. It is apparent that the front-court has far more depth than the back-court, yet we still refuse to operate with that mentality in our half-court sets. I don't see any reason why we can't switch gears from emphasizing Eddie/Emelogu/Smith/Wood to emphasizing Raines/Barksdale, and allowing our perimeter guys to work a little easier on the offensive end. Wherever the opponent's weakness is, I feel we have the capability to exploit it, if only we had a coach who was stronger with Xs and Os. I am beyond trying to figure out what personality clash has led to Raines spending entire games on the bench. I just know that this is a young man who battled through injuries early in his career, continued to improve his game, and worked hard to become a leader in his final season, at least on the surface. I cannot, for the life of me, detect a lack of effort in the games. And it was supposedly his effort in the Furman game that marked the genesis of Johnson's complaints. It has been imperceptible to me. I also wouldn't mind seeing a twin towers approach with Raines playing PF to JVZ at C. To me Johnson didn't spend near enough time with his out of conference slate mixing things up and experimenting. Now its too late. Grade: B

Coach James Johnson (200 minutes): He got the desired result. But we also beat a team that we usually beat by 30+ points by a mere 16. Credit Johnson for working around the injuries. There isn't a ton to grade him on for this game, simply because it was an opponent that was clearly over-matched. Grade: B

The Hokies are now embarking on ACC play, and have 17 games remaining. They need to win at least eight games to put themselves in position to earn an NIT bid. If they win just seven games, they will need to win on Thursday AND Friday in the ACC tournament (unlikely). With everyone healthy, they have an outside shot at achieving this.

The Hokies play Maryland, UVA, Boston College, and Miami twice. They only play Syracuse, Pitt, Duke, and UNC once. This puts Tech's in-league strength of schedule in the bottom third. Again, it will take a mammoth effort to qualify for the NCAAs, but optimism remains for an NIT run.

In the next week, look for a preview on Syracuse, and a roundtable from us on the upcoming ACC campaign. I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday season. Please keep your eyes peeled for Hokie basketball updates coming your way on Twitter @GobblerCountry.

As always mi Cassell es su Cassell.