Well, the good news for the Hokies is they get to play a game just three days after the debacle in Raleigh to redeem themselves. The bad news is they have to travel to Tallahassee to do it. Florida State sits at the top of the ACC with a 2-0 conference record with wins over Wake Forest and an impressive away win at UVA. Virginia Tech had the Seminoles’ number last season, defeating them once in Cassell, igniting a five game win streak, and again in the second round of the ACC tournament. This year, however, FSU has been much better, as they have earned every bit of their #12 spot in the AP Poll.
Last season, many FSU fans felt the team was a disappointment due to their defense. The Seminoles seem to have fixed their issues on that side of the ball this year. After finishing 235th in points allowed per game in 2015, they rank 94th this year giving up 68.1 PPG. Their defensive efficiency has also been superb, going from an average 102.7 to a much improved 92.7 in 2016. Leonard Hamilton clearly emphasized defense over the offseason and it is certainly paying dividends.
Sometimes when a team expends more energy on defense, they are not as efficient on offense. That is not the case with Florida State. In fact, they have improved offensively. The Seminoles are sophomore Dwayne Bacon’s team. He lost his sidekick in Malik Beasley to the NBA, but Hamilton added two very good recruits in Jonathan Isaac and Trent Forrest to Bacon’s supporting cast. Both recruits have played significant minutes this season and have settled into their niches with the team.
Bacon has taken on the role of a pure scorer this season. As a freshman, teams could leave Bacon open behind the arc and try to wall off the paint against him because he shot under 29% from three last year. That strategy has been ineffective in 2016 as Bacon’s three-point percentage has risen to 38.8% in 2016. The super sophomore averages 18.1/3.8/1.6 on a fairly high 29.4% Usage Rate. Since Bacon was already adept at finding his way to the rim off the bounce, he has become even more of an unguardable weapon this season with his improved jumper. This does not bode well for the Hokies, who have failed to contain star players this season. Luke Kennard got whatever he wanted on his way to 34 points, and Dennis Smith Jr. torched Virginia Tech for a triple double on a forgettable Wednesday night.
However, the one player that could be even more of a threat to the Hokies is the outstanding freshman Johnathan Isaac. He has had a successful start to his college career through his first twelve games, averaging 12.2/7.3. The reason Isaac will be a problem will be due to his 6-10 frame. Usually when you have a player with that sort of size, they are relegated to the paint. Isaac is unique because he is essentially a perimeter player. He can match up with guys like Justin Robinson, Seth Allen, and Ahmed Hill, as well as bump down low to create havoc in the paint for opposing team’s bigs. He has been a major key to the Seminoles’ defensive improvement, especially with his presence as a glass-cleaner.
The real trouble the Hokies will have with Isaac is containing him on the offensive end. Other than Zach LeDay, who stands about three inches shorter than the FSU freshman, Virginia Tech has absolutely no one that can match his athleticism and wingspan combination. A good comparison for Isaac is now Laker Brandon Ingram. Both possess guard capabilities on lean frames and pose matchup problems for no matter who guards them. This hurts the Hokies especially since Khadim Sy’s status remains unknown after injuring his ankle minutes before the NC State game. Without that interior paint presence with length, Virginia Tech could continue to have major problems defending the Seminoles within 10 feet of the basket. Not to mention Dwayne Bacon is in the same mold of an athletic wing that can attack the rim. Isaac’s shooting has been excellent for a freshman, hitting on 36.6% of his threes. His stroke is extremely smooth and confident, and at his height there is no one that can effectively bother his shot.
The good news for Virginia Tech is that Isaac has cooled down after a hot start to his college career. He was in double figures in each of his first seven games, but is only averaging 8.0/7.4 while shooting 21% from deep over his last five contests. The fact that this is a home game against a ranked opponent that struggles defending versatile bigs gives Isaac an opportunity to get himself going again.
Florida State, unlike the Hokies right now, are a very deep team with 11 players getting over 10 minutes of playing time per game. One of the most prominent members of the supporting cast is junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes. He is by far the best playmaker on the team with a 27.7% Assist Percentage. With the departure of Beasley, Rathan-Mayes has also become more of a scorer and has gotten more looks in rhythm which is a big reason his percentages are up this year. He will be another three point threat to look out for. Another critical role player is sophomore Terrance Mann. He averages 8.3/4.5/2.0, and does nearly all of his scoring in the paint. At 6-6, he is yet another lengthy wing the Hokies may struggle to match up with.
