Back on January 30th, the Virginia Tech Hokies’ Men’s Basketball team was flying high (Yes, I’m full aware that turkeys don’t fly - Wild Turkeys Fly pretty well... FWIW thanky -ed.). They were 16-3, losing all three games on the road (Twice to top-10 teams who are still in the NCAA Tournament, and a third—a head-scratcher to Penn State in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge), ranked #11/12, though they had been ranked as high as 7th prior to their loss to UVA. They were in the process of wrapping up a relatively easy win over 2019 conference doormat Miami, when, with 13:32 of game time remaining, Justin Robinson went crashing through the lane on a 1-on-2 drive to the basket, and landed awkwardly on his left ankle, going down in a heap underneath the basket. Little did anyone know immediately thereafter—though maybe it became more clear when Robinson left the game, headed straight for the locker room, and would not return—but Tech’s entire season was in danger.
Let’s rewind. Prior to the beginning of the season, guard/forward Chris Clarke, possibly the Hokies’ second-best player, was not just suspended, but kicked off the team and out of school at Virginia Tech. While details were never readily available, causing several unverified theories to arise, what was abundantly clear was that he was not coming back. Also, the news of Landers Nolley’s (Clarke’s likely would-be replacement) eligibility came into question due to an ACT score, that as I understand, the NCAA deemed too high for a player with his academic profile—a take that was widely panned by college basketball experts, including broadcaster, and former player and coach Jay Bilas.
Ultimately, as it turned out, the NCAA dithered around, and it wasn’t until after New Year’s that Buzz Williams, who was cryptic about which players were available and which weren’t all-season, finally announced that neither would be playing in 2018-19. Great. But Virginia Tech had been through this before. In fact, nearly all the way back through the hiring of Seth Greenberg (If I can place an artificial goalpost from my memory, as Rickey Stokes teams weren’t not deep, they were just not good), Tech has seemingly been riddled with injuries and other losses for a variety of different reasons. I can’t think of a single season other than maybe those ‘06-’07, and ‘07-’08 teams that didn’t have really pronounced depth issues during that time frame. Consequently, the Hokies just played short, and they were about to have to do it again. The only difference: This time they weren’t just missing guys at the end of the bench who could give any semblance of quality minutes—rather, they were missing their best player.
In any circumstance, losing a team’s best player can be crippling. Mind you, it certainly matters how much talent is left surrounding that great player, and fortunately in the Hokies’ case, the answer to that was promising. Though they looked nothing like the free-wheeling, uptempo, offensive juggernaut from the first two months of the season that saw the Hokies’ average 78.8 points (A number that would have placed them 42nd out of 351 teams in Division I had they kept that average for a full season), 17.6 assists per game, and 11.7 turnovers per game before Robinson’s injury. In the 12 games without Robinson, the Hokies went just 7-5, while averaging 66 PPG (A figure that would’ve ranked 315th in D-I), 13.6 APG, and 11.25 TPG. Those are stark differences, although the turnovers were negligibly higher with him on the floor (Probably as a result of being able to run a functional offense as opposed to having Kerry Blackshear standing around with the ball at the top of the key as cutters whirled around him), as they were running a functional offense with ball movement when Robinson was healthy.
There are a few key takeaways there:
- Firstly, these two teams were diametrically opposite one another with and without Justin Robinson. Those of us who pay attention don’t need to be told that, we watched it. But this is confirmation (Not that we needed it) that, yes, Justin Robinson’s impact on this team was a full 13 PPG and 4 assists more per game with him out there (Perhaps not so strangely, he averaged 13 PPG and 5 assists this year). But it was so much more than that.
- Wabissa Bede was pushed into a featured role that he was not fully ready for. He held it down with serviceable play for the most part, but was a total non-factor shooting the ball for much of that time. While he improved for the long haul, I believe, it’s perhaps the easiest comment to make that he was no Justin Robinson during JRob’s absence. Previously a marker of efficiency, Bede’s shooting percentages plummeted through the floor. Which forced the Hokies to...
- Use Nickeil Alexander-Walker as their de facto ball handler and point guard. And just like Bede (Though of course to a lesser degree), NAW struggled without his backcourt running mate, both increasing his turnovers per game dramatically, and seeing his shooting percentages drop across the board. The difference was so stark that, for a time, I thought that people who mentioning NAW potentially being taken in the lottery of next year’s NBA Draft had a head injury. I would have given him an undraftable grade during that time. He’s recovered some since, and it looks like will be right in that range after all (And that’s a post for another day), but he clearly was a different player with JRob on the floor vs. when he was not. How many players can affect their teammate’s play so drastically that with him he looks like a future NBA superstar, and without him he looks like a guy who will be playing his professional basketball in Europe? That’s the impact of Justin Robinson, in case you were wondering. But also because this didn’t entirely work...
- The Hokies had to run the offense through Kerry Blackshear—and that doesn’t sound like the worst proposition. Blackshear is perhaps the best-passing big man in college basketball, but, as mentioned above, running cutters around a static, back-to-the-basket big from the top of the key as your only offensive set, no matter the talent of those players, is not a good recipe for success at this level of college basketball. KB is quite the talent, and he’s got a post outlining his own plaudits coming, what with him looking like a young Al Horford out there, but...
- It all comes together (Or by that measure, falls apart) with(out) Justin Robinson. And that’s a testament to this team—both the players, and the coaching. Buzz Williams did a heck of a job squeezing seven wins out of a team in the midst of an ACC schedule with no true point guard that he could play big minutes, and with seven, and sometimes even six guys available (One of whom, the ACC officials were constantly trying to foul out of games).
Robinson became the Hokies’ all-time assists leader earlier this year, passing the likes of Hokie greats such as Bimbo Coles, Dell Curry, Malcolm Delaney, Erick Green, Jamon Gordon, and Zabian Dowdell, among others, along the way. He was also leading the conference in assists before he went down with his injury. He currently sits in 23rd place on the All-Time Scoring List at Virginia Tech, and if he hadn’t gone down with injury, would have reached 1,529 points at this juncture (Passing current teammate and fellow senior Ahmed Hill for 18th) if he would’ve averaged his present 13.4 PPG over the course of those 12 missed games.
Fast forward to to the Hokies’ win over Duke in Blacksburg back on Feb. 26, a game which you may have heard by now, had lost some of its luster without #1 recruit from the 2018 class, Zion Williamson (...Oh, and Justin Robinson for the Hokies). And while it would serve no point to argue the narrative that Duke lost to Virginia Tech earlier this year with no Zion (To make no mention of the Hokies’ loss of Justin Robinson), it is worth acknowledging that just like the Blue Devils missed the presence of perhaps the most athletically gifted player in the country on the floor, the Hokies were a similarly different team without Robinson (Though I do admit it would be hard to overrate the loss of a consensus future #1 overall pick). That’s perhaps why, when facing daunting odds of beating Duke, the #1 overall seed and perhaps the best team in the nation, again, tonight in the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C., Justin Robinson surprised the national media with his answer: “My three out of four years here at Virginia Tech we’ve beaten Duke. So I don’t think we’re excited for the moment; I think it’s just another game for us.” While this would seem like a cliché, bulletin board material, and a severe underestimation of Duke’s talent to most, perhaps it’s just as Robinson says. Or perhaps, he knows that his inclusion in the lineup tilts the game so much further in the Hokies favor, that there’s no reason to panic. Come what may, the Hokies will go as Robinson does, and if the previous four years are any indication, that’s a good omen for Tech fans. Either way, it’s been a pleasure watching one of the best in Tech Men’s Basketball history in Robinson—something this writer hopes will extend beyond tonight.