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The Big Preview: Virginia Returns Home to Face NC State

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 18 Virginia at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Following a big win on the road, the Virginia Cavaliers get to return home to face a tough NC State squad that is tied for fourth in the ACC—the coveted last double-by in the ACC tournament—with the Hoos and a couple of others. It’s still early, but this is a big game for the Hoos.

Like Virginia, NC State is coming off a win on Saturday night in a 60-54 victory over Clemson, avenging an earlier road loss just two weeks prior.

Under head coach Kevin Keatts over the past couple years, the Wolfpack have been one of the fastest paced teams in the nation. Not so this year. They’re currently ranked 150th in pace, though the difference is largely on the defensive side; they still play very fast on offense.

In fact, this will be one of the best offenses Virginia will face this year, with Markell Johnson running the point. Johnson has an NBA game, though he’s not shooting the ball well this year. He’s a career 36% shooter from downtown, but is just 27% this year. Is it the new, longer shot? Or just a prolonged slump? Hard to say for sure, but Johnson is also a very poor FT shooter, so it may be that the longer shot is just out of his range.

Johnson is second on the team in scoring, but first in shot attempts. He’s also second in the ACC in assists. Even without shooting the ball well, Johnson is dangerous because of plays like this:

Notice he gets a screen from big man D.J. Funderburk, but goes away from the screen. He has the quickness to beat his man and the threat of the screen means the Clemson big man isn’t there. Johnson also has the ability to complete the tough finish inside.

Here’s another play, also from Saturday’s Clemson game. In this one, he uses the screen (kinda, it’s not a great screen) and Funderburk rolls to the rim. It’s a tough pass from Johnson, but he gets the ball to his man for the dunk.

Funderburk is one of the nation’s leaders in FG%, because most of his shots are dunks like that. Funderburk isn’t a great defender, and struggles with fouls, so he only averages about 23 minutes per game but behind that, Funderburk has also lost minutes to 2018 recruit Immanuel “Manny” Bates. After taking a redshirt last year, Bates is really still learning the game, but with his size and strength, he’s getting lots of dunks and blocking lots of shots. However, also struggles with fouls and doesn’t have much of an offensive game outside of those dunks.

Here’s a couple of blocks from the Wisconsin game. Kihei Clark needs to be careful when he gets into the lane, because those blocks can turn into fast breaks very quickly.

Other than those two bigs, pretty much the entire NC State rotation is wings. Their leading scorer is senior C.J. Bryce, who was First Team All-CAA and CAA Tournament MVP with Keatts at UNC Wilmington. But the guy Virginia needs to focus on is Braxton Beverly. Beverly is a pure shooter. If he can get his feet set, he’s just not going to miss. And to be honest, he doesn’t even need his feet set.

This is the type of shot Virginia fans are used to seeing from Kyle Guy. Beverly isn’t as athletic as Guy (did you see his dunk the other night?), but he’s a similar shooter.

We may actually see Kihei Clark guarding Beverly with one of Virginia’s bigger wings on Johnson. That’s not just because Beverly is smaller than Johnson, but also because Virginia has been beaten several times this year by one guy going off from downtown. Beverly could be that guy in this game. In that case, Tomas Woldetensae would guard Johnson. Woldetensae has the length that could bother NC State’s PG and his three point shooting is very important for the Hoos.

Though typically good at slowing down the game, Virginia has struggled at times this year with turnovers, leading to some opposition fast breaks that the Hoos cannot afford tonight. NC State can put up points in a hurry. They scored 1.19 points per possession against Wisconsin with only six total points from the two big men and Johnson struggling. It was all Bryce and sophomore Jericole Hellems (23 points on 8/13 from the field).

Hellems is 6’7” 205, so he’ll likely get a large dose of Casey Morsell on him. Morsell has the strength to be physical with Hellems on the perimeter, something Hellems doesn’t like. Hellems also is not a good defender, so maybe Morsell can get going offensively. It would be a huge boost to the Hoos if they can get some scoring from their talented freshman.

It isn’t just Hellems defensively. The Pack are not a good defensive team. They’re one of the worst defensive teams in the ACC. They want to force turnovers, but that’s really all they do. They have the big men to block some shots, but they give up a lot of easy buckets inside.

The Hoos don’t play again until Sunday, so getting a win in this one is important, especially since they have another quick turnaround next week, with Sunday (road against Wake Forest) and then home on Tuesday against FSU. If they avoid the turnovers that have hurt them so much this year, a home win is likely.