Thursday, March 22, 2007

Season Review - Basketball

Well, the 2006-2007 VT basketball season is over and this team will do for the basketball program what the 1999 Virginia Tech football team did for that program. It announced the arrival of the program on the national scene. We are all very proud of this team and it's seniors and we wish them the best as we turn to welcome the best incoming recruiting class in Virginia Tech basketball history.

But before we choke on the smoke being blown up everyone's ass about basketball let's not overlook how incapable the team and coaching staff were at the end of the season. Let's make sure we remember, so that this can serve as a lesson learned, and one not to be repeated. But why so mad, you might ask. Well, my Calm and Beloved Reader, for one thing, I'm Mad Jay and for another, let's review the final 6 games of this basketball season. I think when I'm done, you may be a little put-out yourself.

First of all, prior to the beginning of the final stretch run, Coach Greenberg announced to the media that he believed the team was in the NCAA tournament. That they were a "lock". This had been the goal from the beginning of the season and Greenberg believed the Hokie resume is strong enough to make it in. At that point, for the record, I agreed with Greenberg, but felt it was a stupid thing to say. Once said, however, it became the coaching staff's job to re-focus the team on a new set of goals. How about winning the ACC? How about making it to the Sweet Sixteen? When goals are accomplished, you can't just sit on your laurels, you have to refocus on new, achievable goals. This is a basic principle and it applies in coaching, as well as elsewhere in life (business, hobbies, etc.). And in this, the coaching staff failed MISERABLY. Beyond miserably, they failed COMPLETELY.

The first of the final 6 games was against bitter rival UVA. Going into Charlottesville, VT had a chance to take over first place in the ACC with the tiebreaker held over UVA and UNC who were two of the three teams that would then be in second place. So what did the Hokies do? They went up to UVA and got destroyed. So be it. A road game against a rival you had just beaten badly two weeks prior. I was mad, but I could understand it. Time to get ready for the ACC tournament, because UVA would never lose to Wake Forest. BUT THEN, the impossible happened and UVA lost to Wake Forest. If Tech could beat lowly and reeling Clemson on Senior Day in Blacksburg, they would secure their first ACC crown and be the #1 seed headed into the ACC tournament. How they Hokies lost this game, I will never understand, but I can assure you it came down to effort and focus. Clemson shot below 50% from the foul line and VT outshot them from the field, but Clemson somehow just wanted it more. They got more loose balls and created more turnovers and simply outhustled the Hokies even when Tech had so much on the line. This was the first sign to me that this team was in bad trouble.

In the ACC tournament, the Hokies lucked out and got to play Wake Forest which had just pulled out a late night overtime thriller less than 20 hours prior against Georgia Tech and was exhausted against the Hokies. Despite the circumstances, I thought VT might restore some confidence and focus after beating the Demon Deacons soundly, but alas, they proceeded to get bombed for the third time in the season against NC State. Now it's one thing to lose to a team 3 times in a season. But to lose to that team the same way every time is just an embarrassment to the coaches and players. Where the perimeter defense vanished off to, let's just say it begins with "Never" and ends with "land".

So the Hokies get unceremoniously dumped out of the ACC tournament, but sure enough, they get invited to the NCAA tournament and in fact, draw a prestigious #5 seed. I've already lambasted the team for the way they played against Illinois, but they followed that up with an identical performance against Southern Illinois. Now you can say what you want about defense from Illinois and Southern Illinois and I will credit those two schools' transition defense from here to eternity. But in the half-court set, the Hokies had open looks and plenty of lay-up opportunities in both games and just couldn't hit them. And explain to me again how defense affects free-throw shooting????

Let's look at the statistics over the last 6 games of the season. You know, the final 6 games of the Dowdell/Gordon/Colllins era? When everything was on the line and this program had the chance to close out the year with a bang by either winning the ACC or advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, they went into the absolute tank. I didn't like the substitutions, game strategy (minus the good call to press Illinois with 7 minutes left) nor re-focusing efforts of the coaching staff. They put the players through a great deal of preparation for X's and O's but they didn't get inside the team's psyche and help them find the motivation to achieve even greater goals than making the NCAA tournament. Anyway onto the stats.

Over the final 6 games, the Hokies shot 43% from the field and a miserable 27% from the 3-point line, and their opponents were 49% from the field and 38% from the 3-point line. Now keep in mind that up until 6 games left in the season, VT was #1 in the ACC in 3-point defense, allowing only 30% from the field from beyond the arc. All of a sudden the perimeter defense was gone. Meanwhile, opponents outshot Virginia Tech 67% vs. 59% from the free throw line in those final 6 games. To average 59% over 6 games from the free throw line as a team doesn't begin to describe the ineptitude, because many missed free throws were in one-and-one situations at critical times in the game. Even in wins, Hokie free-throw shooting was terrible down the stretch. Against UNC, Markus Sailes missed two free throws at the end of the game that almost cost Tech the win and would have if it weren't for great defense by Deron Washington at the other end.

I just can't say how disappointed I am for these players. This fade over the final 6 games was a total departure from their performance during the previous 27 games. I could understand if this were a team full of freshmen, but this was a senior-laden squad with guys reaching the end of their basketball careers, some of them permanently. I only foresee Zabian Dowdell playing in the NBA out of all the seniors on Tech's squad and he vanished more than anybody over the final games. How's this? Zabian averaged 18 points a game for the first 31 games and then playing in his first NCAA tournament he averaged 7.5/game. Not exactly rocketing up people's draft boards with that performance.

Looking to the future, I am heartened by the recruiting class and people like Deron Washington and AD Vassallo, but the bench was a disaster at the end of this season as well. The bench produced 4 points during the NCAA tournament. 4 POINTS IN TWO FULL GAMES!!!!!! Just completely out of character for this team based on what they had done during the season. I can't help but think that the coaching staff just totally lost the team once they realized they would achieve their goal of making the NCAA tournament.

I am proud of the Hokies and expect them to learn a great deal from this landmark season. I look forward to cheering on Tech basketball next season. But I have a very high expectation for the coaching staff to improve most of all. I know they can do it.


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.