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McFarling: Hokies stray further out of their depth

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Virginia Tech Virginia Basketball

Virginia Tech coach Mike Young gives instructions to his players during the first half Wednesday against Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Kiddie pools have more depth than the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team does right now. “Green Eggs and Ham” has more. Kendall Jenner has more.

In their 54-52 loss to Virginia on Wednesday night, the Hokies looked like a hockey team trying to kill off a 40-minute power play. They played at a numerical disadvantage throughout. At times, it looked like it was 6-on-5 in favor of the Cavaliers; at others, it was as bad as 6-on-1, as Keve Aluma seemed like the only guy giving Tech anything.

Nahiem Alleyne is in a shooting slump. That’s not ideal, but it happens. Justyn Mutts got in early foul trouble and had a rough night. That can happen, too. But what can’t happen when those things happen is the bench giving you next to nothing, and that’s been the case for the Hokies too often this season.

In the Hokies’ four ACC games — all losses — Tech’s reserves have combined for a measly 18 points. UVa’s reserves had that many on Wednesday alone, with Francisco Caffaro muscling his way to 16 points and nine rebounds as the star of the game.

This isn’t due to injuries or COVID. This is just an ultra-tight rotation that is overtaxing the starters and putting Tech at a distinct disadvantage late in tight games.

“We’ve got to be able to get some of these [starting] guys off the floor more,” Tech coach Mike Young said. “We all recognize that. We’re working toward that, let’s put it that way.”

To be fair, the Hokies were one made shot from winning this game. They had a pair of 3-point attempts just ahead of the buzzer that, had they gone in, would have changed the discussion entirely for both them and their opponent.

But that’s the nature of sports. The tighter the margins, the more emphasis falls on the little things.

Tech’s lack of depth doesn’t feel like a little thing. The box scores are screaming about it. On Wednesday, all five of Tech’s starters had a positive plus/minus ratio. All four of Tech’s reserves who played — David N’Guessan, Darius Maddox, Sean Pedulla and John Ojiako — had a negative one.

Compare that with UVa’s Caffaro, who didn’t start the game but had the best plus/minus (+10) of anybody on either team.

“You’ve got to get some help off the bench,” Young said. “You’ve got to bring some value when you come in the game. You can’t walk with it. You can’t get beat to the middle of the floor and a guy gets over top of you.”

All of Tech’s main reserves have shown flashes this season. Maddox has made 13 of 27 (48.1%) 3-point attempts. Pedulla is 10 for 16 (62.5%) from beyond the arc. Ojiako, who’s shooting 58.3% of from the field, had three rebounds as well as the only basket by a Hokie bench player on Wednesday. N’Guessan is averaging 2.9 rebounds, the best among Tech’s reserves.

But nobody’s stepped up to the level that Jalen Cone or Hunter Cattoor did over the previous two seasons, when they provided reliable punch off the bench. More importantly, all the non-starters can’t all go AWOL on the same night like they did Wednesday.

“We do trust them,” said Cattoor, one of three Tech starters to play 38 minutes against UVa. “Unfortunately, they haven’t played the way they want to play, and it’ll come. We’re not worried about that. We’ve seen what they’re capable of.”

The rest of us haven’t. Not often enough, anyway. And it’s Young’s job to ensure that changes.

He’s fully aware of this, of course. The analytics still smile on the Hokies, despite their 8-7 overall record and winless conference mark. KenPom had them ranked 31st overall and 25th in adjusted defensive efficiency entering Thursday’s games. They’re defending well enough to win most of their games, which has only made losses like Wednesday’s more dispiriting.

It’s going to take a group effort to get them to a better place. Aluma’s the face of the team, but he’s got to be sick of killing off power plays.

For his sake — and that of the other starters — the Hokies have to develop depth or die trying.

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