Virginia Tech Basketball Entering Pivotal Stretch

Dec 28, 2016; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams instructs his players on the bench during the game against the UMBC Retrievers at Cassell Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2016; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams instructs his players on the bench during the game against the UMBC Retrievers at Cassell Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports /

The Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament hopes may very well hang in the balance in the upcoming homestand.

Well that was a swift fall from grace, wasn’t it?

Nobody thought that it would be easy, but the Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball Team certainly was on a roll early this season, lulling many fans and observers into a false sense of security.

The Hokies cruised through non-conference play, dispatching opponents left and right with the exception of the lone blemish, a second half collapse to SEC-foe Texas A&M the week of Thanksgiving.

By the time the dawn of the New Year rolled around, Virginia Tech was staring their first conference opponent, the fifth-ranked Duke Blue Devils, down the barrel with an 11-1 record entering play. The Hokies came out in a fury on New Year’s Eve, smoking the Blue Devils 89-75 behind 18 points from junior wing Justin Bibbs, and an emphatic dunk at the end of the blowout to put a signature on the rout.

The college basketball world was on notice, as the Hokies entered the first week of 2017 ranked #21 in the nation. It was the first time that Virginia Tech has been ranked since 2010.

However, the Hokies did not respond well to their first taste of true success under Buzz Williams, as Virginia Tech followed their 12-1 start with back-to-back road losses against NC State and #12 Florida State.

The NC State loss last Wednesday was particularly troubling, as the Hokies were waxed 104-78, with the lack of frontcourt depth on the roster manifesting itself in the process. Virginia Tech has been without 6’10” sophomore forward Kerry Blackshear all season long, and freshman big man Khadim Sy rolled his ankle in warm-ups of the loss to the Wolfpack, leaving the Hokies especially thin in the paint for the impending tilt.

As expected, the Hokies were taken to task on the boards against NC State’s sizable and athletic frontcourt by a final tally of 40-25, which when coupled with 20 turnovers led to a final score that was never really in doubt.

Khadim Sy returned for the following game this past Saturday against #12 Florida State, but even with Sy in the fold, the frontcourt depth and size issues did not go away. The Hokies played a much more inspired game on Saturday, but after traveling for the second road game in five days, the Seminoles depth proved to be too much to overcome, with the defense suffocating the Hokies offense en route to a 93-78 win for Florida State.

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The energy was there for Buzz Williams’ squad throughout the contest, but when the rotation of seven players is participating in their third game in seven days, it is understandable why they would get worn down.

Virginia Tech will need to find a better way to control the tempo on offense and defense moving forward, manufacturing points with a controlled fast break offense. There have been too many times within the last couple of games in which the Hokies have gone at a breakneck pace, only to wear down with a thin lineup and commit far too many unforced errors on offense. Over the past two games, the Hokies have turned it over a whopping 36 times and have been dominated in the rebounding department 79-59.

The 2016-17 ACC will undoubtedly be the most difficult league that has been assembled in recent memory, with nearly every team from top-to-bottom being competent enough to compete and pull off an upset on any given night. Road games will be very difficult to win all season long, as the Hokies have found out the hard way in their last two games, which will make defending the home court all the more imperative moving forward.

If we’re being realistic at this juncture, the Hokies will most likely need to go somewhere in the neighborhood of 11-7 or 10-8 in conference play to make the NCAA Tournament, which will become much, much harder if the Hokies cannot go at least 2-1 in their upcoming homestand beginning on Tuesday night against Syracuse (10-6, 2-1 ACC), and followed by #23 Notre Dame (14-2, 3-0 ACC) and Georgia Tech (9-6, 1-2 ACC).

The Hokies own a handful of quality wins to date, with victories on the road against Michigan and at home against Ole Miss and Duke to date. However, Michigan is a very mediocre 11-5 on the season thus far, while Ole Miss is 10-5 and off to a 1-2 start in the worst conference in college basketball, the SEC.

While the Michigan and Ole Miss wins may tarnish in meaning as the season progresses, there is no denying the dominance in the Hokies’ victory over anticipated Final Four candidate Duke, even without their All-American guard Grayson Allen playing due to suspension. Regardless, more quality wins are needed by the Hokies in conference play no doubt, with the next three games holding more weight at this juncture that any other stretch in the season thus far for Virginia Tech.

The Hokies’ next opponent, the Syracuse Orange, have been mercurial this season, but carry positive momentum into Cassell Coliseum on Tuesday, as Jim Boeheim’s squad has won two straight over Miami and Pittsburgh. Notre Dame is 14-2 and one of two undefeated teams in conference play (thanks, Florida State), and Georgia Tech, while short on talent, is still capable, as displayed in their upset win over North Carolina to open ACC play.

Even so, the Hokies need at a minimum, to win two out of the next three at home. The schedule dictates this crucial stretch for the team as near must-wins, given that four out of the following five will be on the road (@Clemson, @ #14 UNC, home vs. BC, @ #11 UVa, @Miami). The key will be avoiding the “bad loss” (Georgia Tech and Boston College qualify here), while accumulating a handful of wins in toss-up or underdog games, which amounts to a large portion of the remaining schedule for the Hokies.

The slate is undoubtedly brutal, and the roster depth for Virginia Tech is thin, but the prognosticators will know a heck of a lot more about just how good the Hokies are in the coming weeks.

The season was entered with aspirations and hopes exceeding far beyond those in recent memory, but if the Hokies want a true chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, they will need to right the ship and stop this two-game slide in a hurry.

Tuesday’s tilt against Syracuse would be a great start.