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Gladiator Triumphant

Virginia Tech Hokies

Special guest preview by Seattle Hoo. StLouHoo wanted a break and Seattle has been ready for this one for almost a year.

It's been three years since Virginia won in the Barn, and that one might have been the luckiest win of the Bennett Era.  We don't play well there - very few teams do - and the Hokies are much better at home than anywhere else. Their home/road split probably has a lot to do with refereeing, because Buzz Williams' offensive system is extraordinarily reliant on how the referees call the game. A central feature of his offense is getting fouls. They do it by being aggressive, and by being sneaky.  They play all the tricks to elicit whistles. Fans see it.  Players see it.  Coaches see it. Referees are blind to it.  The Hokies feature a lot of excellent shooters and collectively hit 43% of their threes, but they take half of their shots at the rim. They don't shoot more threes than the average team, but they make a lot because so many of them are poorly challenged by defenses that have been collapsed into the paint or failed to keep up with the Hokie transition. It will take a determined, disciplined, aggressive effort from the Hoos to pull this one out. It will take THE POWER OF THE ZAY! Every player who hits the floor Wednesday night will need to channel that ferocity and let it infuse every one of his actions.

Game Details:

Date/Time: January 3, 2018, 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PT
Location: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, VA
TV: ACCNetwork

What 'They' Say

Vegas: No line yet
TAPE: Predicts 71-67 Hoos win, 63% confidence
KenPom: Predicts 66-63 Hoos win, 61% confidence

 

Depth Chart:

Starters

PG  Justin Robinson, 6-2, 190 Jr
 28.0 mpg, 10.4 ppg, 5.6/2.3 A/TO, 40% 3FG%
SG  Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 6-5, 210 Fr
 24.8 mpg, 12.7ppg, 45.6% 3FG%
SF Justin Bibbs, 6-5, 220 Sr 
 31.2 mpg, 14.6 ppg, 41.0% 3FG%
PF Ahmed Hill, 6-5, 205 Jr 
 28.9 mpg, 15.6 ppg, 50.6% 3FG%
C  Kerry Blackshear, 6-10, 252 So
 21.4 mpg, 12.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.1 blks

Key Reserves

PG

Devin Wilson, 6-4, 195 Sr
17.0 mpg, 3.6 ppg, 2.0 ast
F  P.J. Horne, 6-5, 215 Fr
 12.3 mpg, 6.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 50.0% 3FG%
F   Chris Clarke, 6-6, 210 Jr
 23.4 mpg, 8.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.1 TO

 

The ABC's of OPPONENT:

A) Aggression.  Buzz Williams swiftly deduced the style of play the NCAA wants to put on TV and mastered it.  The Hokies aggressively push the ball up the floor.  They will run off of made baskets if they can. They look to run off of every defensive rebound. They are particularly deadly when they can get a long rebound with their defense extended, because they can quickly get two or three players into the attacking zone.

The Hokies also aggressively attack the basket in the halfcourt.  When they drive, they are driving to finish, but they will also kick the ball out for threes.  They have three objectives when they go into the paint:

Get a shot up on the rim.  They hit 65% of their shots at the rim.

Seth Allen is no longer there, but Justin Robinson will take his place here.
Weakside help is difficult because they keep their shooters on the arc. Communication of screens is crucial

Collapse the defense and find open shooters.

Notice the multiple attacks like we featured in From Packline to Blitzkrieg

Get fouled.  They not only don't avoid contact.  They actively seek it.  They know that because they are attacking the basket, the referees have the whistles in their mouths and are tingling with anticipation to blow.  They have a 44.4% free throw rate.

This example also shows how your bad shot feeds their offense

They don't seek the perfect driving opportunity.  They go.  And they go again. And if they can't get what they want then, they go again.  While the Cavaliers are dribbling and passing back-and-forth and jogging through the lane looking for the perfect opening, the Hokies are charging into the lane and kicking it back out to try again.  It makes them difficult to defend, and gives the referees plenty of chances to blow their whistles.

