No. 13 Virginia Tech must give Penn State its full attention
The Virginia Tech Hokies haven't yet lost a game this season, but that doesn't mean they have satisfied their head coach at every turn. Resisting the tendency to hit the cruise-control button is a foremost point of emphasis for the No. 13 Hokies as they prepare for Tuesday night's game against the Penn State Nittany Lions in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Virginia Tech strolled through the first half of its win over the Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash on Saturday afternoon. The Hokies led by only 11 points at halftime, 33-22, before turning on the jets and pulling away for a 38-point win, 75-37. The second half marked a sharp 20 minutes for coach Buzz Williams' team, but the first 20 minutes didn't sit well with him, as Tech's Ahmed Hill said after the game.
"Buzz came in and got on us for not playing hard, (not) playing our style of ball," said Hill. "The group that came out to start, we wanted to make a statement by coming out, playing hard, getting in transition and I think that's what we did. We started playing for one another and just upped the tempo of the game."
The second half looked a lot more like the team that won the Charleston Classic and defeated the nationally ranked Purdue Boilermakers in the tournament's championship game on Sunday, Nov. 18. The second-half version of the Hokies is the team that could not only make the NCAA Tournament, but win games in March and reach the second weekend of the Big Dance, something the program has done only once, in 1967.
This game at Penn State -- on the surface -- looks like a very manageable contest for the Hokies. Penn State has lost to DePaul and Bradley in the first few weeks of the season, stumbling out of the gate in a critical season for head coach Patrick Chambers.
Yet, what is new and different about this game -- part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge -- is that it represents Virginia Tech's first true road game this season. The Hokies played two home games against cupcakes and played three neutral-site games in Charleston. This trip to State College will put the Hokies in front of a hostile crowd, and how they respond will reveal a new window into the personality of this team.
Penn State hasn't shown much to this point in the season, but the Nittany Lions might pose a more formidable challenge for Virginia Tech than some might expect. Big man Mike Watkins hasn't yet played this season due to mental-health concerns he has tried to address. Off-court incidents have led the program to be appropriately cautious in making sure Watkins was fit to play. That clearance has been granted, and Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers has said that Watkins will be a game-time decision when the opening tip arrives on Tuesday night.
Penn State's most recent game was in Cancun against the Bradley Braves. Penn State lost, 59-56, with junior forward Lamar Stevens scoring 27 points but not getting much help from his teammates, who scored a total of 29 points combined. Stevens has scored 20 or more points in five straight games and 25 or more in his last two outings. However, Stevens' teammates hit just 10 shots in 39 attempts (26 percent) against Bradley.
Chambers knows his team needs to find its shooting touch, but he likes the effort he is seeing from his players.
"I was proud of the way we fought and competed and came back and cut it to a one- or two-possession game," Chambers said about the loss to Bradley. "We had some good looks. Sometimes the ball doesn't go your way and it doesn't go in, but yet, we were still in the game, we were still right there, we were still within striking distance. I can't say that we didn't play hard or compete, I thought we did. They made one more play than us."
Penn State hopes that if Mike Watkins can play, he can test Virginia Tech in the Hokies' first true road show of the young season.
Updated November 27, 2018