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The Big Preview: Virginia looks to continue win streak in Miami

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Can Virginia keep the dream of the No. 1 ACC seed alive?

NCAA Basketball: Miami-Florida at Virginia Tech Michael Thomas Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Eighteen games into the ACC regular season, and somehow the Virginia Cavaliers have yet to face the Miami Hurricanes. That changes on Wednesday, as Virginia heads to warm, sunny Miami for the penultimate game of the ACC regular season.

The Hoos are riding a six game win streak and are looking the best they’ve looked all season, coming off a big home win against Duke thanks to Jay Huff’s 15 points and 10 blocks. The Hurricanes, while just 14-14 (6-12 ACC) and ranked No. 106 on KenPom, have been decent at home with their home losses coming against Louisville, Duke, Florida State, and NC State. Their best win is a road win over Illinois in the ACC/BigTen Challenge...in the last decade, even. Their best win in 2020 is a home win over Wake Forest nearly three weeks ago.

Virginia PG Kihei Clark doesn’t get to play with a size advantage very often. I mean, if he played pickup at Mem Gym, he probably wouldn’t have a size advantage very often. But in this matchup, he does. Clark is listed at 5’9” 163, while Miami’s Chris Lykes is listed at 5’7” 165. Lykes was a top recruit for Jim Larranaga, ranked 48th by ESPN and 78th by Rivals. Clark did not have that kind of hype. He was ranked 59th by ESPN...just among PGs (46th by Rivals).

It’s not a fair comparison, because of team strengths and roles, but if you polled college basketball coaches right now, most would take Clark over Lykes. After all, Clark did this:

Made you smile, didn’t I? He also did this:

That’s a testament to Clark and his work effort. It’s also a testament to Tony Bennett for identifying Clark’s ability and for developing Clark as a player.

Lykes leads the Canes in scoring, assists and steals, and yet his minutes are down from last year. Some of that is due to the number of blowouts Miami has been a part of (generally on the losing end). Some of it is also due to a groin injury Lykes suffered a month ago. But a big part of it is freshman PG Harland Beverly.

Lykes’ strength is as a shooter. He’s made 38% from downtown this year, but he’s forced into a number of tough shots, which impacts that percentage. When he’s open, he’s deadly. He’s also got the step-back and the crossover pull-up in his arsenal.

Lykes is also great in transition. Not surprisingly, he’s very fast and is basically a one-man fast break.

They aren’t nearly as fast as Duke was, but similarly, they’ll get out and run when given the chance, which means Virginia will once again have to be particularly mindful of the turnover problem that threatened Virginia’s NCAA chances and plagued the offense earlier in the season. The Canes are not a good shooting team, they do not get to the FT line much and they are not strong on the offensive glass. They play a ton of one-on-one basketball (they are second to last in the nation in assists per FGM). They’re going to have trouble scoring points against the Pack Line, so easy buckets in transition will be huge for them.

Lykes was part of a big recruiting class for Miami that was supposed to change Miami Basketball. With Luke’s as a freshman, they made the NCAA as a six-seed. But then Lonnie Walker went pro (currently on the Spurs) and Deng Gak never materialized into an impact player. Larranaga brought in another big time recruiting class this year, which included Beverly. The other two members of that class are Anthony Walker (no relation to Lonnie) and Isaiah Wong.

Walker’s minutes have been sporadic, but Wong has been starting for the past month and he’s averaging almost 16 points per game during that stretch. He had 27 against the Hokies, which included 14-14 from the FT line. Getting to the line is his strength and he’s also knocking down 82% from the stripe. The three freshmen are getting important playing time right now on a poor Miami team, but they’re going to lead Miami’s resurgence over the next few years.

Behind Lykes in scoring are a pair of wings who are nothing alike. One is Dejan Vasilevic, in his fourth year at Miami, who is basically just a shooter. Over 60% of his shots come from downtown, and he’s making about 34% this year, down from his career numbers. But he’s made just 28% in ACC play, which has hurt Miami’s total offensive output. The other is Kameron McGusty, a transfer from Oklahoma. McGusty is much more athletic and capable of scoring off the bounce. He also shoots a lot of threes, but makes less than 33%.

This is a nice move and a good finish from McGusty. But Virginia Tech has no interior presence. Mr Ten Blocks would send that back where it came from.

This comes against a zone from FSU, so he wouldn’t get this kind of space against Virginia. But it shows his ability to hit the three coming off that curl. Vasilevic coming off screens could do some damage if he gets hot.

The Canes have spent most of the season starting two bigs. But they spend a lot of time with three wings and one big on the floor. The frontcourt rotation is basically three guys. One is Sam Waardenburg, a 6’10” New Zealand native who can shoot the rock. He’s making just 28% this year, but he’s around 35% for his career. He lost his starting gig three weeks ago, and his minutes have dropped accordingly. Taking his starting job is Florida grad transfer Keith Stone. The 6’8” senior came into the season having made over 39% of his career threes. He’s 5/30 this year. That’s worse than Casey Morsell has been. Stone is also strong on the glass.

The final member of the big man rotation is seven-foot junior Rodney Miller. Miller didn’t play much prior to this year, but he’s started 26 games this year and leads the frontcourt players in scoring. He’s tough to handle inside and also has the range to knock down a 15 footer. Miller and Waardenburg are both good shot blockers, but Miller is a better defender. He gets into foul trouble and has issues with focus. When he’s on, he can be a difference maker. That doesn’t happen often enough for Miami to count on him.

Miller isn’t really going to create his own shots, but he can finish when given the chance. They will run some pick n roll, but Miller is dangerous flying towards the rim.

As with so many of Virginia’s games, this should come down to three point shooting. Miami actually doesn’t shoot all that many threes, but they’re not going to get inside against the Pack Line with their one-on-one play. So that means they’ll have to rely on threes. If they knock down a bunch of them, they’ll give Virginia problems.

Similarly, the Canes are not a very good defensive team, but a lot of that is transition buckets. If the Hoos see a chance to get some easy buckets, they’ll run. But mostly, they’ll be content to play a half-court game against the Canes. The Hoos have a lot of advantages over Miami, but maybe not shooters. If Tomas Woldetensae gets back his stroke back, that’ll go a long way towards keeping the Hoos on top.

This is likely to be another low scoring affair. Miami’s offense against Virginia’s defense is a mismatch, and Virginia’s offense really isn’t good enough to take advantage of Miami’s poor defense. If it comes down to critical plays down the stretch, Virginia has the experience and talent to come away with another win. Knocking down some threes will help.