B) Ball Movement.  The Hokies excel at it. They want to get the defense distorted so that a gap appears, then they pass to that gap, and they get the defense in scramble mode and pass it around until it hits an open shooter with room and rhythm. They shoot a ton of threes, but they are not Savannah State jacking 'em up at random. They shoot them off transition, and most particularly, off of ball movement.

In transition, they attack the rim to draw the defenders, and find a man in the corner.

In the halfcourt, they drive to draw the help, then send it to the open man (see the example above for "Collapse the defense and find open shooters").

They pass to the post man to draw help. The Bennett post trap is an opportunity for them. 

If you are going to post trap, it must be fast and brutal

C) Changing Defenses. The Hokies don't waste a ton of energy playing defense.  They play it, but it isn't their calling card, and they use their offense as a defense.  Like Cheatolina, they push the pace and score in bunches, putting pressure on the opponent to match them.  They get you sped up.  Then, like Syracuse, they goad you into shooting a lot of jumpers.  They just look open.  So inviting.  And especially in that godforsaken Barn they ironically call a coliseum (although their fans are about as bloodthirsty as a Roman mob watching the gladiators), they want you to jack up the shots.  For some reason, teams fall into that trap, particularly the Hoos.  It's even worse if the first couple long shots go in, because that just increases the temptation.

But when they do play defense, they change them up.  A lot.  By forcing the opponent to constantly diagnose what defense is being played and search his mental cookbook for the recipe to beat this defense, they can get you out of your rhythm without having to actually play that defense very well. Once you figure out the defense, Buzz will switch to another one the next time down the floor, and the process repeats itself.  He has a lot of defenses.  I've seen them play 1-3-1, 3-2, and 2-3.  Sometimes they jump trap.  They will full court trap situationally.

In the game three years ago when we last won down there, Buzz did this masterfully.  That Wahoo team was deadly when it recognized a zone. Every zone has its kryptonite, and that Hoo team possessed them all. But it wasn't necessarily fast at recognizing them. It would take a couple possessions to zero in on that weakness. And Buzz was on top of it. The Hoos would have a couple bad possessions while they were confused, then come down and do it right.  Next time down, different defense.

Their season to date:

 The Hokies are 11-3 and 0-1 in the ACC.  Their biggest wins are against Iowa, Washington and Ole Miss. What those wins really mean is an open question. They lost a legitimizer at Kentucky, but the Wildcats are a team that will allow the Hokies to play the way they want to play. In their last outing, Tech was drubbed by Syracuse, who do NOT let you play the way the Hokies want to play. They made Tech work for their shots and the Hokie offense suffered accordingly. Syracuse went inside and pounded Tech on the boards, rebounding almost 40% of their misses and over 75% of Tech's misses.

Keys to getting the win:

1) The first and cardinal and most important rule of playing Virginia Tech - especially in that twilight zone arena* - is YOU HAVE TO PLAY INSIDE-OUT.  Constantly.  On your first possession, you have to set the tone.  You are going to go inside.  You are either going to pass into the post and run your offense off post entry, or you are going to drive to the rim.

The baseline is a good place to attack.

Here we see both baseline drives and multiple attacking moves. And we see success

Or you can attack down the gut.

Not exactly down the gut, but downhill toward the basket

Or you can pass into the post and play off of what the defense does.

Devon goes downhill not with the dribble but off a cut. See how the offense is spread? Why don't we do this more often?

But most of all, you have to get the ball deep in the paint - don't just touch the paint by the foul line.  No, you want to get deep.  You need to get the ball deep into the paint and force them to contract their defense.  When you can do that, three really good things will happen for you:

* You can get a lot of layups and putbacks (or tapbacks if you are UVA), because their interior defense is small and weak;

* You can get GOOD three point shots, the room-and-rhythm, confident shots that actually go in the basket a high percentage of the time:

* You minimize their run-outs and give yourself a chance to get your defense back and set before they are on you like a cheetah on the herd straggler.

