clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Syracuse vs. Virginia Tech Basketball Preview: Q&A With The Key Play

Syracuse faces Virginia Tech tomorrow. Let's talk about it!

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

We're still in the midst of basketball season, believe it or not. The Orange resume play tomorrow following an eight-day break. Things have not been going well lately. Let's hope they go much better against Virginia Tech, whom we've beaten already this season (though, barely).

Below, Pierson Booher (who you should follow on Twitter) from the excellent Virginia Tech blog The Key Play, stops by to chat all about Hokies basketball. Join us below, and swing over there too if you'd like to see our answers.

How are things with Buzz Williams so far? Are Hokies fans buying what he's selling? When do you expect success?

Despite the losing record, it has been remarkable how well the fan base has maintained perspective this season. Going into the year, most people understood that this young, thin and undersized team was going to take its lumps. Most people seemed to understand that the program was one or two years away, minimum. However, Buzz Williams has instilled an incredible energy within the program in such a short time. He has worked hard to shape this team into hard working young men that work collectively to both excel at the intangibles and exploit any/all available matchups. That blue collar approach to each and every game makes him a perfect fit for this university, as that same mentality has been the cornerstone of the football program under Frank Beamer.

If anything, Buzz Williams' hiring signaled that, athletically, Virginia Tech is no longer content being known solely as a football school. Correct or not, some have argued over the years that it has been difficult attracting highly-ranked prospects to a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Buzz has already proven that he and his staff have the ability to transcend those perceived limitations to help construct a highly competitive team. Between the freshman class and the current prep commits, this team might turn the corner sooner than many expect. Even though the thought makes me want to throw up in my mouth, I think all you have to do is look right up the road in Charlottesville to find a great example of how methodically a talented coach can reconstruct a program. It's that same hope Buzz brings that has people excited - now let's cross our fingers that he can see things through to fruition.

If I had to pinpoint Virginia Tech's biggest struggle (big picture), it's probably scoring. Would you agree? Or is there something else to it?

Free-throw shooting. Mid-range shooting. Close-range shooting. Yeah, the offensive end has seen some inconsistent play. Like many young teams without a true alpha dog, this team suffers from long scoring droughts that often prove to be a death knell. Just last week against UVa, the Hokies went ice cold from the field down the stretch and yacked up a 10 point lead at home. With that being said, this team has generally shot the ball well despite their youth and lack of true post threats.

The free throw line has been this team's achilles heel and a major contributor to their 6 one-possession losses. As you well know, this team is extremely height-deficient. The first matchup between these two teams was the Hokies' first game without starting center Joey Van Zegeren, who was suspended indefinitely and has since left the program. He was the team's strongest two-way post player, and his absence leaves the team with 7-foot freshman Satchel Pierce, who shows a ton of potential but is very much a work-in-progress.

Where this team truly excels is from distance. The Hokies have a number of dangerous three-point shooters, led by guards Justin Bibbs and Adam Smith. That omnipresent threat has kept defenses honest, opening up other areas of the floor for dangerous slashers like freshmen Ahmed Hill, Jalen Hudson and Bibbs. But without one or two consistent post threats to keep defenses honest, the Hokies have been a bit limited in how they attack the opposition. Pierce has the makings of that guy, but he's got a ways to go before teams start focusing their attention on him.

Without the size to really match up with Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas, how can Virginia Tech at least slow him down a bit in the paint?

I think it is going to be a monumental challenge for the Hokie post players. Their best hope is that Christmas catches the flu or gets snowed in prior to tip-off.

While the team lacks true offensive post threats, they have two high-energy guys that have proven to be more than adequate on the defensive end. 6'-8" JUCO-transfer Shane Henry is this team's strongest post defender, exhibiting a knack for reading the ball off the rim and great anticipation blocking shots. He gives up some size in the paint, but he makes up for it with natural talent and some serious hops.

