Two men’s basketball teams that have not lived up to expectations will square off Wednesday night when Virginia Tech visits Virginia.
Virginia Tech, which was picked fifth in the ACC’s preseason media poll, is just 8-6 overall and 0-3 in the ACC.
“We understand the situation that we’re in. It’s not ideal, but this is where we are,” Hokies coach Mike Young said Monday on an ACC video conference. “We make this better one day at a time, one practice at a time.
“I’ve got an older group, a mature group, and they understand the task at hand.”
ACC Network studio analyst and Hidden Valley High School graduate Luke Hancock said he is “totally shocked” by Tech’s record.
“I went out on a limb [before the season] and said that this was going to be an incredible year for those guys,” Hancock said Tuesday in a phone interview. “Can they [still] make the [NCAA] Tournament? Absolutely.”
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Virginia fell to 9-6 overall and 3-2 in the ACC after last weekend’s 74-58 loss at North Carolina. UVa was ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll and was picked fourth in the ACC’s preseason poll.
“We’re not a great defensive team,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said Monday. “We’ve been inconsistent.
“The offense for us can come and go — we’re not an offensive juggernaut by any means. But that defense can kind of keep you in there. When that got away [at UNC], … that’s when it gets really challenging.”
The Hokies showed their potential last month in wins over Maryland and St. Bonaventure.
“Defensively, boy, I thought we were so connected [in those two wins] — and so connected [offensively],” Young said. “The ball is off the floor. The ball touched multiple sides on most [Tech] possessions. We looked like our team. And [we] have taken a little time here over the last few days … and looked at some of that. We’ve seen it. We’ve done it. Now to do it night in and night out, that’s what we’re all striving for around here.”
The Hokies need to be aggressive, said Hancock, and not let UVa control the pace of the game. He said Tech needs to drive the ball and draw fouls or kick the ball outside to an open shooter.
“When they get in trouble is because they pass around the perimeter a little too much and defer,” Hancock said. “Virginia will absolutely make you do that. We’ve seen the Pack Line defense forever. They want you to just kind of stall, late shot clock, have to take a tough one.
“You can’t just defer on the perimeter and fall in love with shooting 3s if you’re Virginia Tech.”
UVa will need to be better defensively than it was last weekend. UNC’s Armando Bacot scored 29 points and grabbed 22 rebounds, including nine offensive rebounds.
Tech won its lone meeting with UVa last season, winning 65-51 in Blacksburg. The Hokies outscored UVa 44-22 in the second half, when Tech shot 60.8% from the field. Keve Aluma had 29 points and 10 rebounds in the victory, with Hunter Cattoor adding 15 points.
Aluma is averaging a team-high 15.2 points this season.
“Last year we didn’t have an answer for him. And I’m sure he saw what Bacot did to us and is probably saying, ‘Hmm,’” Bennett said with a laugh.
Aluma and company should indeed try Wednesday to mimic UNC’s offensive approach last weekend, said Hancock.
“That aggressiveness of driving the basketball and the bigs being able to move, it honestly sets up just as good if not better for Virginia Tech,” Hancock said. “Justyn Mutts can play inside-out. So can Keve Aluma. But they’re really good on the block. You’ve got Hunter and Nahiem Alleyne that can drive, do different things and still knock down shots from the perimeter.”
After going 12 straight days without playing a game because of COVID-19 woes on the team, the Hokies returned to action with a 68-63 loss to N.C. State last Tuesday. Young had said after the loss that Tech was down to five players in practice for a time. He also said that several players did not rejoin the team until the day before the State game.
The Hokies have been idle since the State game, giving them time to try to regain the fitness and timing they had before the layoff.
“Thankful to have had the opportunity to practice here over the last week, and I feel good about our work on the floor,” Young said. “We’re healthy, we’re in good shape and we’re going to figure this thing out.”
Young hopes his team’s defense is better Wednesday than it has been in ACC play so far. Tech gave up 80 points to Wake Forest and 76 points to Duke before allowing 68 to State.
“We’ve been really good for the most part [on defense], but when it matters most in certainly the last cluster of games, we’ve faltered a little,” Young said.
UVa is averaging 63.3 points and is shooting just 32.6% from 3-point range.
“Virginia really struggles to score,” Hancock said.
East Carolina transfer forward Jayden Gardner is averaging a team-high 15 points for UVa.
“He does a really nice job around the basket — second shots, gets his body into you,” Young said.
Indiana transfer guard Armaan Franklin averages 12 points for UVa.
“Franklin just hasn’t been as effective as I think Tony would like,” Hancock said. “In the games where they’ve played really well, he’s kind of forced the issue early and kind of gotten himself going, and I think that’s needed. They have to find another guard that can space the floor. When you have Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark, not great shooters, … and then you add Armaan Franklin, who’s certainly been in a shooting slump for a little bit this season, that’s tough.”