A season that featured an historic start officially turned historically bad for Virginia Tech on Saturday in College Park.
The Hokies were blown out by Maryland, 94-71, in front of a sold-out Comcast Center crowd to open ACC play, but this defeat will go down in the record books. Combined with Virginia Tech’s lopsided setbacks to Colorado State and BYU to end its nonconference slate, it’s the first time in program history the Hokies have suffered three straight losses by 23 or more points.
But with Virginia Tech’s worst conference loss since 2008 came a new dose of reality. What once seemed so promising after seven straight wins a few weeks ago now looks like it could become unhinged. And for the first time this season, Coach James Johnson even seems resigned to that notion.
“You’ve got to have more guys playing well and playing consistent and we just haven’t had that in the last couple games and definitely didn’t have it tonight,” a forlorn Johnson said afterwards. “We need more guys to play consistent and we need more guys to step up and make plays for us.”
It didn’t help Saturday that the Hokies were without starting power forward C.J. Barksdale, whom Johnson benched the entire game. The coach wasn’t happy with Barksdale’s effort in recent practices and games.
In his place, redshirt freshman Joey van Zegeren received his first career start and finished with 10 points and five rebounds. Forward Cadarian Raines also had eight points and a career-high 13 rebounds and walk-on Christian Beyer chipped in six points and seven rebounds.
“I think right now we’ve got some guys that are giving more effort and playing harder than C.J. right now,” Johnson said when asked about the benching. “He’s played some good games, but we need him to be more consistent.”
All three of Barksdale’s replacements performed admirably covering 7-foot-1 Terrapins center Alex Len, and helped the Hokies double up Maryland in second-chance points (24-12) despite a decided size disadvantage. Virginia Tech only lost the rebounding battle by three.
But it was those sorts of positives that made Saturday’s defeat so disheartening. It exposed more than just Virginia Tech’s depleted numbers, cementing the flaws that will likely continue to be an issue all season long.
Point guard Erick Green scored a game-high 28 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there and he got very little help from his teammates. Sophomore Robert Brown and forward Jarell Eddie, Virginia Tech’s two other top scorers, were a combined 6 of 27 from the floor.
“Those are the same shots we were making earlier on in the year and kind of got to live with it right now,” Johnson noted.
On defense, meanwhile, the Hokies again focused on shutting down the interior. And again, the result was a barrage of three-pointers.
Maryland was 10 of 23 from outside and freshmen Seth Allen and Jake Layman scored a career-high 21 and 20 points, respectively. Virginia Tech has now given up an average of 93 points during its current three-game losing streak, although Johnson was adamant the team’s defense was “better” than its previous defeats.
“We’ve got to kind of pick our spots and take one thing from certain teams, and if they come out and hit shots like they did tonight, it’s gonna be a long night,” he conceded.
Added Green, who was the catalyst during brief charges that cut the deficit in the first and second halves: “I thought we competed. I really did. I understand the score and probably y’all thinking something different. I feel like we had a little energy. For some reason, we can’t come out and smack ’em in the mouth. We always get smacked in the mouth first.”
Johnson appears to be searching for those same answers at this point. At various times during his postgame news conference, he lamented how the Hokies “don’t have enough bodies” to play the sort of pressure defense he prefers and can’t suffer through an off night from their top weapons.
As reporters left the room, Johnson then leaned his head against a locker, his eyes pointed straight ahead at the grated steel in front of him. The Hokies entered uncharted territory Saturday and his only option is to try and stay the course.
“I’ve got to continue to think about the program and the long haul, how we want the program to be,” he said moments earlier, Virginia Tech’s best start in 30 years a distant memory.