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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 1 Virginia travels to Miami for huge road test

Can the Hoos rebound from the Virginia Tech loss and retain the top spot in the polls?

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The newly No. 1 ranked Virginia Basketball team looks to get back to winning ways tonight against Miami. This is Virginia’s second trip to Florida in less than a week, having played at Florida State last Wednesday. The Canes are coming off a loss of their own on Saturday, as Miami fell 72-70 to Boston College. They are 7-5 in the ACC (18-6 overall) and fell out of the poll this week. In fact, they aren’t even in the “other receiving votes” in the Coaches Poll.

That’s what happens when you lose (arguably) your best player to injury, though it seems strange considering they’ve played four games without Bruce Brown, winning three of them. Then again, their record doesn’t scream top-25. Miami actually has a two game win streak against Virginia, having won an OT game last year at JPJ and wining at home in February 2016 (the teams actually split in 2016, with the Hoos winning at JPJ in January).

Before his injury, Brown was the second leading scorer on the team and led the team in rebounds, assists, steals, field goal attempts, and turnovers. Brown was actually pretty inefficient, mostly because he’s a poor shooter. He was taking almost three threes per game, making just 26% of them. He’s also very good at drawing fouls and getting to the line, but he’s just a 62% FT shooter.

Brown was a 5-star recruit (according to ESPN). Over the past two years, Jim Larranaga has brought in three 5-star guys and another three 4-star guys. Miami has never been a basketball school and had never recruited like that before. Hmm, I wonder if Larranaga was doing anything sketchy?

With Brown out, 5-star freshman Lonnie Walker has stepped up. He entered the starting lineup about a month ago (Jan 7) and has averaged 15.5 over the 10 games since. Walker is bigger than Brown, but perhaps not as explosive. He’s a much better shooter (37% from downtown), but Brown gets to the line more and is a much better playmaker. BC shut him down to the tune of six points on 2-for-9 shooting. At 6’5, 204, Walker figures to be matched up with Devon Hall. That hasn’t gone too well for wing scorers this year.

Overall, the team’s leading scorer is Brown’s classmate, 6’11 Dewan Huell. Huell is a beast inside, shooting 60% from the field, and averaging 13 points and seven rebounds per game. But, BC also shut him down, allowing him just two points on 1-for-5 shooting and just four rebounds. Huell is a bit like Kerry Blackshear, who the Hoos saw this weekend. He’s a little bigger, and Blackshear has some perimeter game that Buell doesn’t have. The combination of Wilkins, Salt and Diakite really shut down Blackshear. Duplicating that effort against Buell will be important.

Next to Walker on the wing is Dejan Vasiljevic, an Australian sharpshooter. He’s made 39% of his threes, and just about single-handedly kept Miami in the BC game. He was 5-for-10 from three and had a team high 17 points. Problem is, he doesn’t really do anything other than shoot. He spent most of the game guarding BC’s Jerome Robinson, who had 29 points on 15 shots.

Anthony Lawrence also plays on the wing, as essentially the four. Miami plays four “guards” a lot of the time. Lawrence is 6’7, 210, and will be a tough matchup for Isaiah Wilkins because of his perimeter skills. He isn’t really a guy to create his own shot, but he’s a strong passer and is very good at spotting up for threes. He’s made 48% of his threes (and 51% overall) on the year. Lawrence’s biggest weakness may be in his head. There’ll be times when he just doesn’t seem present. The best Wahoo to matchup with Lawrence is DeAndre Hunter. That matchup works well for the Canes as well, because Lawrence is an excellent defender.

Replacing Brown as the primary ball-handler has been a joint effort between freshman Chris Lykes and senior JaQuan Newton. Lykes was another big-time recruit, despite being just 5’7, 160 pounds. Obviously, at that size, you can be sure that he’s super quick. He can shoot a little bit (36% from downtown), but so far 63% of his shots have come from there. That’s because he simply isn’t able to consistently finish inside. He also struggles defensively because of his lack of size. He’s quick enough, but he can be bullied and most ACC guards can shoot over him. Newton is bigger, is a strong defender and playmaker, but he can’t shoot and he doesn’t have the same ceiling that Lykes has.

Two other rotation players are big men that play next to Huell in big lineups. One is sophomore Sam Waardenburg and the other is Ebuka Izundu. Waardenburg is a bit like Jay Huff in that he is very tall, has long arms, and can shoot. He and Jack Salt may be teammates one day for New Zealand, as both are on the national team’s radar. Izundu is big and strong and physical, but has little offensive game beyond dunks and is very foul-prone.

The Canes play a similar style to the Hoos. They aren’t quite as methodical, and they don’t defend with quite as much gusto. But they are definitely a defense-first team. They are 17th in the nation in defensive efficiency (the Hoos, you may have heard, are first). The offenses are similar, though Miami is a better inside (Huell) and the Hoos have better shooters. The Canes are also one of the worst FT shooting teams in the nation, something to consider late in a close game.