6'-7" Christian Beyer is probably the more "well-rounded" of the two (I use that term lightly, because he doesn't excel on either end). He is one of those prototypical "Buzz Williams guys," bringing a ton of energy to the floor; he sets hard screens, is always moving to open things up, and rarely shies away from contact. Henry and Beyer provide the Hokies' best chances at slowing down Christmas in the paint, but I don't think either have a legitimate shot of containing him. Freshman Satchel Pierce is a good rebounder and has great hands, but he can look a bit timid and there are moments where the game appears too fast for him. He has developed incredibly quickly this season, but elite guys like Christmas are going to be difficult for anyone, let alone a guy a that was projected to be 1-2 years away.

Where this team has been able to find defensive success has been via zone sets. While the team has a penchant for over-pursuing along the perimeter, they do a pretty good job of denying the post and collapsing in the paint. I wouldn't be surprised to see them operate similarly against the Orange. My only concern would be how much it opens the game for guys like Trevor Cooney.

I honestly thought that final shot back in January was going in upon release... was that a growing moment for this Hokies' team, or just a disappointing case of not being able to close out the comeback?

First of all, you aren't alone - we were all ready to do our best Bill Raftery impression and scream, "ONIONS!" the second that left Malik Mueller's hands. If you ignore the team's record since the loss (1-6), I would argue the Hokies have grown immensely since these teams last met. Sure, they still struggle to close teams out; but over that stretch they have played without (now-departed) center Joey Van Zegeren and leading scorer Justin Bibbs, who missed four games (three against ranked foes) due to a concussion.

The most promising development during the conference slate has been the growing energy that this team has played with. It's as though Buzz's mindset has really begun to take shape within this team and it is translating onto the court. They enter virtually every game as the underdog and still manage to maximize their potential, playing good teams tough and elite teams tougher. For a developing program, that mentality is galvanizing; it is something that sticks with a group of guys, regardless of their talent level or physical attributes.

While the close losses are tough to stomach, the silver lining is that this team remains competitive despite their deficiencies. If even half of those one possession losses went the Hokies' way, we're talking about a 12-9 team instead of the inverse. Though it might buoy the perception of this team or increase their self-confidence, it wouldn't change the fact that the Hokies aren't anywhere close to where they want to be.

Tech plays team-focused basketball in large part. But who would you say is the one player who needs a solid game in order for you to stand a chance at winning on Tuesday (or any day, in general)?

Justin Bibbs is this team's leading scorer and point guard Devin Wilson is the main facilitator, but Adam Smith has proven to be a deadly perimeter player that can keep the Hokies in virtually any contest. Like any talented shooter, Smith tends to run hot-and-cold. He doesn't have as well-rounded of an offensive game as the taller Bibbs, but he can be extremely dangerous if he finds his rhythm. He is stronger on the catch-and-shoot than he is driving to the basket, but he has developed a pretty solid pull-up game since last season. Where Bibbs can be a steady scorer over forty minutes, Smith's ability to score in bunches makes him the Hokie most likely to take over a game.

Alright, prediction time: Are you guys going to scare us half to death at the end of the game again? Or can Syracuse win without much trouble at home?

I think the Orange's dangerous inside-outside combination of Rakeem Christmas and Trevor Cooney is going to pose a significant challenge for the Hokies to keep up with. Against the Orange's disciplined 2-3 zone, I would prefer to see a capable swingman that can open up play from the elbow; however, the Hokies lack that threat and may be forced to flash a more undersized guard to the high post (i.e. Devin Wilson or Malik Mueller). As such, I wouldn't be surprised to see a more perimeter-oriented attack from the Hokies, with quick ball movement and timely back-cuts to create chances. I hate watching teams try and attack a 2-3 by bombing away from distance, but (like it or not) that is the strongest attribute of this Hokies team.

My biggest concern is how this team adjusts to playing the Carrier Dome in front of a huge crowd. I think the Hokies have the mental wherewithal to play hard and compete until the final buzzer, but I'm a bit afraid of them coming out slow and digging themselves an early hole. As much as it pains me to say this, I think Syracuse wins comfortably at home 78-68.


Thanks again for taking the time out for these, Pierson! Again, be sure to follow him on Twitter, and head over to The Key Play to get more info on Virginia Tech.