* But perhaps the best thing that will happen for you is that you might not get completely forked by the referees. Jeff Jones always used to say that "the referees favor the aggressor." I believe he was correct. When you are aggressive - which means going at the rim and not avoiding contact (basically the opposite of how UVA plays offense) - the referees are going to give you the benefit of the doubt. When we drive baseline, when we go downhill, and dare the defense to stop us, we get to the free throw line. But when we try to slither through gaps and slide by obstructions, pull up before obstacles, we will get no whistles, and the rim will not be kind. If we are as aggressive as they are, the whistles will blow more evenly, and perhaps the referees will get tired of blowing them and stop - and the less the whistle blows the better for UVA.

And dadgummit you have to do it every forking time.  Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a team is hitting a couple of threes.  They think they're hot and everything goes out the window, and you're having fun hitting threes and they're running downcourt and your adrenaline is pumping and you are so open and the basket looks so big and pink and juicy and you just pump one up and they're running the other way and then you have the ball and they are not playing any defense and you're open man you are feeling it just do it, just shoot it and then they're running down court and damn this is so much fun this is ball this is life and 

The coach is calling time out and he is screaming at you with spittle flying from his lips and that's when you realize they just went on a 15-3 run and instead of being up 7 you're down 8 with 6 minutes to go.  Oh ... fork.  Just fork me now.

Force the ball deep in the paint every ... forking ... possession.

This is what you don't want:

No, that was not slow motion. That was real time. That was BAD BASKETBALL

Because it leads to this:

This is how they get back in the game

2) Do not give them what they want on offense.  What they want on offense is contact.  They want you to put your hands on them.  They want you to stand your ground.  They want you to bump them when they drive.  They are going to be constantly coming into your space trying to get contact.

And when they do get contact, they are going to react as if you just tasered them.  Arms go flying, heads snap back, sheep bleats erupt from their throats, they fly through the air and slide across the floor and the forking referees cannot help themselves. They blow the whistle.  A lot. Everybody in the country knows what the Hokies are doing, except those three guys in striped shirts. ACC referees are the perfect marks.  At least, in The Twilight Barn.  As the Syracuse game shows, when not in that alternate reality, the refs will generally be more restrained with their whistles.  But in Cassell?  Remember 14-1?  Remember having committed 8 fouls in the second half - at least - without a single Hokie foul?  That's their game.

Keep your hands off them. This is a foul every time:

That was a foul on Jerome. The arm is going to get called every time. Get that right arm up and out and reach for the ball with the left, and you might get the steal and no foul.

When you put your hands on a post player, he's going to do something sneaky to create a foul on you. They got Salt and Diakite three times in that second half last year. Pretend Homeland Security just crashed through your door and you have brown skin.  Keep the hands up and out where The Law can see them. Otherwise, it's free shots.

In the game-winning defensive stand on Saturday, Devon Hall showed the template for defending Virginia Tech's drives.  This is PERFECT defense against Tech (well, almost perfect - see that quick hand to the hip that he pulls away? in The Barn that sets off an alarm that makes a referee whistle blow):

We're lucky the refs did not blow the whistle on this play

Miami did this to them last year, and neither Tech nor the refs knew what to do. When the Tech drivers tried to jump into them, the Miami players ran away. The Tech players were falling down and the refs wanted to call fouls for them, but they couldn't because there was nobody from Miami in the area.

Don't give them the contact they want. Keep space between your on-ball defender and the driver, then meet them at the rim with a shot blocker. Remember, the NCAA has legislated that Freedom of Movement means letting dribble drivers go wherever they want - but it's ok to challenge them at the rim, because that's exciting and good TV.  Just keep your arms straight up.  Or, the big man assigned to the screener in a screen-roll can follow the dribbler down the lane:

Here the screener is no longer a threat, so it is safe to help off of him, and by attacking the shot from behind, your chance of fouling is less. Just need to account for the screener on the rebound.

When your man drives, just stay in front of him but outrun him.  All you are doing is obstructing his passing lane so when your big man comes over, he can't make the easy dish to the big man's man.

