Remember when Virginia Tech basketball got off to its best start in 30 years and raised expectations for a team most expected to be one of the worst in the ACC? It was only a month ago, but it might as well be an entirely different season at this point.
The Hokies are coming off consecutive losses of 30 or more points (Colorado State and BYU) and begin ACC play this Saturday at Maryland ranked No. 143 in the Ratings Percentage Index. Some of that can be blamed on a depleted roster making two West Coast trips in the span of a week over the holidays, but there’s little doubt first-year Coach James Johnson is in the midst of his first-ever crisis.
With that in mind, here are five burning questions that Virginia Tech must answer now that conference season has arrived.
1) Can Johnson’s up-tempo attack work this season?
When Virginia Tech began this season, Johnson’s plans to run at all costs were met with some raised eyebrows. Early on, though, as the Hokies won seven straight games to start the year, it seemed to be a perfect match for the skill sets of the eight scholarship players that remained on his roster.
But in recent weeks, with Virginia Tech going 2-4 since its undefeated start, the shoot-early-and-often approach has backfired. The Hokies have fallen to fourth in the ACC in scoring and have the second-lowest shooting percentage in the league. They’ve also taken the second-most three-pointers amongst conference teams (255), but are connecting on just 32.2 percent of them.
Virginia Tech averaged more than 87 points per game in those first seven wins, breaking the 80-point barrier six times. Johnson and company haven’t done that since. Considering their cold shooting and the presence of just seven healthy scholarship players, it might be time to slow things down a bit.
2) How big of an issue is Virginia Tech’s defense?
When the Hokies were scoring in bunches, it was easier to look past any defensive deficiencies caused by their limited roster. But coming off the program’s most lopsided back-to-back losses since 2000-01, defense has officially become a major problem. In the past two games, Colorado State exploded for 11 three-pointers and BYU guard Tyler Haws scored 42 points.
Virginia Tech is last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing more than 73 points per game. And though the Hokies are actually first in the league in three-point defense (opponents are shooting just 28 percent), Johnson’s philosophy of making teams beat Virginia Tech from outside hasn’t worked as planned. The Hokies have allowed the second-most three-pointers (90) in the ACC this year, including seven or more the past four games. They must consider some adjustments going forward.
3) When will Marshall Wood return?
The promising freshman forward is still out indefinitely after fracturing his foot in Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Southern (the Eagles, by the way, are currently No. 235 in the RPI). Johnson said Thursday that Wood won’t play at Maryland, but the Hokies sure could use him. Though Wood is averaging just 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, Virginia Tech misses his athleticism on the defensive end. The recovery time for Wood’s injury — a fractured third metatarsal — can take six to eight weeks, which could mean he won’t return until February.
4) What’s up with Virginia Tech’s big men?
Another reason why Wood’s return would be beneficial is the disappearance of Virginia Tech’s starting front court. Forward Cadarian Raines has been held scoreless in three of his past five games, finished with just two points against Colorado State and has battled foul trouble throughout the season. Forward C.J. Barksdale has just six points and six rebounds combined the past three games and played just eight minutes against BYU
Virginia Tech’s saving grace has been walk-on Christian Beyer, whom Johnson has increasingly turned to in recent games. The 6-foot-7 sophomore has averaged four points, eight rebounds and 25 minutes per game the past three contests. Redshirt freshman center Joey van Zegeren has also played well of late. But with 6-7 small forward Jarell Eddie leading the team in rebounding, the Hokies remain second-to-last in the ACC in rebounding margin.
5) Who’s going to help Erick Green?
Green’s streak of scoring 20 or more points in every game ended against BYU, but he’s still second in the country in scoring (24.4 points/game), fourth in the ACC in assists and shooting 49.3 percent from the floor. Eddie has been a nice second fiddle, ranking ninth in the ACC at 14.8 points per game, but he has done most of his damage from three-point range.
The Hokies could use someone else to help Green with the play-making responsibilities, and shooting guard Robert Brown has been slumping of late. Since scoring a career-high 21 points at West Virginia last month, Brown has hit just nine his past 42 shots (21.4 percent). Considering Virginia Tech’s lack of scoring inside, Johnson needs Brown to emerge from this funk or it could be another long conference season for the Hokies.