After blowing out UMES 85-40 to end non-conference play, the 10th-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies host Notre Dame to kick off ACC play looking to show why they are more than deserving of their top 10 ranking. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish have a chance to add another high-caliber win to their neutral site win over Purdue as they look to build a strong bubble case.
After years of facing more experienced Notre Dame teams, the Hokies are the much more experienced team this time around while the Fighting Irish have gotten even younger recently with the loss of senior guard Rex Pflueger for the season.
This game is poised to be VT’s toughest challenge in their first 3 ACC games before they travel to Virginia in what has the makings of a top 10 showdown if both teams can do what they are supposed to. Meanwhile, Notre Dame knows that they need to start picking up some more quality wins with a road win over Virginia Tech being the type of single win that could make the difference on Selection Sunday especially given VT’s high standing nationally.
With that said, here are our three things to watch on New Year’s Day.
1. What is the status of Nickeil Alexander-Walker?
Virginia Tech will rightfully be the favorites regardless of whether Nickeil Alexander-Walker plays or not, but the Fighting Irish’s odds of pulling off the upsets definitely increase a lot if Alexander-Walker is unable to go.
From initial impressions, it appears that Alexander-Walker was close to playing against UMES. Given that he almost played against one of the worst teams in Division I basketball, it would be surprising if he didn’t play in this game.
However, if he didn’t, it would leave a void in Virginia Tech’s offense that the Hokies can fill, just not as well as Alexander-Walker does.
So far this season, Alexander-Walker has shown a complete offensive skill set being able to score from the rim to beyond the arc and being able to so off the dribble, via a screen, or in a catch and shoot situation. The stats back it up as Alexander-Walker is averaging a team high 18.5 points per game on 56.1% shooting from the field, 46.8% shooting from three-point range, and 80.6% shooting from the free-throw line.
However, Alexander-Walker has done more than just that proving to be a reliable passer with 3.8 assists and only 2.3 turnovers per game while also being valuable defensively averaging 2.5 steals per game, good enough for 19th in the country and best in the ACC.
The loss of Alexander-Walker would hurt, but Virginia Tech does benefit from having two guys who are high-end primary scorers in Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson. In addition, VT did get some experience without having their leading scorer against UMES and though the opponent may have been extremely weak, the experience should give them competition especially given the 45-point margin of victory.
2. Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. John Mooney
The battle to watch will come in the post between the Hokies’ featured big man Kerry Blackshear and Notre Dame’s top big man John Mooney.
Blackshear hasn’t been the best rebounder only averaging 5.8 rebounds in 24.6 minutes per game but he has been an effective scorer averaging a career high 13 points per game. Meanwhile, Mooney has stepped into the lead big man role well for Notre Dame averaging 12.8 points and an extremely good 9.3 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game, tied for 35th nationally.
For Blackshear, it will be critical for him to not only rebound the basketball but also stay out of foul trouble while Mooney does have a couple other teammates with the size to come in including former UCONN transfer Juwan Durham and freshman Nate Laszewski. However, Mooney has proven to be the most skilled offensive player of the three with lots of range, something that may force the Hokies to get creative on defense at times.
Blackshear has been inconsistent in his three games against tougher competition almost having a double-double against Penn State, having a rough first half but strong closing stretch against Purdue, and having 10 points on an inefficient 2-9 shooting with only 1 rebound against Washington. However, Blackshear has shown improvement with handling foul trouble and if he can stay on the floor, he has the skills to consistently average 15 and 8.
If Blackshear can stay on the floor, the Hokies can keep the Fighting Irish from having a frontcourt advantage and limit the rebounding margin. if not, it opens an area that Notre Dame can severely take advantage of in their pursuit of an upset.
3. What will VT’s ACC rotation look like?
This game should be the first indication of what Virginia Tech’s ACC rotation will look like especially if Nickeil Alexander-Walker is good to go. What is clear is that VT’s main lineups will almost always include Alexander-Walker, Blackshear, Justin Robinson, and Ahmed Hill.
Right now, Ty Outlaw seems likely to be the fifth guy in most situations as a fairly experienced senior who provides great three-point shooting and quality rebounding as shown by his 5.6 rebounds per game. Outlaw may not be the best defensive player, but there’s no denying that VT’s most effective 5 includes the senior wing especially given his shooting ability that stretches the floor and creates space for Alexander-Walker and Robinson to attack the rim.
However, don’t be surprised to see Wabissa Bede used in a sixth man role at times similar to how Devin Wilson was used given his versatility to be an extra point guard on the floor. Bede has proven to be a quality defender while his ability to run the point along with Robinson could be something VT looks to.
PJ Horne seems poised to have a 10+ minute role with the definite possibility to have a few minutes alongside Blackshear to give what would be a big look for VT even if it really isn’t much bigger than usual. Meanwhile, Isaiah Wilkins’ role is the biggest question as the true freshman has gone from expecting to redshirt to averaging over 16 minutes per game.
The role of Wilkins may be the most up in the air and one that we’ll likely learn a lot about in VT’s first few ACC games.
Virginia Tech opens ACC play against a not-your-typical Notre Dame team that lacks experience with 0 healthy seniors in their regular rotation and multiple freshman. Meanwhile, the Hokies are one of the oldest teams in America with a pair of stars in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson, both of whom seem likely to receive All-ACC honors with Alexander-Walker being a big ACC season away from All-American honors.
If the Fighting Irish are to win this game, they are going to have to find ways to get to the free-throw line where they are shooting 75% and dominate the glass. The Fighting Irish aren’t nearly as efficient as the Hokies offensively with VT shooting 51.2% from the field and 44.4% from three-point range while ND shoots 42.6% from the field and 34.3% from three-point range.
The Hokies may not be scoring as many points as they have in the past, but they’ve continued to be one of America’s most efficient offensive teams, a better indicator of how strong they are on the offensive end.
Meanwhile, VT’s big jump has been due to their defensive improvement with the Hokies ranking seventh in the country allowing only 57.9 points per game and have only given up 70+ points once this season. In addition, VT is tied for 21st in the nation forcing 17.5 turnovers per game while Notre Dame is tied for fourth in the country giving up only 9.5 turnovers per game. Something will likely give and given the youth of the Fighting Irish combined with their first tough road game without Rex Pflueger, the latter seems more likely to give.
In the end, Virginia Tech is the much better basketball team, but Mike Brey will have his team ready to compete led by a strong rebounding frontcourt with John Mooney and Juwan Durham. However, the inefficiency of Notre Dame offensively highlighted by leading scorer TJ Gibbs’s 35.3% field goal percentage will show against a tough VT defense.
While the status of Nickeil Alexander-Walker will likely affect the margin, the Hokies have plenty of talent regardless of his status to get the job with Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill ready to lead the Hokies to a victory in the Hokies’ ACC opener.