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Syracuse v Virginia Tech Photo by Lauren Rakes/Getty Images

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Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson explodes for career-high and record-breaking night against Syracuse

VT’s senior guard had the best game of his career against the Orange.

Blacksburg, Va. — Justin Robinson came into Saturday’s game against the Syracuse Orange looking to figure it out. The 6-foot-2 senior guard began his first four conference games in a funk, shooting a paltry 33.3 percent from the floor, out of character for a player who shot 46.4 percent just a season ago. Following those four games he was held in check against Wake Forest and North Carolina due to a foul trouble.

On the road at North Carolina last Monday, Robinson picked up two fouls early and was forced to sit. With UNC building a lead, Buzz Williams reinserted his lefty guard into the game only for him to be overzealous and called for a charge on his first offensive possession back in. That extended sequence allowed the Tar Heels to go on a 20-0 run which in turn blew the game wide open. Virginia Tech ended up losing that game by 21 points.

But on Saturday night, Robinson officially broke out of his slump by posting a career-high 35 points and by going 9-13 from three, a school record for most made threes in a single game. He knocked down seven of those nine threes in the first half alone en route to a 78-56 win over Syracuse.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

“Defensively we just did a very poor job of finding Robinson,” Jim Boeheim said. “They did a good job of finding him and we did a very poor job of finding him where he is. Once a guy makes two or three you can’t get off him and we did.”

While all of his points came from threes and free throws (8-10), Robinson didn’t just impact the game with his shooting. He also had eight assists on the night which fittingly moved him into first place at Virginia Tech in the all-time assist category with 548 dimes. He slid past Bimbo Coles, who previously held the Hokie record with 547 assists.

“It feels good inside,” Robinson said of breaking the assist record. “To get a win on top of breaking the record on the same night is huge. I’m kind of lost for words.”

As a team, Virginia Tech shot 46.7 percent from deep for the game. Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill knocked down three and two shots from range, respectively. But as well as the Hokies shot it from long range, the focal point wasn’t as much about shooting as it was about attacking the Syracuse 2-3 zone from the middle.

Robinson said that they knew they had to get the ball in the high-post and he credited his teammates in there, particularly Nickeil Alexander-Walker who did a tremendous job of finding open players from the middle and also finished his night with eight assists.

“When you’re in a zone like that, they converge in the middle. So who are you going to guard on the outside? Is it going to be Ty, Ahmed, Nickeil or me? Either you’re going to let me shoot the ball well or Ty shoot the ball well,” Robinson finished.

To illustrate, take a look at this sequence below. Robinson starts with the ball up top and swings it to left wing.

Once the ball is passed to the wing, Alexander-Walker looks for the entry pass at the high-post. Once Alexander-Walker receives the pass, Paschal Chukwu has to come up to defend him from that spot as NAW is more than capable of making a shot from that spot.

“I know it’s first grade. But you want to get a high-post touch. You have to get the ball below the free throw line. We want to get a deep paint touch and then we want to make a ‘one more’ (pass),” Buzz Williams said post-game.

From there, things get tricky for Syracuse. Elijah Hughes and Oshae Brissett have to pinch middle so Virginia Tech doesn’t get an easy dunk at the rim. The guards flatten out to defend VT’s wing players to not allow an open three.

“Usually with our defense the ball goes in (high-post), the two guards get the wings. But he was staying at the top and he got those (looks),” Brissett said of Robinson. “I felt like we should have done a better job of adjusting to that throughout the game.”

As Brissett suggests, Tyus Battle gets out to the wing but Frank Howard is forced to guard multiple players. He goes for the steal and guess who’s open at the top of the key?

Alexander-Walker makes the read by kicking it back up top to Robinson who’s wide open for an easy look. He buried it.

“They were just getting it into the middle and kicking it back out to the top of the key,” Battle said. “So we didn’t adjust well with that... We just didn’t find Robinson at all. He had nine threes. You’re not going to beat anyone when one guy hits nine threes.”

Not all of Virginia Tech’s threes were from this action — this is more of a high-post emphasis than it is a zone set — but most of his looks came from inside-out efforts where the ball made its way into the paint and was passed back out to the perimeter.

It’s an easier shot to make from three when the ball is coming from inside the arc. There’s no body shifting in that scenario and players can just square up and go into their shooting motion with body/eyes already aligned with the rim.

After the game, Frank Howard suggested that Williams prepared his team well for this game. With four days in between games to choreograph, Williams’ commentary post-game would suggest that Virginia Tech knew what it had to do against the 2-3 zone to win.

“30 out of 64 possessions we got a high-post touch. 41 out of 64 times we got it below the free throw line. 26 out of 64 we got a deep paint touch,” Williams said meticulously. “And then we monitor our pace. We want to make the first pass out of the zone prior to 25 seconds on the shot clock.”

That’s the type of emphasis that allows a struggling Robinson to shoot 9-13 from range against a top 20 defensive team. He made more threes against Syracuse than he did in all six of his previous ACC games.

On the surface it’d be easy to suggest a struggling player is in a funk, especially for a player as expressive and charismatic as Robinson. But Williams thinks that’s what so great about his point guard. When he’s not playing to the level he’s capable of he takes it to heart. But that doesn’t stop Buzz from showing tough love.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

“I wouldn’t categorize it as a funk. I think it’s the best attribute he has as a human-being,” Williams said before pausing. “I think he cares. And I think he cares so much not because he wants it to be about himself. I think what he’s done here statistically, including tonight, speaks for itself. He just cares so much and then he beats himself up.

We don’t have many Kumbaya sessions. And with five, there’s zero Kumbaya sessions because of my relationship with him. So, ‘chew on it. Sorry you’re mad. I’m glad you’re mad. Figure it out.’”

It looks like Robinson figured it out.

For stories and updates, follow James on twitter @JamesSzuba.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

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