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The Big Preview: Hoos travel to Blacksburg to face Hokies

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Can Virginia stay undefeated in ACC play?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember when Clemson was leading the ACC in scoring defense and Virginia dropped 85 on them? That was fun. Do you remember when Syracuse was leading the ACC in scoring and Virginia held them to 58? That was fun too.

No. 8 Virginia gets back to it on Saturday against Virginia Tech, who are currently ranked No. 20 in the nation. While they are the third highest ranked ACC team (Florida State is 16th) in the polls, they are seventh in the ACC according KenPom’s rankings (45th overall). Yes, they beat Duke and Villanova, but they were also blown out by Syracuse and Penn State.

Thing is, this Va Tech team is young and inexperienced, and generally young and inexperienced teams tend to have a bigger difference between their best and worst performances. There’s only one senior in the rotation, Wadissa Bede, and although he has started every game at PG, he’s just fifth on the team in minutes and eighth in points per game. The team’s leading scorer is Keve Aluma, a 6’9 transfer from Wofford. He’s really the only size the Hokies have, and even he’s more of a perimeter player, at least offensively.

The Hokies’ second leading scorer is Tyrece Radford, but he is not with the team right now. He was suspended after being arrested for DUI and a weapons charge. Virginia Tech isn’t a very deep team to begin with and one fewer option will test that lack of depth. That, in turn, may mean more minutes for other VT wings who are better shooters. Radford leads the team in minutes, but his strengths lie mostly in transition, and he is not a good shooter.

With Radford out, head coach Mike Young has some decisions to make. On Wednesday night, against Notre Dame, backup PG Jalen Cone started in Radford’s place. But he saw fewer minutes than Hunter Cattoor, who has size and shooting ability on the wing. Cone was very good against Duke, scoring 14 points in 20 minutes with three made threes. Cone and Kihei Clark make a good matchup because they’re of similar stature and quickness. Clark really got the best of Cone last year.

Maybe you remember this game winner from Clark. That’s Cone guarding him and falling down:

This is Cattoor, who had 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting from downtown against the Irish. He was the only Hokie who shot the ball well, but it was enough to help open things up on the inside.

As a team, the Hokies do not shoot it well. They’re barely over 33%, ranked 157th nationally. However, when they do knock down outside shots, they’re tough to beat.

That’s what happened against Duke two weeks ago. They shot 6-for-14 (43%), which was enough for them to open a big lead and then hold on for the win. However, they did not shoot it well on Wednesday against Notre Dame. They won that game by dominating inside. They won the rebounding game 46-36 and that was enough against a poor Notre Dame team.

For the most part, this Va Tech team is winning with defense. They are 57th nationally in offensive efficiency (per KenPom), but 33rd in defense. A lot of that starts with Justyn Mutts. Mutts is a big wing who defends and excels in transition. Plus, with Radford — VT’s second leading rebounder — out against the Irish, Mutts had 11 rebounds in 33 minutes. he is a transfer from Delaware (after starting his career at High Point).

He shoots too many outside shots, and not well (22% for his career, 30% this season). Mutts will guard Sam Hauser, and that could be a problem for the Hoos. In both of Virginia’s losses this year, Hauser struggled to get going. If he struggles again, this game may be closer than expected.

That is Mutts on the finish. The Hokies want to get out in transition as much as they can. They won’t force things, but they’re going to need to get easy buckets to hang with Virginia. They simply do not have the outside shooter or interior scorers to consistently score against Virginia’s defense.

Hauser has been shooting (and making) more outside shots of late. In non-conference play, Hauser averaged 4.5 three point attempts per game. In league play, that’s up to 6.7 attempts. He shot 37% in out of conference play and he’s up to almost 47% in league play. There’s multiple reasons for that, including just the increased comfort level of Hauser and the team as the season has processed.

Some of it is also the emergence of Jay Huff as one of the best players in the country. Huff is drawing so much attention on the inside that Hauser is freed up to roam the outside and snipe his long range looks. If Mutts is able to hang with Hauser on the perimeter and prevent those outside shots, Virginia will have to get its offense from somewhere else. Then again, Duke’s Matthew Hurt (a similar player to Hauser) had 20 points (8-for-16 shooting) and 11 rebounds against the Hokies. So maybe Hauser won’t have any trouble.

To help stop that, reserve big man David N’Guessan could see an increase in minutes. He saw a few extra against the Irish and proved that he can hang inside. He has size and solid interior skills. He is one option to help slow down Huff, at least on the inside. Neither big man is going to be comfortable with Huff outside on the perimeter and we may see more of that this game, especially if Hauser has trouble getting open looks.

This Hokie team lacks size, lacks depth, and lacks outside shooting. That’s really not a good combination against this Virginia team. VT’s path to winning is to slow down Hauser and knock down enough outside shots to keep the Pack Line honest.