After beating North Carolina A&T to go 11-2 in non-conference play, Virginia Tech opens ACC play on New Year’s Eve. However, the Hokies will head on the road to the Carrier Dome this time to face Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange.
Both of these teams enter with the same records and have a chance at getting their best wins of the season to date with the Hokies’ best win so far being over Washington, and Syracuse’s being at Georgetown.
This matchup pits two teams with contradicting styles and strengths as the Hokies love to push the pace with an offense that ranks sixth in the nation in points per game. Meanwhile, Syracuse is built around their famous zone and will look to slow the pace to rely on that zone which is 21st in the nation in points allowed per game.
This matchups features two of the top freshmen in the ACC in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Syracuse’s Oshae Brissett who will both likely have the primary attention of NBA scouts in the building.
NAW has been solid but inconsistent so far averaging 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. Alexander-Walker continues to be a part of the core rotation that VT uses down the stretch of important games, but is behind veterans Justin Bibbs and Ahmed Hill on the wing depth chart. However, NAW has shown plenty of promise including a 20-point performance in the Hokies’ blowout victory over Washington. Alexander-Walker has also shot the ball well shooting 51% from the field and 44.9% from beyond the arc.
Fellow Canadian Oshae Brissett has been one of the biggest surprises in the ACC so far averaging a double-double with 15.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 37 minutes per game. The 6’8” Brissett hasn’t shot the ball well at all shooting a dismal 34.1% from the field, but Brissett has been effective at getting to the free-throw line. Brissett has taken the most free-throw attempts of any player in the ACC this season and is shooting 78.3% from the line.
Brissett has led the way for the Orange on the glass, but is far from the only one for an Orange team that is ninth in the nation in rebounds and sixth in the nation in offensive rebounds per game, a major weakness for the Hokies. The Orange have two other players averaging over 5 rebounds per game with 7’2” center Paschal Chukwu averaging 6.1 rebounds per game and 6’9” freshman Marek Dolezaj averaging 5.8 rebounds per game.
VT will have to improve their rebounding in this game even with their significant offensive efficiency advantage. The Hokies will need a big game from Kerry Blackshear who is averaging more rebounds per 40 minutes than Brissett or Chukwu. Blackshear has only played over 30 minutes once this season but as long as he stays out of foul trouble, he should play for most of this game given Syracuse’s size.
Virginia Tech also can’t afford for Blackshear to get in foul trouble given the size disadvantage the Hokies have. If he does, it likely will give them some problems on the glass and will put an even greater significance on guys like Chris Clarke and PJ Horne to step up. Even if Blackshear doesn’t, VT will need Clarke and wings like Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, and NAW to rebound well while getting a few quality minutes from Horne who Buzz Williams has tried to get some significant playing time in recent games against Presbyterian and North Carolina A&T.
Defensively, the Hokies may take a similar strategy to what they did against Kentucky. The Orange have been extremely bad from beyond the arc shooting only 29.8% from three-point range, a worse rate than Kentucky was. With the Orange also having a similar size advantage to what the Wildcats have, this seems like a sensible strategy that would have worked better against Kentucky if it wasn’t for the Wildcats having arguably their best shooting performance of the season.
Syracuse has some quality, veteran guards with Tyus Battle and Frank Howard who are averaging a combined 35.3 points per game. Battle is the better shooter from three-point range, but that isn’t saying much about him or the Orange as a whole as Battle shoots a low 34.4% from three which leads the Orange. Battle is effective at getting to the free-throw line shooting 84.4% from the charity stripe while Howard is more of a volume shooter who is shooting under 41% from the field and under 70% from the free-throw line.
Virginia Tech will be tested by Syracuse’s zone defense that can slow down even the most efficient offensive teams. However, the Hokies have two things that will help them deal with their zone.
First, the Hokies are one of the best shooting teams in America with their top 5 scorers all shooting over 40% from beyond the arc. That type of shooting ability will force Syracuse to consistently stretch their zone and prevent them from being able to cheat on any shooters.
That is especially true for Justin Robinson who is shooting 41.2% from three and loves to attack the rim from the outside which can force the zone to collapse and create space on the wings or across the post. That will also give Kerry Blackshear the ability to draw more one-on-one matchups in the post that he dominated against Kentucky.
Secondly, Virginia Tech’s ball movement is among the best teams in the nation. While they can be sloppy at times, their ball movement can also put fans in awe at any moment and has even impressed Buzz Williams at times. The Hokies’ impressive passing is best shown by how they are 12th in the nation in assists per game, a stat that is a good indication of a team who can take advantage of when the zone adjusts and creates open space for outside shooters.
This is an intriguing between two teams who will not only be looking to get off to a good start in ACC play, but will also be looking to add their best win of the season to their resumé. For Syracuse, it will be important for them to defend their home court, but the Hokies have a veteran team that won’t be intimidated by playing in the Carrier Dome.
This matchup presents a clash of styles between the Hokies up-tempo style that will try to prevent Syracuse from getting set in their zone versus a Syracuse team that will try to slow down the game and rely on their defense and rebounding. Syracuse’s rebounding will give the Hokies problems, but the Hokies are significantly more efficient from the field which will make a difference.
Syracuse is a borderline NCAA Tournament team that won’t be easy to beat at home with their great defense and rebounding. However, the Hokies have the tools to pull off the upset with great shooting and an up-tempo offense that can make it difficult for Syracuse to get their zone set consistently. Justin Robinson has a knack for stepping up in big games, and the junior point guard will be a difference maker in this game being able to manipulate the Syracuse zone to create space for the VT offense.
This will be a tough matchup, but the Hokies have the ball movement, efficient offense, and veteran talent to pick up a win at Syracuse even with the Orange’s significant rebounding advantage.