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How do you stop what you can’t get to? Virginia Tech puts incredible pressure on opponents with all kinds of inside-out talent

Every basketball coach wants his or her team to have an identity. When that teams steps on the floor, it knows what it wants to hang its hat on. This goes beyond baseline effort and teamwork — you know, diving for loose balls and making the extra pass, all of that stuff. Instead, this is the tentpole that a team uses to build strategy and, ultimately, win games.

Well, you don’t have to ask Virginia Tech — 13-1, No. 8 in KenPom — twice what it wants to do under Buzz Williams. The Hokies embrace small-ball more than any other ACC team. According to KenPom, Tech ranks 184th nationally in weighted average height; in each of the last three seasons, the Hokies have landed outside the top 175 in this category.

This is intentional, though. What Virginia Tech lacks in size, it makes up for with crafty playmaking and outlandish three-point shooting. Efficiency is the name of the game, and when it comes to major college basketball, few teams do a better job spreading the floor than Virginia Tech. (Michigan and Villanova quickly come to mind, too.) Let’s take a look at how Williams and the Hokies make it work.

 

Quick Numbers

When it comes to letting it fly from deep, Virginia Tech is the ACC’s kingpin. So far this season: 42.8 percent of Tech’s field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc; that ranks 80th nationally (second in the ACC), and is one of the highest rates amongst Power Five programs. The Hokies shoot with accuracy, too: 44.2 3P% (151-of 342 3PA), No. 2 in the nation.

Yes, star guards Justin Robinson, a wily vet with all kinds of game, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a fast-rising NBA prospect, headline the ticket in Blacksburg. However, this isn’t a one or two-man army; it’s a collective approach to slash-and-kick basketball. Led by Robinson (7.5 assists per 40 minutes), the Hokies have assisted on 60.1 percent of their field goals — No. 24 in the nation.

Check out this gorgeous baseline inbounds play for Ahmed Hill, who has been incredible shooting the basketball this season (46.8 3P%, 60.4 eFG%)

Virginia Tech plays an eight-man rotation. Of that group, seven players average 1.5 3PA per game (2.5 3PA per 40 minutes or higher) and shoot over 34 percent. Currently in the ACC, there are 49 total players hitting those benchmarks, including the league-leading seven for Virginia Tech.

(Backup power forward P.J. Horne, who has been very solid this season — 68.1 2P%, 64 eFG% — is the only non-three-point shooting exception in Tech’s rotation.)

With all of that three-point firepower, it’s no surprise: Tech ranks No. 1 nationally in effective shooting (60.9 eFG%), per KenPom. According to Synergy Sports, the Hokies also lead the nation raw half-court offensive efficiency: 1.07 points per possession (59.6 eFG%), which just edges out Gonzaga (1.05 points per possession).

 

Spot Me Three, Hokies

With the return of veteran sniper Ty Outlaw, who was granted a sixth season of eligibility after tearing his ACL prior to the 2017-18 season, Virginia Tech entered this season loaded with spot-up weapons. Through the first 14 games of the season, that’s shown serious results: 1.25 points per possession, which also ranks No. 1 in the nation.

Tech currently features six players that have recorded at least 25 spot-up possessions — all of whom score better than 1.1 per possession and rank in the 80th percentile or better nationally, per Synergy. That’s wild balance; however, Outlaw — playing alongside Robinson and Alexander-Walker — is top dog here: 1.57 points per possession (80 eFG%), No. 5 in Division I Basketball (minimum 50 possessions).

A big part of this is Virginia Tech’s pick-and-roll attack, which features multiple ball handlers and shooters. This team dots the arc, making its opponent cover serious ground; it feels like someone is always open for a catch-and-shoot look.

 

If You Don’t Know, You better NAW

A season ago, junior utility man Chris Clarke was one of the top reserves in all of college basketball. Less than two weeks before the start of the 2018-19 season, though, Clarke was suspended indefinitely. Clarke wasn’t a high-volume three-point shooter; less than 19 percent of his field goal attempts last season came from outside the arc. However, he was a daring playmaker — working as a secondary option to Robinson — that could also defend multiple positions.

Without Clarke, it looked like all of the playmaking duties would fall on shoulders of Robinson. Ultimately, that wouldn’t be the end of the world; the lefty senior returned as one of the top point guards in America. If he’s your main catalyst on offense, things are going well. However, something else happened.

After a promising freshman season, Alexander-Walker took a promising step forward. It’s clear he put a lot of time in his game over the offseason, and no longer relegated to a spot-up role, the sophomore wing from Canada has taken off. (I went into greater detail on this evolution back in December.)

Now the Hokies have multiple plus-level playmakers, surrounded by a collection of efficient range shooters, and an excellent stretch big in Kerry Blackshear Jr. This team can play five-out or four-around-one, drive gaps, get to the rim and look to pass. It’s a challenge to defend.

 

Balance It Out

In the team’s most recent game, a 77-66 win over Boston College,  the Hokies struggled from deep — 6-of-22 3PA (27.3 3P%) — but still managed to score 1.15 points per possession. That’s massive; this team doesn’t have to live and die by the three-ball. There’s balance on this Hokies roster, which allows Tech to still utilize its half-court spacing to drive the ball and get high-percentage looks in the paint.

Virginia Tech shoots just a hair under 57 percent on two-point attempts this season, thanks in part to a post-up offense that’s worked wonders, too. According to Synergy, the Hokies (71.7 FG%) have scored 1.28 points per possession on post-ups, which also ranks No. 1 in the nation. Of course, it certainly helps to score in the painted area when the floor is properly spaced. On this play, Tech uses Spain action (back pick) to help Blackshear get deep post position in the middle of the lane.

Alexander-Walker has experimented some with a post game when Tech inverts its offense; however, most of the work has been done by Blackshear and Horne, who are a combined 39-of-56 on post-up attempts (69.6 FG%). Watch Blackshear work off this baseline inbounds play; look at how much space he has to operate after Alexander-Walker clears to the corner.

 

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Hokies check in at No. 3 in this week’s Power Rankings