When it was announced in late May that Virginia Tech would face Kentucky, Hokie fans immediately had this game circled on their calandars. Six months later, the showdown has finally arrived with the Hokies entering as five-point underdogs, but have a realistic shot at pulling off the upset.
Now, the time has arrived as the Hokies and Wildcats face off in a major showdown between two teams looking for a major win. VT’s loss against Saint Louis prevented them from getting a game with Providence while Kentucky lost their only game against a major conference opponent versus Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic. VT does have some decent wins over Washington and Ole Miss, but the Hokies know that a win over Kentucky would be a major resume builder.
This is a fascinating matchup of youth versus experience as Kentucky eight-man rotation includes six freshmen and two sophomores while VT’s starting lineup has three juniors or seniors, and their 10-man rotation has five players who are at least juniors.
Kentucky is the more talented team, but there also a team that is still mostly adjusting to playing college basketball. The Wildcats have beaten some quality mid-major teams that could make the NCAA Tournament but when your second toughest opponent before today is Vermont, you know that this game will be a step up in competition.
The Hokies haven’t had a hard non-conference schedule either, but they have faced more major conference opponents. More importantly, the Hokies have an established identity that makes it easier to mesh in younger players like their four freshmen. Virginia Tech will also not be intimidated by a tough Rupp Arena given their experience playing at places like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia.
One of the most interesting matchups to watch will come at the point guard between Justin Robinson and the freshman combination of Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (cousins with VT freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker). The pair of Kentucky point guards have shown promise with Alexander looking the best averaging 4.4 assists and 2.3 steals.
However, neither of these players have faced a guy like Robinson who will test them immensely on both ends of the floor. The junior point guard has been very good this season averaging 5.8 assists and 1.9 steals. Robinson is one of the best floor generals in the country and one of the main reasons why VT has a chance to pull off the upset.
One big advantage for Kentucky in this matchup is their size as the Wildcats have five players in their rotation who are 6’7” or taller while the Hokies have one. The Hokies have been a below-average rebounding team and will need a big game from Kerry Blackshear. Blackshear has shown plenty of promise on the glass including a dominant 11 rebounds against Radford and an impressive second half against Iowa where he took over in the paint.
However, this matchup is less than ideal with Kentucky having four guys averaging over 5 rebounds per game including Nick Richards who is averaging 6.7 rebounds in only 17.7 minutes per game. With VT having a lack of size outside of Blackshear, it will be critical for him to stay out of foul trouble. If not, Kentucky could dominate the boards in an unprecedented way.
For Virginia Tech to win, they have to be extremely efficient offensively knowing that Kentucky will likely dominate the glass and have a significant advantage in shot attempts. If there’s a team that can do this, it’s the Hokies who lead the nation in points per game and field goal percentage. The Hokies have done extremely well at being efficient enough to counteract their poor rebounding.
Part of that is due to their style as the Hokies have done well at being aggressive and attacking the rim to get easy buckets led by athletic guys like Justin Robinson and Chris Clarke. On top of that, the Hokies have a boatload of quality three-point shooters that create great spacing to give guys like Robinson and Clarke the lanes they need.
If you’re looking for x-factors, it’s a pair of freshman in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Nick Richards.
NAW has been inconsistent as a scorer, but has shown plenty of promise on his way to averaging 14.4 points, an extremely impressive scoring average for a freshman. NAW has shown that he can score in a variety of ways and could be a difference maker if he can get it going.
Meanwhile, Richards has shown in limited minutes that he can be one of the best rebounders in America averaging 6.7 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game. Richards also stepped up on the glass against Kansas and had 9 rebounds in only 13 minutes. Richards leads these teams in rebounds per 40 minutes and against an undersized VT team, he could be in for a huge game on the glass.
There are plenty of interesting matchups to watch, but one guy Virginia Tech could struggle with is Kevin Knox. Knox is a 6’9” small forward who leads the Wildcats in scoring averaging 15.2 points per game. Expect Chris Clarke to match up against Knox but given Kentucky’s size, Virginia Tech may need guys like Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs to guard Knox if UK uses some bigger lineups.
This will be a fascinating matchup between one of America’s best offenses and one of America’s defenses. The Wildcats will need to dominate the glass and limit VT’s ability to get out in transition and have easy lanes to the basket while the Hokies have to be efficient shooting the basketball.
Kentucky has the athletes to slow down the Hokies while they should be able to dominate the glass. Virginia Tech will have a fairly efficient day shooting the basketball, but Kentucky’s athleticism and size will give VT problems and limit some of their transition scoring ability. This will be a game that comes down to the wire with VT doing well from deep, but the Wildcats will slow the Hokies down enough and take advantage of second chance opportunities to avoid the upset.