If you’re a fan of Virginia Basketball—and we’re guessing you are if you’re here—then Tuesday night’s matchup between the No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers and No. 9 Virginia Tech Hokies should scare you. The Hokies were only team to knock off the Hoos in the ACC last year. The Hokies also haven’t played since last Wednesday, whereas Virginia has played back to back road games. The Hoos also have an ESPN Gameday showdown in Durham on Saturday to look forward to. Obviously, Tony Bennett has his guys focused on this game, but that doesn’t mean Duke isn’t in their minds. And we know it’s in the media’s minds.
This Hokies team looks like it may be Virginia’s kryptonite. The Hokies are the fourth best shooting team in America and the fifth best in three-point shooting. That’s how you beat the Pack Line. Virginia Tech is solid on the interior. But they won’t need to go inside to win. They are perfectly content to spread the floor and make you guard the perimeter. Six Hokies average at least two three-point attempts per game, and the worst of that group is PG Justin Robinson, who makes almost 37%. Robinson actually started out the season on fire, but has made just 5 of his last 24 attempts from deep.
The Hokies were pretty good offensively last year, too, but it’s the defense that has really come on this season. A year ago, Virginia Tech ranked 70th nationally in defensive efficiency (and 156th the previous year). Now, they’re 21st, and that’s with basically the same rotation. The Hokies lost three contributors from last year. One of those was SG Justin Bibbs, who is a poor defender. The other two, Chris Clarke and Devin Wilson, were both excellent defenders. The only addition is SG Isaiah Wilkins (no relation to Virginia’s beloved big man).
No, the difference in defense can be mostly attributed to Buzz Williams. (Though to be honest, much of it may be due to poor opposition.) Under Buzz, the Hokies have historically played tough half-court defense. But they’ve also been an up-tempo team and they’ve tried to force turnovers. Forcing turnovers is great, but it can also lead to easy buckets for the opposition when you fail to get the steal. They are still forcing turnovers (9th in the nation in turnover rate) but they’re not giving up as many easy buckets. At least not yet. That may change in conference play.
Here’s an example of that pressure defense forcing a turnover and easy bucket. It was late and BC was trying to push the ball. VT’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker reads the pass and takes it away. The Hoos likely won’t be trying to push the ball like that, but they still need to be careful about Hokie defenders hanging out in the backcourt, looking for errant passes.
The Hokies starting lineup is Robinson, big man Kerry Blackshear and 3 wings. That quintet takes 80% of the team’s shots. In ACC play, it’s 90%. Blackshear is the only big guy they have, and he’s really not a banger. He’s very good on the glass, but offensively he’s more of a perimeter player. He’s very mobile and works well going to the rim. Here’s an example of a drive.
Obviously, this circus shot is not his usual play, but it demonstrates his ability inside. The second play is a typical move of Blackshear’s. He gets the ball in good position and uses his quickness and good footwork to get an easy bucket. He also gets to the line quite a bit (leads the team in FTA), but is a poor FT shooter. This game may not be a great situation for Jack Salt, because there simply isn’t anybody on VT for him to guard. Salt played just 17 minutes in each of the two matchups last year. Wilkins generally had the assignment of guarding Blackshear. Figure on seeing Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key splitting that matchup this time out.
Blackshear was the MVP (according to KenPom) of Virginia Tech’s 52-49 win over Georgia Tech last Wednesday. He had 14 points and 10 rebounds. He was just 3-of-8 from the field, but was also 8/12 from the FT line. He averages 14 and 6. He’s also a good shot blocker, but not really a great man defender. If the Hoos decide to go small with Braxton Key at the 5-spot, Key could have his way with Blackshear. Key would be giving up quite a bit of size, but so would Diakite.
Going with a smaller lineup means putting Kihei Clark on Justin Robinson. Clark’s minutes have been down in ACC play. Some of that is due to his injured wrist, but some of it is matchups too. He played strong defense on Marcquise Reed last time out. Robinson is a similar player to Reed. They’re about the same size. They’re both PGs who like to score. Both probably shoot a bit too many threes, though both are strong shooters. Robinson is left-handed, which might actually be better for Clark, who has an injured left wrist. (Robinson going left would be to Clark’s right.)
And then there’s Alexander-Walker, who was a big-time recruit last year and could be a late lottery pick if he decides to go pro after this season. Alexander-Walker was a big part of the Hokies upset win at JPJ last year, scoring 12 points on 4-of-6 from downtown. He’s making 42% of his treys this year (coming off an 0/6 against GT), but he’s also become a much more dangerous all-around scorer. Last year, well over half his shots came from downtown, and he shot just 51% from inside the arc. This year, he’s taking two-thirds of his shots from inside the arc, and making 64%. A lot of that is coming in transition (below), though there has been a concerted effort for him to play off the bounce more.
Figure on DeAndre Hunter getting the main assignment of guarding Alexander-Walker. It’d be a matchup of two guys who will probably be in the NBA next year. Hunter is bigger. Alexander-Walker is probably quicker.
Tony could also decide to put Jerome on Alexander-Walker (Devon Hall guarded him last year, while Guy guarded Robinson). Jerome has the size to play with the Hokie guard, but Alexander-Walker has more quickness. The Pack Line helps to negate some of that quickness. If Clark isn’t around, Guy will likely be on Robinson again. That leaves Hunter to guard the Hokies bigger wings, Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw.
Neither of those two are as dangerous as Alexander-Walker. Hill is actually second on the team in FGA, but takes 60% of his shots from downtown. That’s really the story of his career, as he’s a deadly three point shooter. Outlaw is a big wing, at 6’6” 220, and is second on the team in rebounds. But most of those rebounds are on the defensive end, because he’s not playing on the inside. An amazing 75% of his shots have come from downtown at an almost 50% clip (though he’s made just 38% in league play).
There could be some interesting coaching decisions in this one. If Tony goes small with Key at the 5, Buzz could counter with P.J. Horne up front. He’s not nearly as big or strong as Blackshear, but he’s more mobile and is also an excellent interior scorer. If Buzz has Hill, Outlaw and Blackshear in the game together, that may force Tony to go with a bigger lineup featuring Hunter and Key along with one of the bigs. It’ll be an interesting game of chess.
Still, for all the style difference and coaching decisions, this game very likely comes down to which team makes more outside shots. The Hokies are, statistically, the better outside shooting team (though not by much), but Virginia is #1 nationally in 3-point-defense (Hokies are 95th). The Hokies are #1 in the country in percentage of opposition points coming on threes (over 42%). Around 27% of opposing points come from three against the Hoos.
The Hokies are also coming in cold, making just under 33% in ACC play (which includes an insane 11/18 against Notre Dame). Meanwhile, Virginia has made over 43% in their three ACC games (and have been consistent making between 42% and 44% in each). The Hoos are also at home, which often finds friendlier rims. If those trends continue, Virginia should be OK. But it’s a rivalry game and there’s lots of other stuff going on. It’ll be fun.