Jawher Ali, one of the writers at gobblercountry.com, was kind enough to sit down (or maybe stand... We did this over email so I can neither confirm nor deny what position he was in) and answer some of my questions about the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Show him some love for giving such thorough answers for us, and also check out my half of the Q&A over at their website here.
1. Like Alabama, Virginia Tech has had some really big wins (UNC, Clemson, Virginia, and the thriller over Duke), but enough tough losses sprinkled in to temper expectations. All in all, how did this season live up to the fans’ general consensus of expectations before the season started? Better? Worse?
Having been to the NCAA tournament last year before falling to Wisconsin in the first round, both the fans and players became hungrier after tasting success. The expectation was a tournament berth, and that expectation has been fulfilled. It was a bit of a rollercoaster, however. The Hokies had a bad loss to the Saint Louis Billikens early, foreshadowing some of the rough moments the team would have throughout the season. Conference play did not get off to a great start either. Tech looked completely inept during their first two ACC games at Syracuse and at home against No. 1 Virginia, losing those two games by a combined 38 points. At that juncture, the Hokies’ tournament chances were no sure thing, as they started conference play with a 2-4 record with a tough schedule ahead.
The win over UNC breathed some new life into the team, but the Hokies truly showed signs of turning their season around after a home loss against Miami. Buzz Williams made it known the team’s energy was not at the level it needed to be, which is why the Hokies were constantly out-rebounded and their defense was poor. Virginia Tech then won five of their next seven games, including victories over NC State, Virginia on the road, Clemson, and Duke on senior night to ink their spot on their bracket. The Hokies’ KenPom defensive efficiency jumped from being ranked in the 100’s to now the 54th best team in Division I. However, inconsistency remains a problem. The team has gone through periods of play where they are dominant and periods where they get dominated. Look no further than when they blew a 21-point lead to Notre Dame with 15 minutes left in the ACC tournament.
Overall, the Hokies have had a strong season with a tough conference schedule, and deserve every bit of their No. 8 seed in the big dance. The real expectation now is an NCAA tournament win, something the program has not celebrated since 2007.
2. Like with any good team, point guard Justin Robinson gets all the press, nationally. His 178 assists on the year to go along with leading the team in scoring is nothing short of impressive. How would you describe his game? How can he best be limited?
Justin Robinson has been the MVP of the Hokies’ season. At his core, Robinson is a penetrator. He has the handles, speed, and quickness to beat any defender off the bounce. He is explosive and has excellent body control at the rim, which is why he has become Tech’s leading scorer in his third season. Robinson also possesses some of the best vision from a point guard Virginia Tech has not seen since Malcolm Delaney, able to pick out rollers to the rim in addition to make skip passes from one side of the floor to the other. His shooting ability has taken a noticeable leap this year, as he is shooting 40 percent from three this year on nearly four attempts per game. His presence on this floor takes the Hokies’ offense to another level since he is one of only a few players on the team capable of creating his own shot.
Robinson has struggled at times against longer players and against teams that like to hedge screens hard with a second defender. The junior point guard is not the tallest player on the floor, and he can have turnover issues against longer players. In addition, he is not as effective around the rim against taller shot-blockers, as he tries to carve out space with his body when attacking the cup which just does not work against some players. This leads to blocked shots and transition opportunities for the opposition. I would expect Avery Johnson to cut off Robinson’s dribble penetration at all costs to limit his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll game and as a scorer.
Regardless, the Robinson vs. Sexton battle will be one of the more entertaining player matchups in the first round of the tournament.
3. Meanwhile, Justin Bibbs is nowhere near as recognizable a name, yet he has just as many minutes and points as Robinson does. He’s listed as a guard, but I’ve also seen him referred to as a forward at 6’5” 220. What kind of role does he play in the Hokie offense?
Bibbs has been one of the best three-point shooters in the ACC over the last four years, and is crucial to the Hokies’ spacing on the offensive end of the floor. For his career, he shoots 40 percent from downtown. He can handle the ball in transition and can get a bucket on his own if need be. His size allows Buzz Williams to be versatile and multiple with his lineups, since Bibbs can guard three (sometimes four) positions on the floor. He is probably Tech’s best individual defender, and he is a decent rebounder for a guard even though the numbers may not show it. Simply put, he is one of Buzz’s most trusted players who gets the job done consistently.
However, Bibbs’ impact goes beyond on the court. From talking to his teammates after games, you can just tell he is one of the most respected players on the team as a leader. In big time games, Bibbs tends to play a ton of minutes. And when Tech wins those games, Bibbs’ shooting and defense are key contributors.
4. Where are the strengths of the Virginia Tech offense? Biggest deficiencies?
Virginia Tech often gets the misnomer of a “jump shooting team” (Charles Barkley voice). While they have been efficient from the perimeter, the Hokies operate best when they get to the rim which is an area they excel at. Buzz Williams harps on getting paint touches every possession, and only wants to take shots once the ball enters the paint. The Hokies led the ACC in two-point percentage during conference play, converting on 54.4 percent of their attempts inside the arc. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the aforementioned Robinson, Bibbs, and Chris Clarke are all threats to get to the bucket and finish over a big or at least draw a foul. As a result, Virginia Tech has been one of the leaders in the NCAA in FT/FGA over the last three years. Once the defense has to try to stop the dribble penetration, the Hokies are adept at moving the ball quickly on the perimeter and re-spacing to find one of myriad shooters on the floor.
This is also one of the most dangerous transition offenses in the country, and they thrive when they get defensive stops allowing them to push the pace of play.
One of the biggest deficiencies with the Hokies’ offense is their inability to get second chance points from offensive rebounds. This is sort of to be expected from a team that starts four guards and really only plays one man that stands at 6’10”. In addition, Tech has games where they catch the turnover bug, carelessly giving the ball away to their opponents on unforced errors. Those two factors can lead to a significantly lower number of shot attempts for the Hokies which hurts their chances at winning.
5. If one player were to come off the bench and make a huge impact towards winning the game, who would it be?
Without a question, that player is Chris Clarke. He has been a go-to player for Buzz Williams and the Hokies in clutch situations. For example, the Hokies trailed by five points with two minutes left against Duke, but Clarke was able to score six straight points including the game-winning tip-in to give Virginia Tech the win. Against Notre Dame back in January, Clarke was able to seal the game with a clutch defensive stop and score on the other end. His athleticism allows him to impact the game in so many different ways. At a lengthy 6’6”, he can rebound, be a playmaker, and score the basketball himself. Buzz relies on him to match up against PF’s that are usually taller than him, and Clarke is usually up to the task. If you had to compare him to someone who probably gets more national recognition, he is Theo Pinson-esque.
6. And as always, what are your predictions and why?
Both teams have been so up-and-down lately that it feels impossible to know which two teams will take the floor in Pittsburgh. I do think the Hokies are a little more well-rounded on both ends of the floor and can win a variety of ways. They have won both in shootouts and high-intensity defensive games like the one at Virginia. I know that Alabama’s defense will certainly come to play (some things do translate from the football field to the hardwood), but can Collin Sexton carry that offense to 70-plus points? I have this gut feeling that the perimeter game will play a major factor for the victor. Bama only allows opponents to convert 31.9 percent of their threes, while the Hokies shot 38.5 percent from three this season. I think VT does enough damage from downtown to open up the floor against a stingy defense to get the win in a tightly contested affair.