The non-conference slate is over for the Virginia Tech Hokies as they enter ACC play with the benefit of playing at the home, but also the big challenge of facing the ACC favorite, the fifth-ranked Duke Blue Devils. Duke has showed tons of promise in non-conference to be one of the top threats to win the national title, but the headline entering this game is that they will be without star guard Grayson Allen as he is suspended indefinitely after tripping an Elon player.
While the loss of their second-leading scorer definitely is not ideal, the Blue Devils have plenty of talent with elite freshmen like Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles now getting healthy. However, depth is a concern for the Blue Devils without Grayson Allen as the Blue Devils will slide Frank Jackson in their lineup but will likely have mostly bigger lineups when rotating players off the bench though Giles and Marques Bolden do seemed poised for a minutes increase soon especially Giles now that he’s healthy.
However, Duke’s lack of backcourt depth is a concern with the Blue Devils really only having Luke Kennard, Matt Jones, and Frank Jackson being their only guards that play regularly with Jayson Tatum being a forward that does have the athleticism and size to play the 3 or the 4.
One big advantage that Duke does have over the Hokies is in rebounding as Duke has averaged 39.8 rebounds per game while the Hokies have averaged 37.7 rebounds per game. That gap isn’t that big but the Hokies are definitely not as good on the glass and haven’t faced the same amount of size as they will face against Duke.
On top of that, the Blue Devils have Amile Jefferson averaging 10.8 rebounds per game with Jayson Tatum averaging 7.6 rebounds per game while leading scorer Luke Kennard is also rebounding at a high level averaging 5.9 rebounds per game. The absence of Allen will also likely lead to Duke going bigger more in this game with Giles, Bolden, and Chase Jeter also providing plenty of size off the bench.
For Virginia Tech, the Hokies will have to be effective boxing out in this game against a Duke team that has plenty of size to cause the Hokies some serious problems on the boards.
Virginia Tech will also need some strong play from their one player over 6’7”, 6’10” Khadim Sy. While Sy likely will only play about 15 minutes, the Hokies will need him to be dominant on the defensive glass in those minutes and prevent Duke from getting second chances. If Sy can step up and have a big game, the Hokies will have a much better chance at pulling off the upset.
When the Hokies do go smaller, they will face a big challenge with Zach LeDay likely going against Amile Jefferson and Chris Clarke going against the more athletic Jayson Tatum.
Tatum hasn’t been a great shooter so far, but has shot an impressive 92% from the free-throw line, and Clarke will have to avoid giving Tatum the chances he wants to go to the line. Clarke has made some big strides and his versatile game could make him an issue for Duke and the young Tatum who will be playing in only his sixth collegiate game in a tough, sold out road venue.
Meanwhile, the battle between LeDay and Jefferson in the post will be a battle between two of the physical, elder statesmen of the ACC’s frontcourt with both players having the potential to have double-doubles and being difference makers for their respective teams. If LeDay can slow down Jefferson and keep him from a double-double, it will definitely make a difference in this game.
One surprising fact is that the Hokies have been shooting the ball better from beyond the arc this season as Virginia Tech is shooting 39.3% from three while the Blue Devils have only shot 35.7% from deep. On top of that, Duke only has one three-point shooter above 40% and 2 above 38% where as the Hokies have four in Ahmed Hill, Seth Allen, Ty Outlaw, and Justin Bibbs.
While Duke has the talented Luke Kennard, the Hokies have been the better three-point shooting team but have had some struggles since their strong game against The Citadel. Against Duke, the Hokies will need to be more like the team that shot well from deep against The Citadel to be able to pull off the upset.
With Duke having serious depth issues, the Hokies must be ready to attack and try to find ways to create transition opportunities and run more up-tempo knowing that the Blue Devils don’t have much depth and that their starting 5 may average around 35 minutes in this game. Virginia Tech has the athletes to play more up-tempo and has proven to be a very good fast-break offensive team.
If you’re looking for an x-factor, look no farther than Seth Allen who has flown under-the-radar so far this season for the Hokies but has been much more efficient from the field and has a knack for stepping up in big games against top opponents as he did time and time again in ACC play last year including in the ACC Tournament against Florida State.
Allen will be unafraid to attack the rim or take an open three when he has the chance and with the way he’s been shooting the ball, he may be poised for a huge performance.
Buzz Williams and the Hokies pulled off a big upset over Virginia last year and while the Cavaliers were a top 5 team, getting an upset over Duke would be huge for this program in the third year of the Buzz Williams era. However, Coach K will definitely have his team focused and ready despite the distraction of ‘how good will this team play without Grayson Allen’ floating around them.
While Duke is the better team, Virginia Tech will be ready and make this a back-and-forth game while also taking advantage of what should be a raucous environment in Cassell Coliseum. The Hokies will push Duke to the limit in what should be a nailbitter with stars like Zach LeDay and Luke Kennard having big games.
However, Virginia Tech has proven to be a great closer and Duke’s depth will hurt them down the stretch along with Seth Allen coming in big in the closing minutes. The question is can the Hokies avoid their Achilles heel and get off to a solid start against Duke?
I think they can given the magnitude of this game and the energy that they will get while wearing down Duke by the end of the game with a deeper bench and the athletes to stay with Duke. Duke will get plenty of second chance opportunities and Amile Jefferson will have a big game, but the depth isn’t there for this game with Allen out and Harry Giles just getting healthy for Duke on the road, and the Hokies will pull the off the big upset and give Buzz Williams’s his biggest win in his tenure.