Coming into this season, there was a lot of excitement for the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team. The Hokies are now a top 15 team and are creating a lot of buzz around the country.
But what exactly has carried Coach Buzz Williams’ squad over the top? Is it sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s breakout season that has vaulted him into NBA Draft Lottery conversations? Or senior point guard Justin Robinson’s unmatched leadership and playmaking? Could it be seniors Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill’s lights-out shooting?
All of these have certainly contributed to Tech’s success thus far, but the x-factor has truly been their improvement on defense.
It all started in February of last season. The Hokies had just lost at home to Miami 84-75, which marked seven out of the last eight games that they had given up 75 or more points.
After that game, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Williams shifted the team’s focus to defense. Then-senior Devin Wilson, a player regarded for his strong defense, replaced Hill in the starting lineup.
The results speak for themselves. Virginia Tech made a run to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance that included wins over #2 UVA, #5 Duke, and #15 Clemson. Over their last 10 games, the 75 point mark was only crossed three times.
Now, in the 2018-19 season, Hill is back in the starting lineup and is one of the team’s best on-ball defenders.
The Hokies have built on their defensive success last season and have only given up more than 75 points just once. This is best shown in how the Hokies are only allowing 57.6 points per game so far this season, ranking VT's scoring defense seventh nationally which didn't seem possible last February.
Some may wonder how exactly this success came about. A large part of the credit has to be given to Williams’ creativity and resourcefulness. His roster is full of speedy, athletic, but undersized guards. The Hokies’ backup center is 6’5. Given these metrics, this team should be pretty easy to score on.
But they’re not.
Williams knows how to get the best out of his players. He sees a team full of athletes and decides to use that to his advantage. They aren’t the big, strong, defensive juggernauts from UVA. But they are tough, they have heart, and most importantly, they are quick.
The basis of Tech’s defense involves lots of traps and switches.
In this clip, it is important to note the amount of movement by the defense. No player is stationary at any point. Robinson moves all the way into the paint and then back out to the three-point line. Outlaw leaves his man who is streaking to the outside to move into help defense in the post, where he gets a huge block.
Next, we see Kerry Blackshear and Robinson making the play. Blackshear's man sets a screen for Robinson's man. The way this screen is defended is what stands out. Typically in this situation, a player in Blackshear's position would move to the other side of the screener in order to plug the hole created by Robinson getting screened. Next, they would switch men, ensuring everyone is guarded, but also creating two mismatches for the offense to exploit.
Instead, Blackshear rotates to the opposite side. The Purdue ballhandler now has pressure from both sides. He sees that Robinson is to his right, so he tries to switch directions and go to the left. If Blackshear rotated normally, the Purdue player would likely have an open lane. But instead, Blackshear is there waiting, and Robinson joins to trap him. The defense forces a bad pass. Wabissa Bede then has the awareness to leave his man and go get the ball. Bede gets the steal, and the play ends with a big dunk from Hill.
Here in this clip, we see a similar play to the last one. Once again, Blackshear's man sets a screen for the ballhandler. Blackshear makes the same play, rotating to the left side instead of the right. Hill, the on-ball defender, then uses his athleticism to shed the screen and get back to his man. The Hokies force another trap. This time the ball handler sees that Blackshear has left his man open and tries to get him the ball. The trap causes the pass to be weak. Alexander-Walker, who is guarding someone on the other end of the court, anticipates the play, steps in front of the Northeastern player, intercepts the pass and finishes with a wide open breakaway.
Here, we see more switching, particularly from Robinson. He completely leaves his man as soon as he gives up the ball then joins Isaiah Wilkins in a trap. The trap then forces an errant pass and Alexander-Walker uses his length and quickness to steal the ball.
The Hokies are one of the few teams in the country that are athletic enough to have this type of defensive movement. Their quickness allows them to move faster than the ball and plug up every hole. Every time an opponent gets past his defender, another is there waiting. This has led to the Hokies forcing over 18 turnovers a game, which ranks 14th nationally and 2nd in the ACC.
In addition, Williams has taught them how to move not only quickly, but smartly. In all four clips, Outlaw, Robinson, and Blackshear leave their man open to contend the ballhandler. Without the proper technique, this would result in a quick pass and a wide-open jump shot.
What’s most important about these plays is the angles the switching defenders take. In every instance, their man is open, but the ballhandler has no way to get them the ball. Ideally, the defender should use his body to completely block the ballhandler’s line of sight, preventing him from seeing his open teammate.
It is amazing that Tech has been this successful defensively, even without Chris Clarke and Landers Nolley, both of whom project as two of VT's top defenders. While it's unknown whether if or when those two will play this season, it's clear the Hokies haven't missed a beat defensively without them.
If the Hokies can continue to make the proper switches and force turnovers, they are bound to be highly successful. The ceiling for this team is much higher than it has been in the past, and that can be credited to a new defensive philosophy from Buzz Williams being executed well by his team.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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