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The Big Preview: UVA basketball heads to Wake Forest for a big test

Previewing the Cavaliers’ matchup with Wake Forest.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Now riding a four game winning streak and looking like the best team in the ACC, the Virginia Cavaliers head back out on the road to face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who are also riding a four game winning streak.

Wake sits at 14-5 (6-2 ACC), tied for second in the conference with Virginia, Pitt, and Miami. But, of those four teams, they rank the lowest by KenPom, Bart Torvik, and ESPN BPI. They have not lost at home yet this year, with a win over Duke and as they just gave Clemson its first ACC loss on Tuesday. But they lost also to a mediocre LSU team as well as a mediocre Loyola Marymount team (who actually just ended Gonzaga’s 76-game home winning streak, so maybe that’s not actually a bad loss).

The strength of this Wake Forest team is shooting the rock. They are 63rd in three point rate, and 30th in three point percentage. Take a lot of threes, and make a lot of threes. That’s a good recipe for winning basketball games. All five starters average at least two attempts per game from deep. Damari Monsanto, a transfer from East Tennessee prior to last season, is over seven attempts per game, and he makes over 40%. Monsanto didn’t play much last year and didn’t even get into the Deacon’s win at JPJ. In fact, only 12 out of their 63 points from that game are back for this one. They came from Daivien Williamson, who doesn’t even start right now.

That is, in part, because of transfers. The top one is point guard Tyree Appleby, a graduate transfer from Florida (after starting at Cleveland St), is shooting 43% on about five attempts per game. Appleby leads the team in minutes, usage rate, field goal attempts, free throw attempts, assists, and steals.

Appleby’s role is a lot like Virginia Tech’s Sean Pedulla. Pedulla averages over 16 points per game but had just 10 on 4/9 shooting on Wednesday. Kihei Clark spent much of the game on Pedulla and continually pestered him all over the court.

Clark fights over the screen, and then picks Pedulla’s pocket, leading to an easy layup. Clark had 20 points and five assists and was the best player on the floor for extended stretches. Clark is posting career highs in points, assists, steals, free throw rate, field goal percentage, and three point percentage. Clark is 14th in the nation in assists per game, playing at the fourth slowest pace in the nation. He is simply playing at an All-ACC level, and here’s hoping the ACC media is noticing.

Come on, this is ridiculous.

Like the Hokies, the Deacons have a very good offense. Their offense might actually be better than the Hokies, because they shoot it so well. But their defense is far worse. The Deacons rank 32nd in offensive efficiency while sitting at 139th in defensive efficiency. They are small on the perimeter and, although they have size up front, they don’t really have shot blockers or strong interior defenders.

Seven footer Matthew Marsh has started the past nine games up front, but has just two blocks all season. Despite starting, Marsh has averaged just 14 minutes per game over the past three. If Virginia continues to play small-ball, Marsh may not have much of a role in this game.

For a team that shoots so many threes, it should not be surprising that they are dominated by their backcourt. Three guards are atop the team scoring leaders. Those three are Appleby (6’1”), Monsanto (6’6”) and Cameron Hildreth (6’4”). Monsanto takes over three-quarters of his shots from downtown. Hildreth, on the other hand, shoots just 20% of his shots from downtown (and does not shoot it well).

This is a four-point play (he converted the free throw) from Monsanto. Appleby’s penetration forces help and opens up the shot.

When (and if) both teams go big, you may see Reece Beekman on the bigger Monsanto. We have seen Reece guard bigger wings who mostly just shoot threes. Beekman can often keep the bigger players from getting the ball. And because Monsanto is not a post player, Reece doesn’t have to worry about being overwhelmed inside.

When the teams go small, as expected, we might see Ben Vander Plas guarding Monsanto. This is because of the emergence of Ryan Dunn, who has been a solid small-ball four. In this case, Dunn would be on Wake’s big man Andrew Carr. Carr is a transfer from Delaware, and though he can shoot it a bit (35% on three attempts per game), that’s not his strength.

Carr is a physical guy, and can play both face up or with his back to the basket. He’s going to have trouble getting around or through Dunn. The matchups on Virginia’s end would likely be reversed.

Wake is tough at home. They have allowed just 0.97 points per possession at home. On the road, it’s 1.1 points per possession. Some of that is quality of opponent, but they are clearly playing better at home. They played at Clemson back in December and lost by 20, but won the rematch by 10 points.

The best defensive team Wake have played this year is Rutgers. Wake scored 0.83 points per possession in that game which is, by far, their worst of the season. Rutgers have a ton of size and force a lot of turnovers, so not exactly a match for Virginia’s defense. But, it shows that a quality defense can shut down this offense. That’s what this game is about. Virginia needs to be better defensively than they were on Wednesday, or else they may well lose this game.