Saturday, March 17, 2007

Game Review - VT vs. Illinois (Whew!)

It says something when you play your worst game offensively as a team all year and you win. It says that your defense was phenomenal. It says that you held a team to 4 points in the final 7 minutes of the game and overcame a 12 point deficit to get a win in your first tournament game in 11 years. But it also says that the Virginia Tech coaches and players were not mentally ready for this game and nearly pulled off one of the most MASSIVE underachievements in VT history.

Let's face it - Illinois is terrible. They were the last or second to last team selected to play in the tournament. They had one block and 3 steals and only forced the Hokies to turn the ball over a total of 9 times. Time after time down the floor, Hokies got open shots at the basket. Don't tell me that these Illini are a super defensive team, or at least don't tell me they were during this game. The better defensive team in this game was CLEARLY the Hokies and it wasn't even close in that department. The Hokies had 11 steals, 4 blocks and forced 20 turnovers against Illinois. The difference was in offensive execution.

Illinois ran their offense exactly as they intended for the first 33 minutes of the game. They used up the shot clock and got decent shots in the face of a fierce Hokie defense. The were able to put up 48 points which for them was right on pace with their scoring average for the season. Meanwhile, the Hokies were shooting 30% from the field and they missed lay-up after short shot, after lay-up. Many other shots were wide open and just clanged off the rim. Coleman Collins missed a breakaway dunk and a breakaway lay-up where he got a ticky-tack foul but couldn't convert the easy basket. In the final 7 minutes of the game, the Hokies turned up the tempo and behind Deron Washington played better, but as a team they still missed lay-ups and easy shots. It's just that Illinois was worse. Now I don't mean to dig to much on Coleman Collins because he played phenomenally on defense. And ironically, Collins was the best free throw shooter in the game, going 9-12 from the line. The rest of the team shot barely over 50% from the line going 9-16. In total the Hokies missed 10 free throws in a game where they only had 54 points. That, combined with their 8-19 performance against NC State from the free throw line has me wondering, WHAT IN THE HOLY HELL IS GOING ON AROUND HERE?!?!?!?!

Free throw shooting is independent of the team you are playing against. It comes down to one thing and one thing only - mental toughness. The game situation (i.e. a close game in the last 5 minutes) and the crowd you are playing in front of are factors that make it tougher to make a free throw in a game than in practice. But this is not a team of freshmen. These players have been through such tough circumstances over the past 3 years together, how can they not have the mental toughness in these situations? It has nothing to do with talent either. I can make free throws, which ends that argument right there. The coaches have not been able to prepare the team mentally for these games and situations. You want to run around and be happy about this win and pat Seth Greenberg on the back? Fine, you are the Calm and Beloved Reader. But think about why the team would play so badly when it has clearly shown to be capable of playing vastly better and ask what would be the reason for that?

Friday night's game was won for two reasons - the Hokies defense and Deron Washington. The defense down the stretch was phenomenal. I do give credit to Coach Greenberg for switching up to a full court press which resulted in a faster tempo for the game. The Hokies had 6 steals in the last 7 minutes. But it was the heart and will of Deron Washington who just would not be denied. A 29% shooter from 3 point land for the season, Washington went 3-3 including two 3 pointers in the critical final 4 minutes. He also hit the jump shot off the glass that put the Hokies up 53-52 with 45 seconds left. And he had two blocks and drew two charges against Illinois to boot. Note that none of his plays were of the physically dynamic high-flying type that he was known for going into the tournament. He just exerted his will and refused to lose. The Hokies would be on a plane to Blacksburg right now if it weren't for Deron Washington.

The Hokie bench had a grand total of zero points, no assists, no steals, no nothing. Cheick Diakite, Markus Sailes, Lewis Witcher, and Nigel Munson were nonexistent against Illinois and that is another disturbing trend. This team has played deep all season and kept players rested. Now in the NCAA tournament, with another game on Sunday, the starters had to do all the heavy lifting. I am disgusted with the play of the bench, but let's face it - the example was set by the starters, and the level of expectation was set by the coaches and the bench simply lived up to both.

It should go without saying that VT will have to play better by a factor of two or three times in order to beat Southern Illinois. The win against Illinois will either serve as a wake-up call or it is just foreshadowing all this team is capable of in the tournament and they will be bounced in the next round. Time, as it always does, will tell. I know I'm cheering as hard as I can for a wake-up call.


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