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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at VaTech

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The Hoos take their 12-1 record on the road to Blacksburg.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

After basically a decade of down years, Hokie basketball is no longer an afterthought, neither in the ACC nor nationally. They made the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2007 and are in the “also receiving votes” section of the most recent Coaches Poll. The Hokies are currently 11-3, but have lost to the only two “good” teams they’ve played (Kentucky and Syracuse). Their best win is over Iowa (KenPom #78), and also lost to a bad Saint Louis team (KenPom #185).

The strength of this team is shooting. They rank 30th in offensive efficiency, but rank #1 in effective FG%. They are fifth in the nation in three point shooting and sixth in two point shooting. They struggle on the offensive glass and turn the ball over too much. When you shoot the ball very well, the offensive rebounding isn’t that big a deal, but the turnovers will kill you.

Virginia Tech is one of the smaller teams among Power 5 schools. Just one rotation player is over 6’6” and that is junior Kerry Blackshear, who plays just 21 minutes per game as he is very often in foul trouble. Their leading rebounder is 6’6” Chris Clarke, at seven per game. Considering the pace they play at, that isn’t a lot, although Clarke does not start and only plays about 24 minutes per game. Blackshear is a good shot blocker, the only real threat on the offensive glass and has turned himself into a decent shooter (4-for-9 from three this year after 4-for-17 last year). Clarke is a beast on the defensive glass and in transition but doesn’t shoot much.

The Hokies are led in scoring by a talented wing duo of Ahmed Hill (15.6) and Justin Bibbs (14.6). Bibbs (a lefty) has the reputation of being a dead-eye shooter, but it’s actually Hill who is lighting up the nets at over 50% from three. Bibbs is at 41%. Prior to this year, Hill was a 38% shooter and Bibbs was 43%. In other words, don’t be surprised if Bibbs’ numbers get better and Hill’s get worse.

The final two members of the starting five are PG Justin Robinson and freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Hoos just got torched by another Robinson—Jerome, from BC—so that’s scary. This Robinson isn’t really a scorer, although he’s a strong PG and has upped his three point shooting to 40%. He excels at getting into the paint and either drawing contact and kicking to open shooters. He averages almost six assists per game and scores nearly a third of his points from the FT line. Alexander-Walker is another talented wing who is shooting 45% from three. He might be the best all-around player on the roster, but is still getting up the speed on college basketball. He was one of the top recruits in the nation last year, and has lived up to the hype early on. He averages 13 points, four rebounds, two assists and is shooting over 50% from the field. He also may be the best perimeter defender on the team.

All five starters average over 10 points per game, but that is propped up by the pace they play. Against Syracuse, in their slowest game of the year, just three scored double figures led by Alexander-Walker’s 19. The Hokies struggled to get open looks against Syracuse’s zone and were crushed inside by Syracuse’s length. The Hokies had just 19 points at halftime and trailed by double-digits for most of the second half.

The Hoos do not play a zone, but they do have a ton of length. With Jack Salt keeping Blackshear away from the paint, Isaiah Wilkins is poised to have another big game, because nobody else is strong enough to stop him. That may mean Clarke sees more time, which hurts the Hokies offensively. Either way, Wilkins should own the glass and could also rack up the blocks against the undersized Hokies.

Robinson is a solid defender, so Ty Jerome probably won’t score 31 points again. Then again, Jerome has a pretty big size advantage on Robinson and may just be able to shoot over top of him. Bibbs and Hill are not particularly good defenders, so hopefully Devon Hall and Kyle Guy are able to get going again.

If Guy has trouble guarding Hill (6’5” 210), we could see more of DeAndre Hunter, who has the size and length to bother the Hokies wings. A big Wahoo lineup of Jerome, Hall, Hunter, Wilkins and Salt would lack offensive punch, but could really give the Hokies fits on their end of the court. Of course, Tony could also matchup small with Jerome, Guy, Hal, Hunter and Wilkins. That would be a better offensive lineup, while still having enough size to matchup with the smaller Hokies. In that case, you’d likely see Guy on Robinson with Jerome switching onto Hill. This lineup won’t play if both Clarke and Blackshear are on the floor.

Next month, when the Hoos face the Hokies in Charlottesville, I’ll be much more confident. This time out, in Blacksburg, it’s a tough call. The Hokies are a tough matchup for the Cavs because of their collective ability to shoot the basketball from the outside. With no less than six guys who can rain down threes, the Hokies are well built to take down the Pack Line. We learned this on Saturday against the Eagles. BC knocked down contested jumpers all day, and very nearly knocked off the Hoos. Cassell Coliseum is a tough place for visitors and the Hoos have struggled there for a while. Tony Bennett is 5-3 in Blacksburg, but only one of those wins was by more than four points. Count on another close game, and don’t be surprised if the team with the ball last comes away with the win.