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The Big Preview: UVA basketball tips off against struggling Virginia Tech Hokies

Previewing the first of two Commonwealth Clashes this season between the Hokies and the ‘Hoos.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Virginia Tech Ryan Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

I love winning…It’s, like, better than losing.

The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team comes into this intrastate ACC matchup riding a three game winning streak. On the other hand, the Virginia Tech Hokies enter this matchup on a five game losing streak. We will see if it makes a difference, if momentum from game-to-game is actually a thing.

The Hokies entered the season ranked 20th on KenPom. They opened the season 11-1, with wins over Penn State and UNC. At that point, the Hokies had fallen to 29th on KenPom. This was due to a loss to College of Charleston (currently 18-1 and ranked), but also to a few closer-than-expected games against mediocre teams. Then senior wing Hunter Cattoor suffered an arm injury against BC (a loss) and then missed the next four games (all losses). The Hokies have fallen all the way down to 45th. Incidentally, Cattoor is expected to be back for this game.

This is Cattoor from the first matchup last year, which Virginia won 54-52. This play works because Virginia is focused on defending the screen-and-roll with Hokie big man Keve Aluma. The attention inside means that Cattoor is wide open on the baseline. He’s over 40% from three for his career. He is not going to miss that shot. Over 70% of his FGA come from downtown. Tracking him will be very important. Kihei Clark has largely been responsible for Cattoor in previous matchups though, on the above play, Kody Stattmann was on Cattoor, and gave him too much space.

Aluma averaged 23 points per game in the two matchups last year, but he exhausted his eligibility. Taking his role this year is Wright State transfer Grant Basile. Aluma was an inside/outside threat, but only attempted about two treys per game. Basile is over five attempts per game, and he’s making 39% (33% career). Basile is coming off a 26 point effort against Syracuse, on 12/17 shooting.

As mentioned, he can shoot the rock. But he’s really at his best on the inside. His combination of size and quickness with the basketball make him a tough cover. Tony Bennett has gone with a lot of small-ball lineups, largely with Ben Vander Plas at center. We’ll almost definitely see that again because BVP and Basile match up well together.

Mostly, Basile plays the five with Justyn Mutts at the four. At 6’7”, Mutts leads the team in rebounds, but is also second in assists. They will run the offense through Mutts at times. He’s always been a beast inside, but now has developed his three point shot into a weapon. He’s 10/22 (46%) thus far. He’s not shooting it much, but he is knocking them down.

First is Mutts doing what Mutts can do inside. But the second is more impressive for a big man. Tremendous pass, and a great finish as well from Sean Pedulla.

As a freshman, Pedulla was mostly a non-factor last year. He started to come on for the Hokies late in the season, and was probably their best player in their NCAA tournament loss to Texas. Now a sophomore, Pedulla leads the team in usage rate, field goal attempts, free attempts, points, and assists.

He has taken 42% of his shots from downtown, but has made just 33%. He is a better shooter than that, as seen below. The Clemson defender falls down, and Pedulla just isn’t going to miss that wide open three.

As you can see above, Pedulla can do more than just shoot. He’s averaging almost 17 points and 4.5 assists per game. He’s a bit undersized (6’1” 195) and he isn’t the best athlete either. Reece has the size and quickness to cause him problems. Pedulla should get his points, but he’ll have to work for them.

All five starters for Virginia Tech can shoot. Some are more willing than others, but they’re all capable. But really, other than Cattoor, none of them are “shooters”. They rank just 192nd nationally in three point rate (threes as a percentage of field goal attempts). They are also just 176th in three point percentage. While they will play some five-out, the goal is to find space to get the ball inside.

The Hokies rank 62nd in defensive efficiency. This is their weakness, they just aren’t a very good defensive team. Pedulla can get pushed around some. Basile is a decent weak side shot blocker, but not a great post defender. Cattoor is a poor defender. Mutts, however, is an outstanding defender, and will probably be tasked with shutting down Armaan Franklin. That will be a tough matchup for Virginia’s leading scorer. Other guys are going to have to step up.

Last year’s Hokie team finished 23-13 while ranking 54th defensively. Their offense ranked 17th, and that is why they were an NCAA team (and got a bit unlucky with an 11 seed). This year’s team is just 43rd offensively, which is making a difference. They’ve been at or under one point per possession in four of their five consecutive losses. Getting Cattoor back should help the offense. Will that be enough to get them right? Will it be enough to upset Virginia at JPJ?