After getting demolished by the Panthers in Pittsburgh, the Hokies face yet another road test against the Syracuse Orange (15-8/5-5). Last year, Virginia Tech lost by just 2 at Syracuse in a heartbreaker, something Hokie fans have become all too used to in the last few years (across all sports). Virginia Tech desperately needs a win, but not to just stay competitive in the ACC. The Hokies have not played good, consistent ball in their last four games, specifically on the defensive end. On Sunday, they gave up 90 points for the second time in as many games. Buzz prides himself on his team playing fast, relentless, and aggressive defense, and he'll be sure to make the Pittsburgh game a learning point for his young team.
Despite the Hokies' defensive struggles, they'll face a Syracuse team that has been lackluster on offense during conference play. Syracuse has averaged 67.3 PPG in that span (14th in the ACC) and is only shooting 40.9% from the floor. The Orange has scored 80 points only five times this season. They aren't an explosive offensive team like many teams in the ACC. They also aren't a team that tries to get as many possessions as possible in a game, ranking 345th in the NCAA in Pace, a huge reason that their scoring totals are relatively low.
When Syracuse does have the ball, they will look to get the ball into the hands of Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, or Trevor Cooney. Gbinije is Syracuse's leading scorer, averaging 15.4 PPG in conference play. He's listed at 6-7, but plays more like a guard in their offense. He's good at using screens to create separation between him and his defender, and also has the patience to make good decisions with the basketball once he gets downhill. His height gives him advantage to see over the defense to pick out passing lanes, which along with his vision and anticipation is a reason he leads his team with 4.2 assists. However, he does turn the ball over more than three times per game, so if the Hokies can use their traps and doubles effectively, there will be opportunities to score in transition off turnovers.
With his size and speed, it's difficult to stop Gbinije in the open court when there isn't a wall formed between him and the basket. Gbinije also looks for just the tiniest slivers of space to let it fly from downtown, but during conference play he's only shooting 26.7% from beyond the arc on about 6 attempts per game. However, those numbers don't affect his confidence at all.
Similar in build to Gbinije, Richardson is another lengthy athlete. He might even have better one-on-one skills than Gbinije, even though he's just a freshman. He can create shots for himself, and looks the part of a very good scorer. Richardson's body control may be one of his more impressive attributes, as he has great spatial awareness and knows where the defenders are and how to avoid them on his way to the rim. He may not be as perimeter oriented as Gbinije is, but he's shooting 50% from deep during ACC play. He'll be a tough matchup for Virginia Tech, especially since they don't necessarily have depth at the 3/4 spot to guard both Richardson and Gbinije. I imagine they'll use some combination of Hudson and
Clarke Outlaw Hill Bibbs to do the job while employing more zone defense (which is an area that needs to improve).
While Richardson and Gbinije can create off the bounce, Trevor Cooney is a classic catch-and-shoot player. His .611 3-point attempt rate leads the team (min. 5 minutes played). Cooney takes about 8 three pointers a game, and has shot them at a 37.7% clip during conference play. Cooney benefits from the attention Richardson and Gbinije draw, which opens up a lot space for his off ball movements. He has a clean, fundamental jumpshot and can shoot effectively even when coming off a screen or curl from the baseline.
In addition to Cooney, Tyler Lydon has been an effective shooter with a 40.6% three-point percentage in ACC play. At 6-8, he's a mismatch for a lot of defenses as a stretch 4.
With how Virginia Tech has struggled defending the perimeter the last two contests, Syracuse is likely licking their chops. Louisville and Pittsburgh shot a combined 20-43 (.465) from three-point range against the Hokies, and it's not like they were contested looks, although some of that percentage is due to bad luck. But this is the ACC, and if the Hokies want to eventually compete in this conference, they have to learn how to defend the perimeter. Syracuse averages 25 three-point attempts per game (T-26th in the NCAA), so the Hokies have to be ready to close out hard and force Syracuse out of their shooting rhythm.
However, Syracuse wins its games through defense. They've given up just 64.7 PPG to their ACC opponents, which ranks 2nd in the conference. Again, the PPG numbers are skewed due to Cuse's relatively slow pace of play, but they do play with discipline on the defensive end. Teams have a difficult time beating Syracuse on defense because of their length. Like I said before, Gbinije and Richardson are 6-7 and 6-6 respectively, and have the lateral quickness to go along with their length to make it difficult to get past them off the bounce.
In addition, their length causes passing lanes to be smaller than anticipated. Syracuse generates a lot of steals that way. And because the Orange's one-on-one defense is tough to beat, teams that have had success on the scoreboard against Syracuse have been reliant on ball movement and ball security. UNC and Georgetown each scored 80 on Syracuse and had 24 and 17 assists respectively, indicative of good ball movement to create open looks in rhythm. Virginia Tech is well below average in Assist Percentage in the NCAA, with just 47.8% of their baskets coming off assists, which means the Hokies aren't playing enough team basketball. Unsurprisingly, this tweet accurately sums up the offense over the last few games.
Watching this game makes me want to go finish up my taxes.— Gobbler Country (@gobblercountry) February 1, 2016
To have success against a solid Syracuse defense, the Hokies should feed the hot hand in Seth Allen. He was the lone guy to show up against Pittsburgh, posting 28 points and going 5-5 from deep. He may not have the height, but he has the quickness and speed to blow by Syracuse's defenders. Allen also had a nice outing against Louisville tallying 26 points. I've been tough on Seth Allen this season, but I give him credit for stepping his game up even when the rest of the team didn't. The Maryland transfer had success Sunday night playing more off ball instead of trying to create something for himself every possession and shot an efficient 7-10 from the field. Without a doubt, Buzz took notice of this and will likely try to get Seth involved more off the ball to generate some open catch and shoot looks rather than off the dribble.
Believe it or not, Syracuse has been worse than Virginia Tech on the defensive glass, despite their length advantage. The Orange rank 324th in opposing Offensive Rebound Percentage. That means there will be opportunities on the offensive glass for Virginia Tech. Rebounding was initially a strength, but their play on the glass has become inconsistent as of late. Blackshear has a nose for being in the right spot for offensive rebounds, and everyone knows about LeDay's toughness battling for boards. Because Syracuse isn't the type of team to consistently run out in transition, the Hokies' bigs may want to linger around when the shot goes up. Getting extra chances at points can generate momentum and wear down the Syracuse defense.
And as always, attack, attack, attack. Get the Orange in foul trouble to throw their gameplan away. Fun fact: for as much as we've commented on the Hokies' struggle at the charity stripe, their 74% FT percentage is 4th in the ACC.
The Hokies have shown the ability to come off a blowout loss and play well, but I don't think it happens here. Despite being on an upward trend, Virginia Tech really misses Hill and Clarke with their scoring and rebounding issues. Syracuse is a good team, and the Hokies simply aren't playing like a good team recently. I'm going to have to say the losing streak continues because the talent matchup just doesn't favor the Hokies, and they don't have the depth to hang with teams when the starters need a break.
Syracuse wins at home, 75-68.