After a disappointing loss to Florida State, Virginia Tech’s NCAA Tournament hopes are on the ropes with the Hokies facing a must win tonight. Unfortunately, the Hokies have about as tough of a matchup as they could imagine with a showdown with the tenth-ranked defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels in primetime on Big Monday. Fortunately, this game will be in a sold out Cassell Coliseum that should be rocking tonight.
The Tar Heels started off 1-2 in ACC play, but have rebounded quite well with a four-game winning streak including a win over a ranked Clemson. UNC has pushed themselves back into contention for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament though a 2 or 3 seed appears most likely for the Heels for now.
Meanwhile, the Hokies have fallen off-the-radar of Bracketologists and onto the brink of dropping off the bubble for the NCAA Tournament completely. To make the NCAA Tournament, the Hokies need 10 ACC wins to be pretty secure while needing at least 9 to give themselves a shot at making the Big Dance for back-to-back years for only the third time in program history.
Virginia Tech: Justin Robinson
If there’s one guy who shown at times that he can be this team’s Seth Allen, it’s Justin Robinson. The junior point guard has kept the Hokies in games down the stretch of recent games on his way to having 23 points against Louisville and 26 points against Florida State.
The one issue for Robinson has been turnovers as he had 5 against Louisville and 4 this past Saturday against Florida State. Though Robinson has been more effective as a scorer and at times as a passer, those turnover numbers are too high for a point guard as good as Robinson, and will be something that UNC looks to force especially with the experience they have to match-up against Robinson.
Tonight, the Hokies will need a big game from Robinson, but he’ll face a tough matchup against Joel Berry. If Robinson can limit the turnovers, he can have the complete game that the Hokies need from him to pull off the big upset.
North Carolina: Cameron Johnson
The Pitt transfer missed most of non-conference play, but has started to find his stride recently with 21 points (including 6-9 from 3) against Clemson and 16 points against Notre Dame in his past two games. Johnson has given the Tar Heels’ a third high-level scoring option to go with Joel Berry and Luke Maye that has helped make the Tar Heels a top 10 team.
While teams have focused plenty on Berry and Maye, opponents are starting to have to focus more on the former Pitt star. Johnson also has a pretty good history of big games against VT with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists in Pitt’s home loss to the Hokies last year. Tonight, VT can’t afford to have Johnson have that type of game.
Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. Luke Maye
North Carolina’s frontcourt isn’t as good as it’s been, but Luke Maye has stepped up going from just breaking Kentucky fans’ hearts in the NCAA Tournament to emerging as one of the best bigs in the conference. However, Kerry Blackshear has also stepped his game up after redshirting last year, setting up a matchup between two of the conference’s most improved players.
Maye struggled early on in ACC play, but Maye has stepped up recently with three double-doubles in his past four games. Meanwhile, Blackshear has had some of his best games in his toughest matchups including 19 points and 12 rebounds against Louisville, and a big 18 points against Kentucky led by a strong second half where he dominated a loaded Kentucky frontcourt on the offensive end.
This should be one of the best matchups of the night, especially with both of these big men being able to stretch the floor. For the Hokies, they’ll need Blackshear to stay out of foul trouble especially against Maye who is only averaging 2.2 fouls per game.
Keys to the Game
1. Defend the Three
Virginia Tech’s perimeter defense has been awful in conference play as ACC teams are shooting 44.8% from beyond the arc, more than 5% higher than the second-worst team. Tonight, the Hokies face one of the better three-point shooting teams in UNC who is shooting 37.8% from beyond the arc with three of their top four scorers shooting at least 40% from beyond the arc and Joel Berry being the other shooting 36.2% from beyond the arc.
Virginia Tech has given up too many open threes for a multitude of reasons and will need to fix that tonight against a UNC team that has the players to take advantage. UNC has a variety of ways as well to stretch the floor including Luke Maye who is shooting over 47% from beyond the arc.
With the Tar Heels’ ability to stretch the floor with all five players, don’t be surprised to see the Hokies use some zone to cover the perimeter more effectively while also trying to make it more difficult for UNC to create lanes to attack the basket with.
2. Crash the Boards
Even with Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley gone, the Tar Heels continue to be one of the nation’s best at rebounding the basketball with 5 players averaging at least 4 rebounds per game including 10.5 per game from Luke Maye. The Hokies have shown some improvement with their rebounding, but have a lot of room to improve heading into tonight’s matchup.
Now the Hokies will have some issues with the Tar Heels’ pure size advantage, but the Hokies will need to make a major rebounding effort on the defensive glass to prevent UNC from having a major advantage in offensive rebounding. UNC isn’t nearly as efficient from the field as the Hokies are (52.1% (VT) to 46% (UNC)), but the Tar Heels have the potential to have a significant rebounding advantage that could make a big difference in this game.
If the Hokies want to pull off the upset, they have to put together one of their best rebounding efforts of the Buzz Williams’ era against a UNC team loaded with size.
For a must-win game, this is about as bad of a matchup as you could imagine against a UNC team loaded with size along with having the experience to not be intimidated by the zoo that Cassell Coliseum may be. However, there’s no doubt that Cassell will be rocking and even with veteran players, you never know how they’ll react in a tough environment.
Virginia Tech will need guys like Justin Bibbs, Ahmed Hill, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to either get going from beyond the arc or find other ways to score if they’re simply struggling even with open threes. The Hokies have missed too many open threes so far in ACC play and if they fail to take advantage of the open opportunities they get tonight, they’ll have longshot odds at the upset.
This is a really tough matchup for the Hokies, but VT has some interesting matchups with Kerry Blackshear against Luke Maye, Justin Robinson against Joel Berry, and Chris Clarke against Theo Pinson. The Hokies will need this trio to step up especially Robinson and Clarke who will be facing two of the most established ACC players.
Virginia Tech’s backs are against the walls, but we’ve seen the Hokies pull off some shockingly good performances when you least expect to turn everything around. Just about every stat and number points to a North Carolina win tonight, but we’ve seen this Virginia Tech team be able to step up in the past in the biggest games.
While my head tells me to go with UNC (and possibly even in a blowout), my gut tells me that the Hokies win this game even more than the FSU game. In front of a raucous, desperate Cassell crowd, the Hokies will give their faint NCAA Tournament a boost with a shocking upset win over the tenth-ranked Tar Heels.