The Hokies have gone cold after their 4-1 start in the ACC, dropping their past three games, and it doesn't get any easier for them as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers. The Hokies have lost their last three primarily due to poor defensive play which has been an issue for the majority of the season and they rank near the bottom of the conference in points allowed per game. Virginia Tech also has to play four of their next five on the road, which we all know has not been kind to them recently.
Pittsburgh (16-4 has had a solid season so far, posting a 5-3 record in the conference, but the Panthers are coming off a 73-60 loss to Clemson. Head Coach Jamie Dixon has done a phenomenal job with his team this season, making sure they bring intensity and focus to the court every night. That shouldn't change on Sunday night against the Hokies.
The Panthers have excelled this season offensively, scoring 80 PPG which ranks 41st in the NCAA. Their play has leveled off, however. Pittsburgh has scored just 71 PPG in ACC play, which ranks 10th in the conference. Their offense has been even less efficient in their last three contests, averaging only 65 PPG. The Panthers have shot above 40% just once in their last five, and that one time was against a less-than-stellar Boston College defense. But to be fair, if I'm looking at recent trends, the Hokies' defense has been straight-up bad at times in their past few games as well.
Pittsburgh's offense is driven by forward Michael Young. When he gets the ball, he's looking to get to the basket instead of settling jumpers. Young has good quickness for a 6-9, 235-pound player. Bigs can't keep up with him when he faces up and attacks the basket, which is big reason he has a very good .607 Free Throw Attempt Rate. In addition, his back-to-the-basket game is impressive as well. Young uses his strength well to get his defender off balance when backing him down, then uses his agility to spin, shoot a jump hook, or a fadeaway jumper.
Pittsburgh's offense involves a lot of ball movement which is essential to beating good defenses, ranking 1st in assists in the ACC during conference play and rank 9th in Assist Percentage in the country. Virginia Tech has struggled mightily when teams move the ball when the Hokies are playing zone. From my experience at the game against Louisville, there was next to no communication between players when someone would pass through their zone. Everyone looked discombobulated and lost like they were 10 shots deep. Inexperience and a lack of chemistry won't hold as excuses forever.
One thing that's made the Panthers difficult to defend is their ability to shoot the ball. Their 38.9% three-point percentage ranks 1st in conference play. They take good shots, but they also have shooters everywhere to space the floor. Jamel Artis is a very good all-around player, but he can kill teams from deep with his 37.7% conference three-point percentage. Stat-wise, Sterling Smith is their best three-point shooter with a superb 44.4% percentage from behind the arc. Damion Lee killed the Hokies, going 7-for-8 from deep, but the Hokies had held their previous opponents to lower shooting percentages. Regardless, if the Hokies can't keep up with the ball and player movement, Pittsburgh will make them pay.
Virginia Tech has been abysmal rebounding the ball during conference play. LeDay isn't getting the offensive rebounds he was earlier this season, and no one's been getting defensive rebounds. I've talked about why they haven't been able to rebound before. It's not an effort problem as much as it is personnel mismatches. Pittsburgh currently ranks 19th with a 37.5% Offensive Rebound Percentage. The Hokies simply aren't doing a good job boxing out opponents, and I expect more of the same on Sunday.
The only way the Hokies were able to put up 83 points on one of the top ranked defenses in the nation in Louisville was because of their aggressiveness to get free throws. That's not a bad thing at all, but when Virginia Tech couldn't attack the basket, there was no quick, decisive ball movement. The Panthers defense has been tough and allowed 71 PPG in conference play. Taking the ball inside every time only works if you can consistently make your free throws, and the Hokies have been erratic in that department. It would be great if the Hokies could go 33-38 every night at the charity stripe, but it's not feasible.
Justin Bibbs might be the key to unlocking Virginia Tech's offense in this one. He's been quiet since the Hokies' win over Wake Forest, and his mediocre defensive play certainly hasn't impressed Buzz. But Pittsburgh has allowed its conference opponents to shoot over 39% from deep. You could argue LeDay has been the Hokies' best perimeter threat during conference play, as Allen, Bibbs, and Hudson just aren't feeling it (Not-So-Fun Fact: LeDay's conference shooting percentage is higher than Allen and Hudson's combined). Bibbs needs to step up and have a big day. The opportunity is right there for the Hokies to hurt Pittsburgh from deep, and they need to take advantage of that weakness against a good defense.
Getting out in transition quickly was the Hokies' best friend during their impressive start. In their three-game skid, there hasn't been enough of that. It's a trickle down effect of not being able to grab defensive rebounds. Bibbs, Allen, and Hudson need to get the ball in their hands after the shot goes up as quickly as possible to create the transition opportunity. Having said that, the Hokies need to exercise control. They make too many mental mistakes when going 100 miles and hour, and it doesn't help that ACC refs still don't know the difference between a block and a charge.
One area which I would like to see improvement is in the pick-and-roll game. The Hokies have been inconsistent when using it. The ball handler hasn't been decisive when deciding when to use the screener or not, which leads to more recovery time for the defender so there's no separation created. In their wins over GT and WF, the Hokies were able to exploit the middle of the defense with the pick-and-roll, especially with LeDay taking away a big due to his shooting. This play does open the door for turnovers, but it can also lead to open looks, both in the paint and on the perimeter, and that's something the Hokies need to do.
Pittsburgh is a good team, but I think the Hokies have a chance to steal one on the road. Virginia Tech's ability to the free throw line disrupts the flow of opposing offenses, although it doesn't show up on the scoreboard. In Pittsburgh's losses, they've scored 61 or less points and shot the ball under 40%. Virginia Tech's defense will decide the game. I also think being on the road will be good for the team. The Hokies will need to have an "us against the world" mentality, which should give them extra motivation and help the team band together. I do know that they want to taste victory again after a tough skid.
However, I think the Hokies make one too many mistakes on the road and fail to come up with a win, losing 76-73.