Trent Forrest and CJ Walker are two role players that have played well for the Seminoles this year. As I touched on above, Forrest is a highly-touted recruit who has done a nice job being a playmaker this year from the one-guard spot averaging 2.3 APG. Walker is another glue guy that helps the offense function smoothly without piling up a lot of counting stats. In the paint, the Seminoles rely on Michael Ojo, a 7-1 senior from Nigeria. He does not play much (just 13.5 MPG) due to Florida State’s desire to push the pace, but Ojo is a good shot blocker with a high rebounding rate. Again, if Sy is a no-go, don’t be surprised is Ojo gets extended playing time.
Like NC State, FSU is reliant on getting the ball into the paint and finishing at the rim. They have a relative high FT/FGA ratio and a below average three-point attempt rate. When you look at the athletes on the Seminoles, it’s no surprise that is their identity. The Hokies struggled to stay in front of NC State’s ball handlers - Florida State is not as twitchy. It is very unlikely Virginia Tech will be able to shut down every Seminoles on offense, so being a little lucky and having a couple of FSU players missing some open looks they would normally knock down would be beneficial.
In their only loss this season to Temple, Florida State allowed 89 points, the most they have given up this season. If the Hokies want to win this game, they will need to execute at a high level on offense. You are not going to neutralize the Seminoles’ offense for 40 minutes, meaning the Hokies will need to respond to every FSU run with one of their own.
Temple managed to go 11-21 from three-point range in their win over Florida State, which was the primary reason they were able to match the Seminoles point-for-point. Similarly, the Hokies will need to hit their open shots, something they have done all season. Even against the Wolfpack, the Hokies went 13-30 from deep (43.3%). The problem was generating those open shots without being reckless with the basketball. Virginia Tech turned it over 20 times against the Wolfpack which obviously was a crucial factor in the loss. Temple only turned it over 12 times in their win, posting a 14% Turnover Percentage.
Regardless, FSU only allows teams to shoot 31.7% from three. The Hokies need to be able to move the basketball and penetrate – not to finish over the Seminoles’ bigs, but to kick out to the weakside corner and continue to make extra passes to find an open man. LeDay may be an x-factor in this. He has the ability to drive into the lane and make these passes, but he also seemed to get into a rhythm late in the game against NC State with his jumper. If he can start getting it to fall more consistently, the Hokies will have much more space to operate in the paint where they are at their best.
Because of the Seminoles’ effective offense, the Hokies must somehow gain extra possessions to slow them down. This can be down through generating turnovers, which is the most sensible route given the Hokies’ speed on defense. However, Virginia Tech has been below average forcing turnovers, as they have done so on 16.6% of opponents’ possessions (194th in NCAA). Another route is through offensive rebounding. Temple recorded a whopping 20 offensive boards, which certainly wore out Florida State’s defense. Without Khadim Sy, this will be difficult. LeDay and Clarke are easily the other two best glass-eaters on the Hokies, but they will be severely outmatched in the size department.
Virginia Tech also needs to get to the charity stripe. Keeping Bacon and Isaac away from transition opportunities will be crucial. Slowing the game down and controlling the tempo by getting to the line will not only yield points, it can also keep FSU out of rhythm. Temple was able to record a .323 FT/FGA ratio, the highest the Seminoles have given up this year. The Hokies were very good at executing this strategy last year down the stretch, and it would be nice if it made a successful reappearance this afternoon.
A miscellaneous factor will be fatigue. The Seminoles last game was one week ago against UVA and they are at home for today’s game. Classes start on Monday for them (ha, losers) and the student section will be packed. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech will be playing their second road game in four days. The Hokies have been abysmal on the road under Buzz in conference play, failing to get off to optimal starts. Coach Williams needs to emphasize starting fast – Florida State will come out with energy and the Hokies must match that.
So the Hokies reassume the underdog role, taking on a ranked opponent on the road. I have no doubt this game will be closer than Wednesday’s debacle – this team is too prideful to let that happen again. I just don’t see the Hokies stopping the duo of Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon. I think they combine for 45+ and the Hokies just can’t generate enough defensive stops to allow the offense to score against a stingy defense.