With a 1-2 record in conference play, Virginia Tech enters a critical stretch of three winnable home games. The first of these games is tonight against Syracuse. The Orange are coming off a a win against Pittsburgh in the Carrier Dome and have started 2-1 in the ACC with both wins by a comfortable margin. Funnily enough, their one loss was to a team many picked to finish at the bottom of the conference in Boston College – just shows the baffling turn of events happening every game in the ACC.
The Hokies have been hit with a bad case of the injury bug lately. In Raleigh, both Khadim Sy and Seth Allen, two vital pieces of Buzz Williams’ rotation, went down. The lack of depth really showed against Florida State. The good news is Sy was able to play on a rolled ankle for eight minutes on Saturday. He should be much more mobile for tonight’s game and the Hokies could really use some production out of him against a Syracuse that is aggressive on the glass.
Virginia Tech has come close to beating Syracuse over the last two years. In 2014, they lost 72-70 and lost 68-60 in overtime last year. The Orange made an improbable run through the NCAA tournament all the way to the Final Four, including a monster comeback win over UVA. Despite losing their top three scorers in Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, and Trevor Cooney, Syracuse looks to be much improved in 2016, specifically on offense, as their efficiency has increased from 106.6 to 111..
The reason for their improvement boils down to two players in particular. Andrew White, a transfer from Nebraska, has been outstanding for them. The two-guard scored 16.6 points per game last year with the Cornhuskers and is scoring 16.1 per contest this season. White is one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the conference, knocking down 39.8% of his eight downtown attempts per game. That is impressive efficiency for such a high volume of shots. At 6-7, he is a lengthy wing similar to what the Hokies faced in Dwayne Bacon against Florida State. The Hokies kept Bacon off the scoresheet until the game was out of hand, but his penetration and gravity allowed other players to hurt them. White probably is not as natural a playmaker as Bacon, but can make other players around him better due to his scoring ability.
The emergence of sophomore Tyler Lydon has also been a critical component to Cuse’s success through the first portion of the season. Last season, Lydon averaged 10.3/6.1 as the fourth scoring option, but has taken more responsibility this year as a result of three key players leaving. This year he is averaging 13.5/7.8. Like White, Lydon has been a solid three-point shooter as a stretch-four. He comes into this game hitting on an extraordinary 45% of his attempts behind the arc. For a big, he has superb touch on his shots.
How many bigs can curl off a screen with that sort of balance and nail a straightaway triple? Impressive stuff.
Lydon has a very versatile skill set as well. You can see he feels comfortable from the perimeter, but can also score down on the low block. If the double comes, Lydon also has the presence of mind to kick out to an open shooter, which is why Syracuse as a team has made 39.9% of their three-point attempts on the season. He is a threat on the offensive glass as well.
It would not surprise me if Syracuse force fed Lydon the ball in the post more often, given the Hokies recent troubles defending the basket. NC State’s bigs went a perfect 13-13 from the floor due to a lack of rim protection and Florida State’s length and depth allowed them to get to the basket at will against tired sets of legs on the floor for Virginia Tech.
The Syracuse offense is run through one-guard John Gillon, a transfer from Colorado State. He averages a solid 5.1 assists per game and knows where his shooters are and when to get the ball to them. He is one of the shorter PGs in the ACC, standing at just 6-0. Justin Robinson has proven to be a very good defender this year and should be able to do the job on the perimeter in limiting how much Gillon can create for the Orange. In fact, Gillon is a very similar player to Robinson with his handles, quickness, and finishing ability. Gillon also possesses quick, active hands and averages 1.7 steals per game. He also shoots 40.3% from three-point range, so the Hokies may need to extend their defense to a few feet in front of the three-point line.
The two other main threats on the Orange’s offense are Tyus Battle and Taurean Thompson. Battle is yet another sniper from deep as he shoots 43.9% from three and scores 8.8 PPG. Thompson is Syracuse’s tallest player standing at 6-10, and expect him to be deployed close to the basket as well. He also averages just over 8 points per contest.
DaJuan Coleman, Franklin Howard, and Tyler Roberson all log over 16 minutes per game and average 6.4, 6.3, and 6.3 PPG respectively.
Since the Orange are loaded with shooters, 40% of their shot attempts are from deep. In fact, they rank just ahead of Virginia Tech in three-point percentage in the NCAA. This could pose a problem for Virginia Tech, as they allowed NC State and Florida State to shoot a combined 38% from downtown. As a result of this and their inability to stop middle penetration, the Hokies rank dead last in points allowed per game in conference play, giving up 90.7 PPG. That is horrendous. The Hokies must be ready to close out on shooters and run them off the three-point line.
On offense, the Hokies need to get back to their bread-and-butter: the transition game. Virginia Tech has not gotten stops on defense or secured the rebound the last two games which has hindered their ability to get out and run in the open court. Syracuse is tough to beat when they get their defense set, allowing just 65.8 PPG (60th). They are disciplined with their zone schemes and make it difficult to get a clean look. Syracuse also is not a team that likes to push the pace. Instead, they like to control the tempo of the game by playing fundamental defense and move the ball on offense. Because of this, it is vital the Hokies do what they do best and destroy teams in transition.
The one thing that has really hurt Virginia Tech is turnovers. They have given the ball away 36 times in the last two games, which equates to a 22.5% Turnover Percentage. No team will win when they just give their opponents the ball for free. And Virginia Tech isn’t generating turnovers on defense to counter their sloppy play on offense. Against Duke, the Hokies committed just 9 turnovers, and they played much better. Look for Justin Robinson and the rest of the Hokies to rein it a little and improve in this area tonight.
Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs put up some numbers during the road trip, but their impact on the game was minimal. Both players are much better shooters at home. If Seth Allen can play after suffering a concussion against the Wolfpack, he should get plenty of looks with his quickness, but he will also be able to generate open shots for teammates. Allen is averaging 3.5 assists this season and has noticeably improved as a playmaker. His ability to penetrate opens up the game for everyone else. Same goes for Justin Robinson. The sophomore point guard turned it over 5 times against FSU which was a major problem, but he is a player whose relentless, attacking style is infectious.
Chris Clarke has been impressive over the last seven games, averaging 16.3/8.3/3.8. When you play in big, meaningful games, you need your best players to play their best. Clarke did that against NC State and Florida State, but did not have much help around him. Virginia Tech needs it’s roles players to really step up and make timely shots.
Despite their impressive height, Syracuse has been prone to letting their opponents get second chance points off of offensive rebounds. Their opponents have an OREB% of 37.8%, which ranks 10th worst in the country. This is where Sy and LeDay can really make their mark on their game. As long as the Hokies maintain an aggressive, downhill mentality, they should get back to being an effective offense.
This is a must win game for Virginia Tech to get back to .500 in conference play. After dropping out of the polls this week, the Hokies should have that trademark underdog mentality and play with extra energy. This game will come down to keeping Syracuse out of the paint and the turnover battle. Virginia Tech did a good job against Duke winning in both of those areas so they have shown the ability to do so. I think the home court advantage that has been present throughout the ACC this season combined with the Hokies’ situation results in a Virginia Tech win.