The last time Virginia Tech played a top 10 team in a true road game during non-conference play was in 2010 at a third-ranked Kansas State team led by Jacob Pullen and Rodney McGruder. That changes tomorrow as the Hokies face #8 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
The Hokies will be underdogs on the road against a Kentucky team whose only loss is to Kansas. However, the Wildcats haven’t played a hard schedule outside of that with their best wins coming at home against Vermont and Harvard.
Many doubt Virginia Tech’s chances, but the Hokies have a good, realistic chance at pulling off the upset. With that said, here are three main reasons why the Hokies can pull off the upset at Rupp Arena.
1. Virginia Tech’s Experience vs. Kentucky’s Inexperience
Kentucky has eight players averaging double-digit minutes this season with six of them being freshmen and the other two being sophomores. This Kentucky team has plenty of talent, but their lack of experience has shown in some critical ways that significant help the Hokies’ upset hopes.
First, Kentucky is averaging a poor 15.6 turnovers per game which ranks outside the top 250 in the nation. For comparison, Virginia Tech is in the top 125 in the nation averaging only 13 turnovers per game with four games against teams from high-major conferences compared to one for Kentucky.
Second, Kentucky’s six freshmen have only played one game against a school from a major conference. Yes, the Wildcats have played some quality mid-major programs like Vermont and Harvard, but there’s a difference when you play a major conference team in terms of the athletes and skill.
Meanwhile, the Hokies have a 10-man rotation with five guys who have played two seasons and at least one year of ACC play. Virginia Tech has players who have been tested in tough environments around the ACC. The Hokies’ freshmen will play in the toughest environment they’ve ever been in, but they do have a road game under their belt at Ole Miss, which may not be Rupp Arena, but was still valuable road experience especially with VT having to come back to get a win.
Experience matters in college basketball whether it’s March or December. The Hokies have a core group of players who have been on the road in plenty of tough environments before. That core also knows how to play together and has an identity while Kentucky is still developing their identity due to the extreme youth and inexperience they have.
Kentucky will be much better in March than they are currently, and are more vulnerable to an upset tomorrow than later in the season, especially with the Hokies bringing plenty of experience with them to Rupp Arena.
2. VT Gets the Job Done at the Charity Stripe
In the past, this would be a reason why not to take Virginia Tech but this season, it’s a reason why Virginia Tech can pull off the upset.
The Hokies are shooting 74.7% from free-throw line and are among the top 5 in the most free throws made this season. Meanwhile, Kentucky is tied for 247th in the nation at the charity stripe shooting 68.1% from the free-throw line. The Wildcats have shown some improvement recently shooting at least 75% from the line each of their past two games, but that’s only a two-game snapshot.
One positive for Kentucky is the fact that they are in the top 80 in the country in least fouls allowed per game. However, they’ll be facing a Virginia Tech team that is aggressive in attacking the basket and has a knack for drawing fouls like very few teams in the country do. If the Hokies can get to the line consistently, they can do a lot of damage if they can make their free throws at the rate they’ve been making them at this year.
Kerry Blackshear has been particularly effective averaging 6.3 free-throw attempts per game (tied for 66th nationally in total free-throw attempts) and is taking advantage shooting 77.8% at the line. Blackshear knows that he’ll be facing young, inexperience big men who tend to be more apt to foul. If Blackshear can consistently get to the line against Kentucky, he can make life very difficult for the Wildcats.
The challenge that the Hokies will face is the fact that Rupp Arena should be loud even if it isn’t as crazy as it would be for a big SEC game or a game against a UCLA or Louisville. However, the Hokies have shown they can get it done at the line when they need to as shown on the road at Ole Miss when they went 26-37 (70.3%) compared to 54.2% for Ole Miss.
VT will look to do better than that against Kentucky, but if they can shoot around 75% from the free-throw line in Rupp Arena, it’ll make a big difference against a UK team struggling at the charity stripe.
3. VT is Really Good From Beyond the Arc
The three-point shooting difference between Virginia Tech and Kentucky is significant, and a big reason why the Hokies can pull the upset off. VT is second in the nation shooting 46.2% from beyond the arc while Kentucky is 196th shooting 34.7% from three.
Kentucky’s best three-point shooter is Quade Green shooting 45% from three. For comparison, the Hokies have four players who have attempted more threes than Green and are shooting above 45% led by Ahmed Hill at 50%. VT not only is effective from beyond the arc, but they can stretch the floor with just about anyone, creating lanes for guys like Chris Clarke and Justin Robinson to attack the rim.
John Calipari has a lot of respect for the Hokies’ three-point shooting as he said earlier today.
Kentucky coach John Calipari on #Hokies: "This team is the best 3-point shooting team we'll see all year."
— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) December 15, 2017
Kentucky knows that they can’t afford to let this game become an up-tempo shootout where VT can execute their offense at a high level as they did against teams like Washington and in the second halves against Iowa and Ole Miss. Even when the Hokies didn’t have their best three-point shooting performances, VT’s three-point shooting threat was still enough to create space for VT to attack the rim and get some easy buckets.
On top of that, three-point shooting is usually a good indication as to whether a team can pull off an upset or not. Better three-point shooting teams will be able to find ways to win games that they may not play as well in simply because of their three-point shooting. In the case of the Hokies, they have the three-point shooting to stay or get back in this game if they fall behind early.
Virginia Tech’s three-point shooting has given teams plenty of problems even if they aren’t having their best day. The multitude of players that VT has who provide legitimate threats from beyond the arc creates space for VT to get the lanes they want. Justin Robinson and Chris Clarke are two of the best in the country at attacking the rim and either getting a layup, drawing a foul, or kicking it out for an open three; and Kentucky will have a hard time defending the space that VT can create.
So do you think the Hokies will pull off the upset at Kentucky? Make your voice in our poll and/or in the comments below.