The No. 15 Virginia Tech Hokies might not be learning a lot about themselves against small-conference opponents, but they think they are continuing a learning process.
Cautious optimism might be the best expression of the Hokies' outlook after their blowout of VMI on Wednesday night. The 89-68 victory was not a wire-to-wire masterpiece, but a 42-21 first half and a 14-0 run in the first four minutes of the second half represented a modest degree of progress for this team.
The Hokies host South Carolina State next on Sunday.
Virginia Tech point guard Justin Robinson was the one starter who played more than 26 minutes against VMI. Hokie coach Buzz Williams used the blowout - more precisely, a 35-point lead (56-21) with just over 16 minutes remaining in the second half - to hand out 71 minutes to his bench, which is still not fully stocked because of the continuing delays regarding the NCAA eligibility of Landers Nolley, who was supposed to be a contributor to the team this season.
Robinson played 33 minutes against VMI, in order that the Hokies' supporting cast and reserves could play with him on the floor. Robinson is widely acknowledged as the connective tissue which keeps this Virginia Tech team together. If anyone on the roster can speak to the state of the Hokies and where they are in their evolutionary arc, it's him.
Robinson thinks this process is occurring. He sees a team which is becoming more cohesive on defense.
"I think we're turning the corner," Robinson said. "We're getting the principles down really well. We've been practicing really hard and learning principles of the defense we're running. That's really big for us. Knowing when to help, when not to help and playing hard the whole time... that's what we're going to keep doing."
With the four non-Robinson starters playing no more than 26 minutes on Wednesday night, the fact that VMI outscored the Hokies by 14 points (47-33) in the final 16 minutes of regulation should not serve as too much cause for alarm. However, it still does underscore the point that Virginia Tech still doesn't have an eight- or nine-man rotation Williams can fully trust. The Hokies are likely to need Nolley next week against Washington, which almost upset No. 1 Gonzaga on Wednesday. Virginia Tech's bench development has to become more of a priority in these final weeks before the start of the ACC season in January.
South Carolina State hasn't yet won a game against a Division I team this season. The Bulldogs came close against Jacksonville on Dec. 1, but lost by two, 71-69.
South Carolina State has played a power conference opponent earlier in the season. The Bulldogs lost to Ohio State on Nov. 18. On that night, Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson, a 6-9 forward, scored 17 points in the first half. He was "the matchup we didn't have an answer for," according to SCSU coach Murray Garvin.
Virginia Tech's strength is the perimeter, not the low post, but it is worth noting that Wesson drew 12 fouls against the Bulldogs. That speaks to the limitations of a South Carolina State roster which returns only two players from a team which went 10-22 last season.