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StLouHoo's Preview:

A Mid-January Gauntlet Begins

Virginia Tech Hokies

Virginia kicks off a week in the national spotlight by taking on a Top 10 team on... a regional broadcast? Limited exposure aside, Virginia vs Virginia Tech has been an intriguing series in recent years, most recently when VT won at JPJ last year with the ESPN GameDay crew in the house. They return this year with maybe the best team they've ever fielded, looking for a statement win to tell America they've truly arrived.

Game Details:

Date/Time:Tuesday, January 15th, 8:00 pm ET
Location:John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA
TV:Raycom & ESPN3

 

What 'They' Say

Vegas:UVA -9.5, O/U 122.5, equates to ~66-56 UVA win
TAPE:Ranks VT #9, predicts a 65-56 UVA win, 80% confidence
KenPom:Ranks VT #7, predicts a 65-57 UVA win, 78% confidence

 

Depth Chart:

Starters
PG#5 Justin Robinson, 6'2" 195, SR
32.5 mpg, 13.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, .367 3P%
SG#4 Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 6'5" 205, SO
32.5 mpg, 17.8 ppg, 3.6 apg, .424 3P%
SF#13 Ahmed Hill, 6'5" 210, SR
33.2 mpg, 12.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .463 FG%
PF#42 Ty Outlaw, 6'6" 220, SR
25.1 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, .467 FG%
C#24 Kerry Blackshear Jr., 6'10" 250, JR
25.7 mpg, 14.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, .542 FG%
Key Reserves
PG#3 Wabissa Bede, 6'1" 195, SO
19.9 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 2.1 apg, .433 3P%
G/F#1 Isaiah Wilkins, 6'3" 230, FR
14.2 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 0.9 apg, .464 3P%
F#14 P.J. Horne, 6'5" 230, SO
17.1 mpg, 5.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .654 FG%

 

The ABC's of Virginia Tech:

A) They've got an All-ACC guard tandem. You're not going to find many 1-2's in the ACC better than Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (NAW). KenPom's All-ACC first-team has two Dukies, two Wahoos, and Alexander-Walker. He's a former five-star who's breaking out as a sophomore, scoring effectively both at the rim and from deep, while also distributing (3.6 assists a game). Robinson is maybe the best PG we'll face all year, both able to score and to facilitate by getting into the lane and causing defenses to break down. They're both a little turnover prone, but otherwise are incredibly dangerous and will prove a big challenge to our backcourt to guard. Expect to see a few different matchup combinations from Kyle, Ty, Dre, and Kihei in matching up against these two, trying to slow them down and disrupt their ability to create offense. If Kihei can check Robinson like he's done to other high-level PGs at times this year, it will go a long way to enabling UVA's defense to succeed.

B) The offense isn't quite what you remember. So, yes, they still shoot the cover off the ball, 42.3% from 3 as a team which is 5th nationally. The "worst" shooter is center Blackshear who hits a very respectable 35%. But otherwise, this isn't the "spread - attack quickly - bait refs for a whistle" offense we've become accustomed to Buzz rolling out. First, their offensive tempo, which ranked around 100th for a few years before peaking as the 50th fastest offense last year, has slowed way down to the nation's 270th fastest (or alternatively, 84th slowest) in the country, bottom 25th percentile. Second, whereas they used to be known as a team that thrived at the FT line, where in 2016 they led the nation in FT rate (the ratio of FTAs to FGAs) and had been in the Top 100 since, this year they're all the way down to 296th. Robinson, Blackshear, and NAW are all relative threats to draw whistles, but they're not the systematic threat we're used to seeing. This is now a ball-control, shooter's offense. Oh, and they're now prioritizing offensive rebounding moreso than in years past, primarily led by Blackshear with help from backup forwards Horne and Wilkins.

C) Depth is a real concern. Virginia Tech came into this season with most experts (myself included) believing they could go effectively 8 deep. That was before projected senior starting forward Chris Clarke was indefinitely suspended for disciplinary reasons and freshman stud wing Landers Nolley got hamstrung by NCAA eligibility concerns. They've leaned hard into a couple of low-profile underclassmen, freshman G/F Wilkins (yes, they have their own Isaiah Wilkins now) and sophomore F Horne. Both are relatively undersized for their roles, and while they've had some success this season off the bench, neither has contributed much in VT's bigger games. As such, VT ranks 301st nationally in percentage of bench minutes played. Backup PG Bede, who is a bulldog defender even if his offensive stats are quiet, is best player they're likely to bring off the bench in this game.

 

Their Season To Date

Virginia Tech is 14-1 on the season, and 3-0 in the ACC. Their lone loss was by 1 point at Penn State in the ACC-B1G Challenge. Their best wins were OOC over KenPom #16 Purdue in Charleston and KenPom #43 Washington in Atlantic City. Their ACC wins are over Notre Dame, BC, and most recently by 3 @ GT.

