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The Big Preview: Virginia basketball rides four-game win streak to Blacksburg

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers are playing their best basketball as we near the end of February, winning four in a row and seven of the last eight. The Hoos have a three-game lead for the ACC Tournament double-bye, and it’s not a statistical improbability to still win the regular season.

Tonight’s opponent is headed in the opposite direction. The Virginia Tech Hokies are 15-12, but 6-10 in the ACC. After opening 5-2 in conference, they’ve lost seven of eight and now sit eleventh in the ACC. That includes a three overtime loss, at home, to Miami last week and they are coming off a blowout loss at Duke.

That’s not to say crazier things haven’t happened. Virginia came away with the easy win earlier in the season in Charlottesville, taking a double digit lead thirteen minutes in and not looking back. The defense was the star, holding the Hokies to just 39 points and just 27% from the field. Meanwhile, Virginia shot just 7/21 from downtown, but six different Hoos hit a three. That’s shooting depth that Virginia hasn’t shown this year. It’s the only game all year in which more than four Wahoos nailed a three.

Here’s Casey Morsell knocking down an early three, at the time, a rare sighting for Virginia. Over the past four games though, Morsell has been 4-of-8 from downtown, and if that keeps trending in the same direction, Virginia opens up a lot of attacking options.

The Hokies came into the first contest ranked 11th int he country in three-point shooting, but put up only 4-of-25 from downtown, and have since dropped to 64th in the country. They still shoot a ton of threes, ranked 19th in the nation in percentage of threes attempted and with seven Hokies attempting at least two per game. Leading scorer Landers Nolley II is second in the ACC in three point attempts.

Nolley had a big game in the last matchup. He dropped 18 points on 7-of-16 from the field including all four of the Hokies’ threes (on eight attempts). In the first half, he had 15 of the Hokies’ 17, but was shut down in the second half, not scoring until he hit a three with under four minutes to go and Virginia up 22. He is a shooter, but he can score in other ways as well.

In this one, he gets a screen, but goes the other way. Braxton Key is leaning into the screen, and expecting help in the middle. He gets it, but too late. As discussed in the previous Hokie preview, they like to run a lot of different looks off their screen-and-roll game. The Hoos will have to be ready for this look among several others.

For the Hoos, both Braxton Key and Kihei Clark had big games. (Surprise, surprise.) The Hokie guards could not stay with Clark, and the Hokies don’t have a shot blocking presence inside. Clark was 6/11 from the field and also 7/8 from the stripe. The eight FTA are tied for season (and career) high for Clark.

The Pack Line, as you’d expect from the name, is intended to keep the ball on the outside. That means a lot of threes. Over 42% of FG attempts against Virginia are threes (that’s a lot). But, the Hoos are 15th nationally in three point FG defense. On the season, the Hoos allow just 29% from downtown. In their seven losses, it’s almost 39%. That’s the key in this one. If the Hokies knock down a bunch of threes, they’ll probably win. If they don’t, Virginia probably wins.