(Photo – Ryan Hunt – Roanoke Times)
The ‘Hoos enter tonight’s contest having won seven of their last eight games. Contrarily, the Virginia Tech Hokies have lost seven of their last eight. The Cavaliers now control their own destiny in the quest for second place in the ACC, and a win in Blacksburg would go a long way in shoring up a NCAA tournament bid, solely by avoiding the potential upset. That said, the Hokies and the Cavs have split the last four games in Blacksburg, and anything can happen when these two programs faceoff.
Tech is 15-12 overall this season, including 6-10 in the ACC. As is to be expected of an inexperienced team with a first-year head coach, the Hokies have been incredibly inconsistent. Notably, they have solid wins over Clemson, Syracuse, N.C. State, and Michigan State, but have also lost Boston College (twice) and Miami. Realistically, some of the midseason hype surrounding Tech was ill-conceived, as, while they started 13-4 overall, eight of those wins were against teams outside of the top-150 on KenPom, including five over teams in the 300s.
Head Coach Mike Young runs a nine-man rotation, punctuated by six freshmen. They’re a relatively small team, only playing one true big in 6’10” freshman John Ojiako, who plays 10.7 minutes per contest. Junior P.J. Horne starts at the five for Virginia Tech, and, at 6’6”, is undersized in comparison to the lineups Virginia can use. That said, Tech relies on a five-out offense where each man can hit the deep ball, so going big for offensive purposes could create issues on the defensive end for the Wahoos.
Last time these two teams met, on January fourth, star freshman Landers Nolley scored eighteen points and led the Hokies, as only one other player racked up five points or more. Nolley is a legitimate NBA prospect, and at 6’7”, shot 3-8 from three against the Wahoos and has shot 33% on the season. In that game, Jay Huff only played twelve minutes, so expect to see Diakite and Key get the majority of the minutes in the front court. Namely, Key will likely matchup with Nolley, as he did last time.
As a team, Virginia Tech relies heavily on three-point shooting, taking 46.3% (20th most) of their shots from deep, and getting 41.5% (6th most) of their points from behind the arc. Fortunately for the Hokies, they are an elite shooting team at 35.4% from three-point range, 66thth in the nation. They also rarely turn the ball over, posting a 14.2% turnover rate, the 4th best in the country. These aspects of their offense make them deadly, as they can make shots, and don’t hurt themselves by giving up opportunities.
The offense is predicated on off ball screening, similarly to Virginia’s mover blocker set. But what make’s Young’s schemes so unique is that all off ball players have the freedom to screen and cut, keeping the defense guessing as to the intent of each action.
Junior Wabissa Bede is the Hokies’ primary ball handler, as he acts as a distributor, dishing out 5.7 assists per game, and only scoring 5.4 points per contest. Tech’s offense is predicated on driving and then kicking for three-point tries, and Bede is the driving threat who then works to find open men on the perimeter. The Hokies’ other main offensive contributors are Nahiem Alleyne, P.J. Horne, Hunter Cattoor, and Jalen Cone. Horne, Cattoor, and Cone act as floor spacers to the drives of Bede and Nolley. Cone, in particular, is the fourth best three-point shooter nationwide, at 51% on 3.9 attempts per game. The helping nature of Virginia’s defense could be exploited by Tech’s shooting prowess, as Tech is consistently looking for the open man on the outside.
Defensively, despite using smaller lineups, they find a way to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, their 26% defensive free throw rate (opposing team’s attempted free throws divided by opposing team’s field goal attempts) is thirty-seventh in the country. The Hokies are also a surprisingly good defensive rebounding team, only allowing offensive rebounds on 24.9% of opposing teams’ misses, good for 51st in the country. They don’t cause many turnovers, as their steal rate is 198th nationwide.
Virginia will win if: They can relatively contain Nolley and then, on the offensive end, continue to shoot the ball at a respectable rate and penetrate the smaller Hokie defense.
Virginia Tech will win if: They hit outside shots, effectively spreading the floor. On defense, they’ll need to prevent the Cavs’ post presence from taking advantage of the size difference..
Score Prediction: Virginia 61 – Virginia Tech 55
When these two teams meet in Blacksburg, the game tends to be awfully competitive, and I expect the same in tonight’s contest. That said, Tech is flailing right now, and UVA is on a roll, so I expect those trends to hold true.