 

Keys to getting the win:

1) Ball Security. This is a strength vs strength factor here, where VT is top 10 nationally in forcing turnovers (basically one in four possessions), and strong in grabbing live ball steals (over one in ten possessions). Virginia, by contrast, is elite when it comes to not committing turnovers (4th nationally, only 14.2% of possessions). But when we do commit turnovers, they're of the live ball variety, as our steal giveaway rate is above average but still mediocre (8.2%, 113th nationally). There may be reason to worry with our PGs here. Ty Jerome has been known to have high TO games (5 vs Marshall, and only one game all year without a TO), and Kihei Clark's ball handling with the cast/splint has been suspect (3 TOs against VCU, 4 vs Marshall, 2 vs BC). Meanwhile, all four of VT's primary guards (Robinson, NAW, Bede, and Hill) are ball-hawks (5.5 steals per game between them). If Virginia gets careless, it's not just going to hamper our offensive flow, it's going to give VT's excellent guards bonus fast break opportunities to change the game's momentum in their favor.

2) Dominate the glass at both ends. For a small team, Virginia Tech is pretty effective hitting the glass on both ends. They're 61st nationally in offensive rebounding and 82nd in defensive rebounding. Kerry Blackshear is the primary catalyst, but forwards Outlaw, Horne, and Wilkins can crash the boards as well. But let's be frank... Virginia Tech has one player in their rotation over 6'7" (Outlaw as the starting 4 stands 6'6", backup PF Horne is 6'5")... Virginia has 5 (Hunter, Key, Salt, Diakite, and Huff). Resist the urge to go small to counter VT, and instead lean into our size advantage. Play the big lineup and there is no excuse for Virginia not to (a) easily lock down our defensive glass and (b) use our size/length advantages at the 3-5 to get critical second chance looks. Bonus that those chaotic putback attempts could also exploit Blackshear's foul proclivities, as the big man is crucial to VT's chances.

3) Commit to getting into the paint. Virginia Tech has committed to a paint-denial defense. The national average for the ratio of 3PA to overall FGA is 39%. Yet through three ACC games, VT's opponents are taking 54% of their shots from deep. That's not a balanced offense, and other than generating TOs, it's the biggest reason VT's defense is keeping teams from getting into a rhythm. And it's exactly what they did to us in Charlottesville last year, when our unwillingness to play downhill led us to take an insane 38 3-point attempts, 62% of our total shot attempts.

It is critical that Virginia refuse to settle for long jump shots after passing the ball around the perimeter. The traditional Sides offense likely isn't going to cut it. We need to see three things. First is ball screens to look for PnR opportunities or switch mismatches to attack (especially when Wilkins or Horne see action). Second is to feed the bigs on the blocks off of pin-down screens where they can look to attack VT's bigs. Third is to go full-Michigan/Nova-spread with Mamadi or Jay at the 5 and open up the paint to the dribble-drive. Off of those actions, we can look for kick-outs to shooters as a secondary option, catching VT's closeout defenders looking the wrong direction. But not without attacking the paint first and foremost.

 

 

Predictions:

On paper, I see a lot to like here. Their strengths look to be offset by a lot of ours. They force a lot of turnovers, but we take great care of the ball. They shoot the 3 ball extremely effectively, but we're America's best at defending the 3-point line.

Additionally, Virginia Tech has been feasting on a sub-par schedule to date; KenPom ranks their SoS at 261st nationally (ours is 120th, for comparison). They've played exactly two KenPom Top 50 teams, Purdue in November and U-Washington before Christmas. This game will be our fourth vs a KP Top 25 team, and only VT's 2nd, so there's an argument we should be somewhat better prepared for this.

Discussing some of the intangibles here, this is VT's Super Bowl, Buzz has drilled the "little brother" complex into his players' heads effectively enough for them to want/need a win over UVA to validate themselves. This is the best team (on paper) in VT's history and knocking off UVA is the logical next step in their eyes to achieving something all these seniors have been working towards. And they even got a mini-bye before this game, being the odd team out of this past weekend's ACC pairings, having had since last Wednesday to rest. Yet at the same time, UVA hasn't forgotten how last year went, VT raining on our GameDay parade, being the lone black mark on an otherwise perfect ACC season. And I doubt seriously anyone on UVA's roster is even thinking about Duke yet.

The trend for the last five seasons has been for UVA to win one game over VT by double digits (often comfortably), and in the other game for VT and UVA to go down to the wire (VT has won the last 3 of these, 2 of them in OT). Before last year, UVA would safely win the JPJ iteration while struggling in Cassell. Last year flipped that script.

At the end of the day, I think UVA gets the job done here. Maybe it's not the blowout we saw in years past, but maybe not the squeaker either. Just a hard fought win where the experienced Hoos defend the home court against a very good and very motivated opponent.

Hoos Win 65-59