3) Do not over-help and just don't trap the post.  Maybe do it once early so they will show how they have prepared for it.  But then don't, except maybe on rare, random occasions later when they no longer expect it, if you have detected a specific weakness to it and can execute it perfectly.  Remember, they are trying to distort your defense and create open shooters.  They're really good at finding them.  Most important is to keep your shape intact and stay with the shooters.  Force them to work the ball for 25 seconds.  They don't like work.

This is textbook defense. Look how the shape stays intact and everything is contested.

* Cassell Coliseum is one of the two "twilight zone" gyms in the ACC.  There may be others in the country, but those two are the ones I know of.  The other is Cameron. These are dumps where weird shit happens.  You have to be prepared for weird shit to happen, and be able to keep your poise when it does. Referees go crazy. Balls take strange bounces. Depth perception goes askew. It's very difficult to feel real and normal in these places. And the stands are full of bizarre species of humanoid creatures with a hive mind, like from a Star Trek planet where they look human but ... they ... are ... something ... else?

Leaders Needed

Updated on January 2, 2018 by Seattle Hoo

Sharon Cox-Ponder for HOOS Place

Virginia needs The Zay on the floor to win this game. Perhaps the most important key is for him to avoid foul trouble. That means he must assume that whenever he touches a Hokie, that fish will flop and a whistle will be triggered. At least half the fouls called on him will not be fouls, but he has to be aware that if it looks like maybe it might possibly be a foul, the whistle will blow.  It would be good for the whole team to have that mindset, but I believe ACC officials think The Zay is unfair and needs a handicap so the other team has a chance to score now and then.

Unless we go small and Zay is the 5, or Tech goes big and Chris Clarke is the 4, Zay is going to be matched up on a 3-point shooter. This situation is sub-optimal for UVA and might be the biggest reason I favor going small a lot. If Zay is on a shooter, he needs to stay home. If he is on Blackshear or Clarke, he is free to roam and help. I might even favor having Mamadi play with Zay because Mamadi often can guard the guards.  Maybe Mamadi has whichever one of Ahmed Hill/Justin Bibbs is less a threat to put the ball on the floor (looks like Hill is the better matchup for Mamadi) and Zay has the big, so on the other end of the floor we can use their size and offensive rebounding against Tech's small, weak interior defense.

This is a game where Devon Hall and Nigel Johnson need to play their good game.  That means Devon is driving baseline and going downhill, and is shooting his threes off of kick-outs.  It means Nigel is going to the rim. It means Nigel is locked in defensively, disrupting Justin Robinson when he has the ball and focused on his off-ball responsibilities when Robinson does not have the ball. He needs to always keep in mind ball-man and watch for cuts.

Devon will take whichever Hokie Coach Bennett most wants to make work for his shots. I suspect when Nigel is not in the game that Devon will be on Robinson, but he may opt for Justin Bibbs who can kill you if left open but who Hall might have a better chance of erasing. Plus, if Hall is on the 6-1 Robinson, then the 6-2 Kyle Guy has to guard a bigger man. However, this talk of matchups is only partly relevant, because look for the Hoos to do a lot of switching, turning their man-to-man into more of a matchup zone.

The second most important key for the Hoos is the mental state of Devon Hall. Zay needs to stay on the floor and Devon needs to stay pissed. We cannot win if Hall is hesitant to drive the ball and starts shooting those "why not?" long jumpers.  When he gets into the lane he has to go toward the basket, shoot moving forward off two feet. It would be nice if he was dying for the chance to dunk on a fool.  That would be the ultimate.

Predictions:

The Boston College game was fun and a nice win, but in it I saw the seeds of our destruction. The offense was bad, really bad, just the kind of offense that Virginia Tech feasts on. My fear is that Isaiah Wilkins will get in foul trouble and the Hoos will forget Rule Number One. In the second half the refs will call a couple of bullshit fouls on Zay and send him to the bench, breaking down the mental focus for a few minutes, during which time the offense will get stagnant and passive, a couple of long rebounds and a turnover will transform into threes and dunks on the other end, and a 15-3 run for the home team will turn this one from a Hoo lead to Hokie control.

Hoos lose, 63-71.