Now that we’ve all had an enjoyable week watching the beginnings of the Brent Pry dynasty take shape, perhaps it might not be a bad idea to take a quick look at the men’s basketball program.
You know, the one that’s lost three of its last four and seems to be one big question in search of an answer?
It’s certainly not a time to be worried or panic in any way, but this was a team that started off against weaker opposition and still looked pretty good in the process. I judge teams not by the level of competition they’re playing early in a season, but whether when granted an open shot, do they consistently hit it. The ball and the rim have no idea whether the other guys on the floor are in the top 10 or the top 300, so if you’re a good shooting team, you make open shots when you get them.
Early in the season, Virginia Tech made these shots, particularly when they were moving the ball around the perimeter and finding open players. That, to me, is the magic of Mike Young’s offense, as he’s not one of those coaches from the movie Hoosiers who demands four passes before you take a shot. He wants as many or as few passes as necessary for the ball to find an open shooter, and when that happens, he expects his players to take – and make - those shots.
The Hokies did early in the season. But when they played Memphis right before Thanksgiving, they met a physical team that really pushed them around, particularly point guard Storm Murphy. Murphy had been one of Virginia Tech’s better shooters and playmakers, but finished with only five points against Memphis. It got worse, as he didn’t score at all in the next two games against Xavier and Maryland before finally hitting a couple of shots and getting 7 points recorded in the scorebook.
Missing shots is nothing unusual in basketball, but Storm is a shooter, and it appeared he has temporarily lost his confidence. I was once at a basketball camp as a young guy, and the counselor leading it was a guy named Ricky Michaelsen, who had just finished averaging close to 40 points a game for Princess Anne High School and was heading to Old Dominion in the fall.
Ricky explained to us all how if you want to be a scorer you had to have a shooter’s mentality. “If I’m going down the floor and it’s 4 on 1, I’m going to shoot because I believe I give the team the best chance at making a basket,” he said. And what about if it’s 1 on 4? “I’m still going to shoot,” he said, “because I still believe I give the team the best chance to score.”
Over the years I’ve met a lot of highly successful players who had the same confidence. They worked their backsides off practicing and practicing, which fed that confidence. And whenever they launched a shot, they had no doubt it was going in, even if at times they were wrong. Dell Curry had that mentality. His sons learned it from their Dad.
Storm Murphy started the season like that. But there were times in the games against Xavier and Maryland where he clearly had an open shot either to launch a 3-pointer or drive the lane for a layup, and he refused the shot, passing to someone else. That’s a big deal in a Mike Young offense because he’s more likely to bench you for not taking an open shot than he ever will if you’re open, you shoot and you miss.
Storm, to be blunt, is thinking too much. It shows in his shooting, and it’s no coincidence to me that at times in the last few games, the offense stopped moving the ball around. You ended up watching 4 players standing around the arc waiting for someone to pass them the ball, instead of those 4 players setting screens and picks and getting each other open. It all starts with the quarterback of the offense – the point guard – and if there’s some small doubt in that point guard’s mind, there’s a reason the expression “he who hesitates is lost” has been uttered millions of times over the years.
There are other shooters on the team that can pick up the slack for Murphy, most notably Darrius Maddox, who has looked really good at times. And perhaps the answer is to have Murphy come off the bench for a few games while he works through his confidence issues. But this isn’t a situation of sit one player and start another. The team needs Murphy, and when you look at the schedule for the rest of the month, they need him sooner than later.
Wednesday night, the Hokies play Cornell, where there should be some opportunity to experiment with lineups. But they finish the month with four really tough games against Dayton, St. Bonaventure, Duke and North Carolina. Virginia Tech has lost 3 of its last 4, and they really don’t want to start 2022 having lost 7 of its last 9. So the Hokies need to figure this out now.
The good news is this is right in Young’s wheelhouse. He has proven to be a coach who knows what buttons to push, how to build a player’s confidence without blowing smoke at him, and how to rearrange the pieces on the floor to make things happen. Plus he and Murphy have a long relationship where there’s a lot of trust.
But it all needs to get going Wednesday night. Cornell may be an Ivy League team, but they’re no slouch at 8-1. They saw Memphis and Xavier push the Hokies around, as well as Wake Forest score a lot of layups on an interior Hokie defense that has been much better earlier in the season. They’ll know what weaknesses to exploit.
How Virginia Tech responds will be interesting. They’ve shown when hitting on all cylinders, they can be a force in college basketball.
But it all starts at the point.
With a confident and raging Storm.