Virginia Tech traveled up to Syracuse on the back of a disappointing outing against UVA and in need of a response. It was Mike Young’s first time coaching against the Orange and his Hokies were stifled early on by their zone defense. Hitting threes and utilizing their height, Syracuse nearly put the game to bed in the first half.
Virginia Tech were impressive to limit the deficit in a game they clearly were not in a rhythm for. Coach Young made several adjustments coming out the break including using John Ojiako down low, more pressure on defense (Syracuse’s percentage from deep went from 57% to 20%), more time for Jalen Cone, and in general more energy across the board,
In the end it was Tech’s first time beating Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The kind of result you’d expect from a more senior team, when they are in fact the second youngest from all major conferences.
1 - Tech struggled against the zone without an effective big man
Tuesday night was another lesson for this young squad. Up against a tall and oppressive zone defense the Hokies were unable to find any offensive rhythm. Without an effective big man down low VT was unable to take advantage of space along the baseline. When they were able to move the ball quick enough around the perimeter Virginia Tech could not land a shot.
The game was felt like it was nearly over late in the first half, and with the late tip-off the broadcast might have lost a few Hokies who elected an early night was the better decision. Landers Nolley went 1-11 from the 3, and for much of the night felt like he was forcing his shot. Likely remembering that if he didn’t score against UVA no one was going to. Hunter Cattoor was 1-7, as the Hokies were forced into deep, rushed, and/or late shots.
Instead, Tech should have been more aggressive driving to the basket, potentially drawing fouls and opening up more space on the outside. Syracuse only used six players all night, putting them into foul trouble early would have been an advantage for the Hokies in the second half. That switch in tactics, and fortune, would come, but not until after the break.
2 - Is it time for Jalen Cone to start?
Clearly Jalen Cone was the standout performer on Tuesday night, but has he earned a spot in the in the starting lineup? Cone leads the Hokies in shooting percentage from the three point line at 55%. He is 12 for 13 from the free throw line this season. Against Syracuse, Jalen scored 19 points in 19 minutes, was 5-7 from deep, and a perfect 4-4 from the stripe.
Cone has outscored Bede 98-87 this season, in under half the minutes Bede has had 438-194. But their games are different. Bede is useful on the ball running the point and providing assists, 6.2 per game (3rd in the ACC), whereas the next best is Nolley at 2.6. But Wabissa has just two points over the past 3 games to go with his 16 assists.
Instead, Mike Young should consider giving Cone Nahiem Alleyne’s starting spot for the next game to see how the two players respond. Alleyne is averaging 3.6 points per game over the past 5 and has shot 6-for-36 during that stretch. Ultimately, the minutes both play might not change dramatically, but it’ll give the Hokies a chance to see how the offense functions with both Bede and Cone on the court more often.
Talk about a big night from the freshman @J15Cone drops a career-high 19 points thanks to two four-point plays in the second half— Virginia Tech Men's Basketball (@HokiesMBB) January 8, 2020
The @accnetwork chatted with him following our four-point victory at Syracuse last night#StoneByStone | #Hokies pic.twitter.com/bSJLog1H98
3 - The Hokies are young, but this depth will be a strength down the stretch
You have to be proud of the way Virginia Tech came out in the second half and worked as a team to turn that game around. Cone was the spark, but it was a team effort. Remember, Syracuse only played six players all night. The Hokies used nine effectively.
Hunter Cattoor went 1-7, but was helpful all game moving the ball around the the Orange’s zone and providing energy on defense. Isiah Wilkins only hit one shot all night, but it an important three late in the first half to keep the game within range. P.J. Horne has the clutch long two at the end of the game to extend Tech’s lead.
Tyrece Radford continued to display why he is underrated and deserves his starting role. He is nearly double any other Hokie in offensive rebounds on the season (36 to Ojiako’s 19), pulling down nine total rebounds on Tuesday, went 2-2 from the floor, and 3-4 from the stripe. If Nolley, who was had a difficult night, made a three late in the second half and was clinical hitting his free throws to kill off the game.
Nine different players scored, eight had rebounds, seven contributed assists. As a team the Hokies had 20 assists versus Syracuse’s six. Their teamwork and aggression in the second half saw their points from the free throw line increase from zero to 15. After a frustrating opening half, Mike Young and his team displayed a lot of mental strength to turn around a road ACC game and provide confidence as they head into many more similar conference battles.
Next up the Hokies return to Blacksburg for a game against NC State on Saturday at 2 pm ET.