After starting 0-2 in ACC play, Virginia Tech has found their rhythm with victories against Pittsburgh and at Wake Forest to get back to .500 in conference play. Now, the Hokies head to Louisville to face a Cardinals’ team coming off their best win of the season at #23 Florida State.
For the Hokies, this is an important road game where they really could use a win given their difficult home schedule. With five home games remaining against ranked opponents and eight home games in total, VT will likely need 3-4 wins to finish .500 or better in ACC play, a minimum for making the NCAA Tournament.
Picking up a win today at Louisville would be big not only due to the quality of it, but also because of how it would set VT up well to get to 4 road ACC wins with the Hokies having road games against Georgia Tech and Boston College remaining as well.
David Padgett picked up his first big win via an impressive comeback road victory at Florida State where the Cardinals were down 13 at halftime on the road. Overall, the Cardinals haven’t been as good as they were under Rick Pitino as a team on the fringe of the top 25 this season that, outside of the FSU game, has won the games you’d expect them to win and lost the games you’d expect them to lose. Right now, Louisville is comfortably in the field, and appears a likely 6 or 7 seed at the moment.
Virginia Tech: Ahmed Hill
Virginia Tech’s leading scorer found his rhythm against Wake Forest leading the Hokies with 22 points. This was his second-straight game of 15+ points after 15 against Pitt, but what made this game significant was the fact that he went 5-10 from three-point range, the first time he has shot over 30% from beyond the arc in ACC play.
On a team loaded with talented scorers, Hill has stood out above the rest this season leading VT with 15.5 points per game while shooting an insane 55.1% from the field and 49% from beyond the arc. Those numbers look more like the numbers of a sharp-shooting stretch 4 and not the numbers of a 6’5” guard which is simply a testament to how efficient Hill has been on offense.
The question is can Hill keep this strong shooting up after looking like his normal self against Wake Forest? If he can, he can be a difference maker that could possibly sway the outcome of this game.
Louisville: Ray Spalding
Ray Spalding may be one of the more underrated forwards in the ACC as a do-it-all player who is in the top 10 in blocks (2.1), rebounds (9.3), and steals (1.8) per game among ACC players. Spalding has seen his minutes increase and his production has followed as his points per game has nearly doubled from 5.9 to 11.4 points per game.
The one issue for Spalding is the fact that he is averaging 3.3 fouls per game. While the Cardinals do have Mahmoud to come into the frontcourt off the bench, losing a versatile guy like Spalding due to foul trouble is advantageous for the Hokies.
VT will know this and look to Spalding early and often to see if they can draw fouls from him, especially through Blackshear who has played fairly well in conference play. If VT can push Spalding to the bench for large periods of time, it’ll help give VT some extra space especially for Blackshear with Mahmoud likely to give Blackshear more space given Spalding’s athletic advantage that helps him recover better.
Keys to the Game
1. Take advantage of open three-pointers.
When you’re on the road in a tough environment, you have to be able to take advantage of open three-point shots. We’ve seen the Hokies have some surprising struggles from three-point range early in non-conference play, but Virginia Tech was much improved this past Wednesday on the road at Wake.
They’ll need to keep that up against a Louisville team that can make things difficult in the post. The Cardinals have a pair of talented shot blockers with Anas Mahmoud leading the ACC with 3.7 blocks per game and Ray Spalding in the top 10 with 2.1 blocks per game. While the Hokies have guys who can score in the post against these talented shot blockers like Kerry Blackshear, VT will need to show that they can stretch the floor to create more space for their guards to attack these big men around the rim as they want to.
If the Hokies can take advantage of their threes, they can force Louisville to extend their defense out more including their big men, creating lanes that the Hokies can take advantage of.
2. Crash the Boards
Virginia Tech did a lot of things well against Wake Forest, but one problem that VT had improved at was their offensive rebounding. Against the Demon Deacons, the Hokies allowed 14 offensive rebounds while only having 4 offensive rebounds in the game, all 4 of which came in the second half.
Now part of this was due to VT not having the size at times when Kerry Blackshear had to sit with foul trouble, but 14 offensive rebounds is more than just being outsized time and time again. The Hokies had improved their rebounding significantly even against bigger teams like Syracuse where the rebounding margin was minimal.
After Wednesday’s rebounding issue, the Hokies will have to step up their game on the glass against a Louisville team with some talented rebounds like Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud. Part of this will rely on Kerry Blackshear staying out of foul trouble, but the Hokies will need be better rebounding on the defensive end as a whole even if there are a couple that VT simply will be too small to get.
This is an important for both teams as the Cardinals look to keep their momentum going with another quality win while the Hokies look to keep building on their recent success to pick up their best win of the season. The Hokies know they need to win a few ACC road games with this being an opportunity especially if they can catch Louisville sleeping after an intense comeback win over Florida State.
Part of the battle in this game will be the shooting margin. While the Hokies are limited by their lack of size on the glass, they can’t afford to let Louisville get a large margin in the number of shots attempted that cancels out their efficiency advantage. To do that, the Hokies will have to be smart with the basketball, as they’ve been the past two games, and crash the boards at a fairly high level despite the fact that Louisville has the frontcourt combo of Spalding and Mahmoud.
Louisville has some veteran guys like Deng Adel and Quentin Snider who they’ll need to have strong games while the Hokies are a veteran-heavy team that won’t be intimidated by this environment. Virginia Tech may also have a chip on their shoulder from last year’s high-scoring game in Louisville that felt like one that got away against a much better Cardinals’ team.
This is the first of the two matchups between these two teams and you have to like the Hokies when these two face off at home. While VT won’t be intimidated by this environment, it’s still tough to go on the road in the ACC. The x-factor in this game will be Justin Robinson who has cleaned up his game recently and gotten back to being one of the best floor generals in the country with 17 assists in the past two games.
If the Hokies fail to move the ball and create transition opportunities as they have the past two games, Louisville will win this game. However, the Hokies are finding that offensive rhythm and clean ball movement that had slowed the Hokies’ offense to a halt. The Hokies know they need a win and while Louisville has some momentum, this feels like this could be a let-down game for the Cardinals after an emotional win especially with a first-year head coach.
VT will be ready for this game and led by strong performances from veterans like Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, and Justin Robinson; the Hokies will go on the road and upset Louisville.