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THE BIG PREVIEW: #2 Virginia hits the road for matchup with Georgia Tech

The Hoos play just their second conference road game as they head to Atlanta.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers have had a bit of a break, with just one game over the past eight days. Beginning today, the Cavaliers have four games in the next 10 days. Three of those games are on the road, culminating in a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Georgia Tech, tonight’s opponent, began the season horribly. They started out 4-4, including an inexplicable home loss to Grambling State. Yes, they played without star wing Josh Okogie in that game, but an ACC team should not lose on its home floor to the 331st ranked team (per KenPom).

The Jackets have gotten things together now that Okogie (and fellow suspended guard Tadric Jackson) are both back. They are 10-7, and have won four in a row. They’re 3-1 in the ACC, with home wins over Notre Dame and Miami and a road win over Pitt on Saturday. Their loss is on the road to Notre Dame. (Yeah, they played a home-and-home with the Irish in their first 3 conference games. The ACC, Ladies and Gentlemen.)

Okogie is the key player for the Jackets. The Nigerian native led the team in scoring last year as a freshman. He’s leading again, averaging almost 19 points per game since his return. He’s also averaging over five rebounds, almost two steals and a block per game. Plus, he’s shooting 43% from three and 80% from the line. Nearly all his numbers are an improvement over last year, and he’s averaging over 35 minutes per game. At 6’4” 213, Okogie has an NBA body. He’s athletic, he’s strong and he is a two-way player. He’s got an NBA game and could go pro after this year.

The second best player for the Yellow Jackets is up for debate. Big man Ben Lammers is an obvious candidate as he averages 12 and eight, down a bit from last year. He’s a traditional interior player who can rebound, block shots and score both facing up and with his back to the basket. He’s 6’10” 235 and Jack Salt completely shut him down last year. Lammers came into that game with just one single-digit scoring game and Salt held him to seven points on 3-for-12 from the field.

The other candidate for second best is Jackson, the second leading scorer at 13.6 points per game. Jackson missed just three games (Okogie missed eight). Jackson, who plays next to Okogie on the wing, isn’t nearly the all around player. He’s shooting just 23% from three and just 62% from the stripe. He’s very good at getting to the rack and he’s a strong playmaker who has played some point guard. Jackson is also a poor defender, which hopefully means good things for Kyle Guy, which will be helpful if Okogie is able to shut down Devon Hall.

Don’t be surprised if Jackson ends up guarded by Ty Jerome. The reason for that is freshman PG Jose Alvarado. At just 6’0” 174, he’s a better matchup for Guy in terms of size. Alvarado is a tough kid who has played well against some of the poorer competition. But the Jackets have mostly struggled when he’s been a bigger part of the offense. He’s a good defender, but isn’t much of a shooter and he’s not really athletic enough to consistently beat the Wahoo defenders off the dribble.

Up front with Lammers is Abdoulaye Gueye, a 6’9” junior who hasn’t played much prior to this year. He’s a good defender and he’s pretty strong on the glass, but that’s about all he does. He may not get as much run in this one because there really isn’t anybody for him to guard on the inside. The Pack Line defense is tough enough to score against without having a “zero” out there on offense.

Two other guys to keep an eye on are freshman wing Curtis Haywood II and Lehigh transfer Brandon Alston. Haywood was starting while Okogie was out. He’s knocked down 42% of this threes, though he isn’t really known as a shooter. He’s scored just three points in 37 minutes of ACC play. He has shown strong playmaking skills, and is second on the team in assists. Alston is from Vienna, VA and has a reputation of being a strong shooter. He doesn’t provide much else, but he’s knocking down 38% of his treys.

The Jackets strength is on the wings, which just so happens to be the Hoos strength as well. And, though Okogie is a tremendous player, the Hoos have the advantage overall on the perimeter. If the Jackets go small with Lammers and 4 wings, that pretty much takes Jack Salt out of things. Isaiah Wilkins probably isn’t quick enough to guard Okogie (or anybody else) on the wing. That means he’s on Lammers, and he’s giving up a lot of size to Lammers. I suppose you could keep Salt on the floor in favor of Wilkins, but, well…no.

Both of these teams are defense first teams who really slow the ball down. But Jackets’ coach Josh Pastner has been an up tempo guy in the past. Is he adjusting to the talent on his team, or is he trying to keep games low scoring in the hopes of getting enough one-on-one plays from his talented wings to come out on top. It worked out against Miami and Notre Dame, but it failed big time against Grambling and Wofford. Things haven’t gone well when they sped it up either, as they lost at home to Wright State in their fastest game this year.

The Jackets don’t shoot the ball particularly well, nor do they shoot many threes. Okogie, though, has been shooting it well and taking over three a game. He may not truly be a 43% shooter though, as he shot just 37% last year and isn’t really seen as a shooter. In fact, the Hoos would probably prefer he shoot threes rather than use his strength and ability to get into the lane and get to the line. That’s going to be a big key. Can the Hoos defend without fouling? The Jackets get a lot of their points from the FT line, even though they don’t shoot FTs all that well. They are 48th in the nation in FT rate, but just 168th in FT%. That makes them 24th in the nation in percentage of points from the stripe.

Defensively, Pastner will probably switch between a man and some zone. He may even throw some press in there, since the Hoos have struggled a bit against the press. (GT is not known as a pressing, so that is pure speculation.) But we’ll almost definitely see some zone, and that means the Hoos will have to knock down outside shots. Considering how well they’ve been shooting it of late, it seems like that’s not the best strategy, but the Hoos haven’t played on the road in a while and sometimes the shots don’t drop on the road.

The Jackets chances hinge on the Hoos missing some open looks, and the refs calling the game tight. Both of these teams defend well, but the Hoos defend better than anybody else. And the Hoos have more offense as well. On the road, in conference, that should be enough, but it isn’t always.