When Virginia Tech and Louisville first faced off in early January, both teams were headed in different directions. The Hokies were struggling with their only ACC wins against Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, and a 2-3 ACC record after the loss to Louisville. Meanwhile, Louisville had momentum that would help carry them to a 5-1 start in ACC play.
Since then, the Hokies and Cardinals have gone in the opposite directions that they were headed with VT winning 7 of their last 9 since their back-to-back losses to Louisville and Florida State while the Cardinals have struggled since their 5-1 ACC start fading to 8-7 in conference and right on the heart of the bubble with #1 UVA at home and a trip to NC State remaining after this game.
The Cardinals are right on the bubble now because of those struggles and are desperate for a quality road victory. Meanwhile, the Hokies appear certain to make the NCAA Tournament barring a spectacular collapse that would give Hokie fans’ nightmares for years.
Virginia Tech: Justin Robinson
Justin Robinson has been a star in ACC play and is well on his way to earning All-ACC honors (likely Second or Third Team). Robinson has scored in double figures in all but one ACC game averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 assists in ACC play this season.
Robinson has been the go-to guy for the Hokies in the biggest moments being able to get to the rim simply at will at times especially in the biggest moments. The Hokies’ star point guard has also significantly improved from three-point range shooting a career high 40.4% from beyond the arc while also shooting a career high 46.3% from the field.
If there’s one guy who’s been a bigger reason than any other Hokie for their 8-2 run, it’s Justin Robinson who has took his game to the next level this season and developed into one of college basketball’s best point guards. As March Madness grows, expect Robinson to receive a lot more attention and recognition including on this Saturday afternoon on national television.
Louisville: Deng Adel
Louisville’s Deng Adel had the game of his life when the Hokies and Cardinals faced off in early January. The junior wing had 27 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 10-15 from the field including 4-6 from beyond the arc in what was arguably the best game of his career, helping carry the Cardinals to a strong win.
Now, the Cardinals will need another big game like that from him, but on the road in a high pressure game with a lot more at stake for Louisville. Adel missed a pair of games against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, but hasn’t been too bad over the past 2 games with 30 points and 9 rebounds against UNC and at Duke. However, the Cardinals lost both those games by more than 15 points.
If Louisville wants to pull off the upset, it all starts with Adel having a big game to lead the charge. If the Hokies can slow him down, the Cardinals don’t have many other options outside of Quentin Snider who have the talent to have a big scoring performance.
Keys to the Game
1. Crash the Boards
One of the biggest reasons for Virginia Tech’s recent success is the fact that they have crashed the boards much more effectively. In their past two games, the Hokies have had 23 offensive rebounds including 10 this past week against a Clemson team that has one of the best centers in the ACC, Elijah Thomas.
While the Hokies have continued to have some issues with defensive rebounding, Virginia Tech has done much better at getting offensive rebounds and second chance opportunities that they’ve taken advantage of. Against Clemson, the Hokies had 10 points off second chance opportunities while Clemson had 8.
Against Louisville, the Hokies will have to be effective at crashing the boards especially given Louisville’s talented big men led by Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud. Kerry Blackshear stepped up in the first matchup with 19 points and 12 rebounds that day, but the Hokies will not only need Blackshear but also need more help from guys like Chris Clarke, PJ Horne, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and others to prevent Louisville from getting too many second chance opportunities.
2. Attack the Rim
Yes, Louisville has a lot of size, but the Hokies are built upon attacking the rim to create space on the outside and have done that well recently. Against a Louisville team that has some talented shot blockers, the Hokies need to be smart but aggressive in attacking the rim led by guys like Justin Robinson, Devin Wilson, and Chris Clarke.
Robinson’s success has been largely due to his ability to get to the rim while Devin Wilson has been able to effective attacking the rim either to kick it outside or get some layups around the rim. Louisville’s size may present some problems, but the Hokies’ offense is at its best when they do what they know how to do best, and they need to keep doing that in order to keep their offense in rhythm against a desperate Louisville team.
Virginia Tech’s defense has had a revolution of sorts since Devin Wilson was inserted in the starting lineup with VT holding three of their last four opponents to 60 points or less. Louisville hasn’t had their best stretch of offensive play recently, but the Cardinals have guys who can be dangerous from beyond the arc, and the Hokies will have to be sharp defensively unlike they were in the first meeting.
The matchup at the point will be important as the Cardinals need Quentin Snider to try to contain Justin Robinson. However, that has proven to be an almost impossible task with Robinson finding ways to create points even if it isn’t on his own shooting.
The starting lineup change hasn’t been the only reason for VT’s improvement as the Hokies’ bench has played better especially freshman backups like Wabissa Bede, PJ Horne, and Tyrie Jackson. While those guys may not get the same minutes as they have seen recently, VT will need quality defensive minutes from those guys when they need to get veterans like Robinson and Justin Bibbs rest.
When these teams first met, Virginia Tech was the struggling team that seemed close to hitting the panic button while the Cardinals were quickly on the rise. This time, the roles have reversed and the result will as well as the Hokies will lock up a NCAA Tournament bid and guarantee a winning ACC record for the third-straight year led by big games from their veteran stars Justin Robinson and Justin Bibbs.