Two straight road games, two straight road losses, both in an ugly, bitter fashion. It's been tough to watch this team perform that badly in what has been a very inconsistent season. The last two contest were against highly ranked opponents near the top of the ACC, but on Saturday the Hokies will have a very winnable game in their house against the Florida State Seminoles. Like Virginia Tech, Florida Stat has been searching for answers in their last few games. They've lost to Syracuse, their rival in Miami, and Georgia Tech in their last three. They currently sit 10th in the ACC with a 6-8 in-conference record, while the Hokies rank one spot below them. It's a great opportunity to jump up a spot in the standings, especially since it's going to be a sold-out home game.
I think the Miami game was a great representation of the Hokies' season so far. They can win games when they're playing relentless and the opposition is continuously missing open, sometimes even routine shots. The problem with playing like that is Virginia Tech finds themselves out of control too often and eventually, the other team gets into a rhythm. At the end of the first half, the Hokies had 5 turnovers. They finished with a whopping 16. It's careless basketball, and although Miami is an excellent team, not playing smart will lead to losses against not-so-good squads (see: Syracuse). The only thing consistent about this team is their inconsistency.
But onto Florida State...
The Seminoles had one of the best recruiting classes in the nation last year, mostly due to freshman Dwayne Bacon. The Oak Hill Academy product has excelled in his freshman season, averaging 15.5 PPG and 5.8 RBG. He gets the most opportunities to score in Florida State's offense, with a 30.1% Usage Rate in conference play. Listed in the 6-6 to 6-7 range, he's one of the best athletes at the wing position in the conference. He has the body control to make some of the even most wild-looking attempts fall. His one weakness has been from behind the arc. Bacon's 25.6% clip from three won't give defenses nightmares. But like every talented, raw player, there are some nights which Bacon is just on and completely unguardable.
Surprisingly, Bacon isn't even the top scorer on the team. Fellow freshman Malik Beasley holds that title. Beasley averages over 16 PPG, and although he may not be as all-around talented as Bacon, he's a more efficient and maybe even more a natural scorer. He shoots 49% from the field, and he's dangerous from the perimeter as well, shooting nearly 40% from downtown. On top of that, like Bacon, he can drive it and force defenders to contest his shots, and at 6-6, it's a tough test for most guys. If he does get fouled, he makes teams pay as Beasley shoots 82.5% at the line.
Somewhat forgotten in the excitement of the Seminoles' freshman class is the "veteran" Xavier Rathan-Mayes. Last season, he scored 22 and 12 in his two meetings against the Hokies, so Virginia Tech should be aware of his ability and he's averaging 11.7 PPG this season. Even though Bacon and Beasley are listed as guards, they're essentially wing players while Rathan-Mayes takes over some one-guard duties. He's had a little bit of a down year; 39.4% from the field and just 29.8% from three-point range. He hasn't gotten as many looks this year, so maybe he's a little out of rhythm, but he still remains a viable option on offense, especially as a distributor. His 4.9 APG leads the team so he finds other ways to impact the game other than scoring. And then there's the off-guard position occupied by Devin Bookert. He might be the best three-point shooter on the team, making 41.2% of his long-range attempts. He's a guy the Hokies need to close out on quickly to minimize his impact.
As a team, FSU's offense is above average, ranking 109th in Offensive Rating. They take relatively few three-pointers, ranking 266th in the country with a .312 3-point attempt rate. That's understandable when you have long, athletic wings who can drive and create space for a shot in the paint without too much difficulty. The key for Virginia Tech lies in forcing Bacon to take outside shots and live with the results while trying to keep Beasley from hurting them as well.
The Seminoles' defense has struggled throughout the season. They've allowed conference opponents to score 76.4 PPG, ranking 13th in the ACC (the Hokies are 12th in that category - not much better). Team's are shooting 45% from the field against the Seminoles, which isn't good but it's not terrible either. They've mainly struggled with inconsistency. FSU allowed 67 points to an explosive Miami team but then were carved up defensively against the Yellow Jackets in their last game to the tune of 86 points. According to KenPom.com, the adjusted offensive efficiency of the teams Florida State have faced ranks 18th in the country so it's not like they've faced slouches, but there are areas to attack.
One of these areas is simply getting into the paint. Florida State's strengths are at the guard and wing positions, and although Boris Bojanovsky is a good shot blocker (9.7% Block Percentage), the Hokies' best hope is to continue to attack the basket. Virginia Tech got away from their attacking mentality against Miami, but due to their lack of consistent shooting, it's difficult to constantly hurt teams from the perimeter. Bibbs and LeDay have gone ice cold, and Allen is still inconsistent at best. Chris Clarke, despite looking every bit as talented as advertised, isn't a perimeter threat at this point in his development. Getting to the basket off the bounce will be critical.
One of the main problems with the Hokies' offense has been playing against zone defense. Zone forces quick decision making and quick ball movement. That's more mental than anything else, and the Hokies just don't play with the team basketball IQ necessary to consistently beat zone defense. If the ball stops moving, it might be another ugly performance for the Hokies, who haven't scored 70 points since they were blown out at Pittsburgh. There's no question FSU will play plenty of zone defense to try and stifle the Hokies' attack, but it's up to Virginia Tech to beat it and not allow the Seminoles to shut them down. There's been next to no rhythm on offense, which has resulted in two ugly offensive performances.
A factor that has contributed to those ugly performances have been the turnovers. The Hokies have turned the ball over more than 10 times in all but one game in their last nine. That one game was against Clemson, which they eked out the W. I wrote above how it's careless basketball, and when the other team scores off those turnovers, you can feel the spirit and energy slowly drain away. At times, it seems like the Hokies either play too conservatively or too aggressive, and they have to find a balance between that to be successful. I've also talked about how the Hokies need to show more composure under pressure, specifically when the help defense arrives. A semblance of an inside-out game to create space for shooters with their shoulders already square to the basket would be nice to see, or simply not taking the 100 MPH layup that has no chance of going in. Regardless, the turnovers have to go down without playing too conservatively.
If there is a positive sign that the Hokies will win this game, it's that they won their last home game on a Saturday afternoon against Clemson. In that game, they were stout defensively and made some timely baskets, which they've needed to do in every win this year. You know that saying "it's always darkest before the dawn"? Well, maybe shooting 28.6% against the Hurricanes was the dark and shooting well against the Seminoles is the dawn. I actually like the Hokies to win this game, 75% because the game is at home and 25% because Buzz is pissed and I think the players will play pissed.
Hokies win ACC game #6, 71-68.