Up-and-down Hok­ies hit re­set but­ton in quest for con­sis­tency

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - BY AVA WAL­LACE ava.wal­lace@wash­post.com

At the be­gin­ning of the sea­son, Vir­ginia Tech men’s bas­ket­ball Coach Buzz Wil­liams leaned on his daily plan­ner to stay fo­cused as ex­pec­ta­tions for his team grew.

Wil­liams broke the sea­son down so that each work­out, prac­tice and scrim­mage from Oc­to­ber un­til March had a spe­cific pur­pose. The Hok­ies were com­ing off an im­pres­sive turn­around late last sea­son and were cited in the pre­sea­son as a team to watch in the pow­er­ful ACC. Wil­liams’s idea was if his team de­voted each prac­tice to achiev­ing a daily goal, progress would be a lit­tle more lin­ear and fundamentals wouldn’t fall by the way­side as the Hok­ies tried to build on past im­prove­ment.

“I think when you know, ‘This has to be ac­com­plished and here’s why’ . . . I think it’s just kind of helped me, help us, be stream­lined,” Wil­liams ex­plained. “In­stead of, ‘Oh, wow, so and so said we’re go­ing to be good, so and so said we’re not go­ing to be picked last.’ None of that mat­ters; like, what mat­ters is to­day. We have to grow in this re­gard to­day.”

That mi­cro-fo­cus has soft­ened a bit in ACC play, Wil­liams ad­mits. As the Hok­ies (16-7, 5-6 ACC) pre­pare to host No. 12 Vir­ginia (18-5, 8-3) on Sun­day, progress has been more up and down than a steady, up­ward-trend­ing line.

Vir­ginia Tech opened 12-1, capped by a de­ci­sive win over then-No. 5 Duke on New Year’s Eve, and cracked the Associated Press rank­ings for the first time in more than six years. Since then it has lost six of 10 in­clud­ing three of its last four: at North Carolina, at Vir­ginia and most re­cently on Wed­nes­day night at Mi­ami, 74-68. The Hok­ies are tied for ninth in the league stand­ings.

The team re­mains on course to qual­ify for the NCAA tour­na­ment field in the eyes of most an­a­lysts, with an av­er­age seed of 8.77 on the ag­gre­ga­tion site Brack­etMa­trix.com. But with its sea­son sag­ging and the con­fer­ence tour­na­ment Vir­ginia at Vir­ginia Tech To­day, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU in Brook­lyn less than a month away, pos­i­tive results are needed.

Wil­liams said he had been too pre­oc­cu­pied re­cently with tweak­ing game plans and making ad­just­ments — shuf­fling start­ing line­ups, try­ing to con­trol pace and play­ing more zone de­fense than his pre­ferred man-to-man — rather than re­in­forc­ing fundamentals. Mov­ing for­ward, Wil­liams has sim­pler con­cerns.

“Making sure that we play in­cred­i­bly hard, we play to­gether, we play tough,” Wil­liams said. “And I think we lost a lit­tle bit of that over the last 20 days. And I think the rea­son why is I per­son­ally got too caught up in ‘We can do this and we can do that and if we do this than it all works out per­fect.’ It’s not fairy-tale land in this league. You have to stay true to your con­vic­tions, in my opin­ion.”

It’s not the first time they’ve paused to re­set this sea­son.

“We had a come-to-Je­sus meet­ing af­ter we got back from FSU,” se­nior Zach Le­Day said, re­fer­ring to a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable postgame speech af­ter the Hok­ies’ 93-78 loss at Florida State on Jan. 7, their sec­ond straight de­feat af­ter up­set­ting Duke. “It was pretty crazy. He just called ev­ery­body out and we just fig­ured we weren’t play­ing the type of bas­ket­ball we needed to be play­ing to get these wins in the league, which is the best league in the coun­try. You can’t come out flat like that.”

But Vir­ginia Tech’s strug­gles didn’t stop af­ter their trip to Tal­la­has­see; its per­for­mance was still spotty with a solid win over Syra­cuse giv­ing way to a sloppy loss to Notre Dame. The team’s most glar­ing sta­tis­ti­cal short­com­ing is in re­bound­ing, a skill Wil­liams de­scribed as “as much men­tal­ity as it is tal­ent, skill and heart.”

The Hok­ies rank sec­ond to last in the ACC in re­bound­ing mar­gin at mi­nus-1.3 per game. They col­lect the fewest of­fen­sive re­bounds, av­er­ag­ing 7.7 per game. On Wed­nes­day at Mi­ami, that was part of their un­do­ing — each team ended up with 32 re­bounds but Vir­ginia Tech had just four of­fen­sive boards to the Hur­ri­canes’ 10. The Hok­ies also com­mit­ted 15 turnovers that led to 22 Mi­ami points.

“I just thought we made too many mis­takes,” Wil­liams said Wed­nes­day, “and you can’t play a mis­take-filled game on the road against any­body in this league.”

Still, Wil­liams saw progress where it mat­tered most.

“I thought we played much harder than we have over the last two weeks. I thought we were much more con­nected,” Wil­liams said. “I thought our to­geth­er­ness, our body lan­guage, how hard we com­peted was back to the way it has to be for us to have a chance to com­pete.”

The chal­lenge, start­ing Sun­day against a Cava­liers team they up­set at Cas­sell Coli­seum last year, is to keep mov­ing in that di­rec­tion.

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