Virginia Tech freshman Dorian Finney-Smith sat in the Cassell Coliseum locker room Tuesday night with a blank stare on his face. He had just finished playing his best game in nearly a month, scoring nine points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out a team-high three assists.
But the Hokies’ 63-59 loss to Florida State – their second defeat by a razor-thin margin in as many games – had started to sink in. Virginia Tech was now 0-2 in ACC play for the first time since the 2005-06 season and Finney-Smith was still coming to grips with what had taken place since the Hokies came out of nonconference play with an 11-3 record.
“Our coach told us the level is gonna pick up. The older guys told us the games are different in league play,” Finney-Smith said. “But man, everybody is good.”
This is the troubling realization many around the Virginia Tech basketball program have had to accept. Less than a week after conference play began, the Hokies are already looking at a season-defining game Saturday at Boston College, a place where Virginia Tech is 1-9 all-time.
A third straight ACC loss and the season could spiral out of control, especially with games against No. 3 North Carolina, No. 16 Virginia and BYU (14-4) on the docket in the next two weeks. Win against the Eagles and it’s only the start to a long climb now that the Hokies find themselves in an 0-2 hole.
Even though Tuesday night’s defeat was very similar to Virginia Tech’s loss at Wake Forest this past weekend – the Hokies trailed early thanks to an anemic offense before a spirited comeback led by Erick Green fell short – Coach Seth Greenberg was comforted by the fact that his squad at least came out ready to play against Florida State.
“I feel much better about our team today,” Greenberg said. “I thought we were immature [at Wake Forest], but we showed some maturity [Tuesday]. We didn’t play well, but we showed some maturity.”
Added forward Jarell Eddie: “We deserved to hurt that game. We played our tails off and we worked hard. We just didn’t come out with the win. If we continue to play that hard, with that intensity and that attention to detail, we’ll get wins in this league.”
So what exactly ails these young Hokies? Well, the answer comes in three parts:
1) Erick Green needs help
After a 21-point showing against the Seminoles, the Hokies’ junior point guard is now averaging 16.1 points per game and has scored in double figures in 18 straight contests, the longest current streak among ACC players. But he’s the only Virginia Tech player to score in double figures in more than seven of the team’s 16 games this year.
Greenberg is in desperate search of a consistent second scorer, and he’s hopeful that senior Dorenzo Hudson, Eddie or Finney-Smith will somehow emerge as Green’s complement on a nightly basis.
Virginia Tech made just six of its 32 shots before halftime, and finished the game below 50 percent shooting for the 11th time this season. Hudson said Tuesday “I don’t feel like we’re having growing pains. I just feel we’re struggling a little bit on offense.” But the problems go deeper than that, and even Greenberg seems to realize it.
“I think one of those three guys has got to emerge and I think [freshman] Robert Brown has to give us more,” Greenberg said. “What we have is a lack of consistency. . . . I think that’s a little bit of our immaturity and a little bit the inconsistency of some of our upperclassmen. We’re asking three of the freshmen and two sophomores that didn’t play much last year to shoulder a lot of the load.”
2) The Hokies must get tougher
Tuesday’s loss was the second game in a row where Virginia Tech was outrebounded. This time the margin wasn’t so bad (38-34), but Florida State’s Bernard James got some pivotal putback dunks in the latter stages of the game as the Hokies were making their comeback.
In the first half, Virginia Tech committed eight turnovers and seemed to be intimidated by the Seminoles’ tough man-to-man defense. Florida State had 10 blocks before halftime and 15 for the game, breaking a Virginia Tech record for blocks by an opponent set by Georgetown back in 1988. But those Hoyas featured Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning.
“We were just so soft with the ball,” Greenberg lamented afterwards.
Greenberg later added that the Wake Forest loss persuaded him to change how he coaches this team, with more of an emphasis on physical play in practice.
“We’ve had more non-contact practices, and we haven’t been more physical because I’m afraid to burn them out,” Greenberg said. “Basically that philosophy, after Saturday, has been thrown out the window. We’ve just got to work and be who we are and I’ve got to coach the way I’ve always coached.”
3) Virginia Tech needs more from its seniors
This has been a recurring theme for more than a month, it seems, but until Hudson and forward Victor Davila start producing at the level many expected it will continue to come up. Hudson has at least shown signs of emerging from his funk, scoring 18 points in a win over Oklahoma State last week. But his outside shooting has regressed significantly, and he’s making a career-low 38.8 percent of his shots right now.
Davila is probably the more worrisome case, though. He has finished with double figures in scoring just once since a Nov. 30 loss at Minnesota, and because he’s not a prodigious rebounder or defender, his play has weighed down the Hokies. Sophomore Cadarian Raines has picked up the slack at times, but Virginia Tech was expecting a more reliable Davila this season considering he’s a fourth-year starter now.
“We, for sure, need more out of Victor. There’s no doubt about it,” said Greenberg, who only played Davila 15 minutes against Florida State because of his ineffectiveness. “The only reason I say that is he’s given us more before. It’s not like I’m gonna lower my expectations for Victor. . . . I expect more out of him. He expects more out of himself.”