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The Big Preview: Virginia looking to rebound against NC State

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Virginia at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It pretty much goes without saying that Saturday’s game was disappointing. It was a bit of an “everything that could go wrong did go wrong” situation for Virginia Basketball. Jay Huff got into foul trouble and wasn’t on the floor enough. Sam Hauser struggled to get clean looks. And Virginia Tech got hot shooting the basketball. No team is going to win shooting under 40% while their opponent shoots 50%. Virginia Tech is a very good defensive team (modeled after Tony Bennet’s Pack Line), but their offense (mostly Keve Aluma) won the game.

Virginia will not face a team as good on defense until the postseason, so that’s nice. Their next game is against an NC State team that barely ranked in the top 100 nationally in defensive efficiency. At 7-6 (3-5 ACC) the Pack are currently ranked 71st nationally (per KenPom). But they’ve lost five of six and several of those games were blowouts (including 105-73 against FSU).

The Wolfpack are also now playing without their leading scorer, Devon Daniels. He suffered an ACL tear last week against Wake Forest. In his stead, freshman Cam Hayes started on the wing. Hayes is a similar player as Daniels, but smaller and (possibly) more athletic.

The backcourt battle will be very important in this game, as the Pack have a pair of deadly shooters. First is senior Braxton Beverly, who Virginia is certainly very aware of. He’s never scored more than eight points against the Hoos in five career games. Next to him is Nebraska transfer Thomas Allen, who is a better scorer but not the passer or ball-handler that Beverly is. Beverly is shooting 44% this year (37% career) and Allen is at 42% this year (also 37% career). We have seen too often this year that hot shooting can keep opponents in a game against this year’s version of the Pack Line.

They are not afraid to take a three early in the shot clock. Going to be important for the Virginia backcourt of Kihei Clark and Reekman to pick up their man outside the three point line. Both Allen and Beverly are capable of knocking down those deep threes.

Up front is the duo of Manny Bates and D.J. Funderburke. Funderburke was a starter last year and averaged 13 points per game. But he began this year on the bench behind Bates. Bates is bigger, stronger and was a highly sought after recruit a year ago, although Funderburke outplayed him last season. Right now, they’re basically splitting minutes at the five, though they have played together a bit as well.

This comes against a zone, so it’s the same look we’ll see tonight. But it shows the two big men collaborating on a nicely designed play. This also shows one reason Bates is getting more playing time than Funderburke. His basketball IQ is significantly higher. Funderburke does not have a single assist in nine games played. Against Syracuse, with Daniels out, Bates had 17 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks.

But with the leading scorer Daniels out, and the second leading scorer on the season is 6’7” junior wing Jericole Hellems. Hellems averaged just under 10 points per game last year, but has stepped up his play across the board. His rebound rate is up, his assist rate is up, and his shooting has improved. His defense has also improved.

Head coach Kevin Keatts is a former disciple of Rick Pitino and they play a similar style to what Pitino’s teams did. They are going to press, full-court on any made basket or inbounds play. They generate a lot of steals. But if you break the press, you often get good looks.

Plus, their backcourt of Beverly and Allen are not good individual defenders. They can be beaten for some easy buckets.

One advantage Virginia should have in this game is on the glass — State is just not very strong on the glass. In fact, they rank outside the top 300 nationally in defensive rebounding. We don’t generally see Virginia crash the offensive glass hard, but even just Jay Huff in there could lead to some easy baskets. Virginia’s other bigs have also all capitalized on offensive rebounds in their limited playing time.

Hellems is going to be an important part of this game. Virginia has struggled against big guys who can shoot, and teams that can spread the floor with shooters. With Hellems playing the 4, the Pack can put four shooters on the floor along with a solid big man. That’s a recipe that has bothered Virginia this year, especially on the road.

Even without Daniels, this is a good enough offensive team that they could very well cause problems for the Virginia defense. This year’s defense just isn’t on the level we’ve seen in past years. But Virginia’s offense (VT game notwithstanding) is so much better than what we saw last season. And that is where NC State struggles. If they can’t generate turnovers, they can’t get stops.

Yes, we saw Virginia struggle a little bit against Syracuse’s press. But that game was already out of reach and Virginia was taken by surprise a little bit. And once they righted the ship, they ended up with some easy buckets against the press. This time out, Virginia has likely been preparing for the press all week and should be ready. With two PGs on the floor most of the time, Virginia shouldn’t be troubled too much by the press, and those easy buckets could end up demoralizing a struggling Wolfpack team.

Assuming NC State doesn’t get ridiculously hot from deep, Virginia should be able to control tempo and outscore the Pack.