After a roller coaster week on the road that saw Virginia Tech dominate No. 23 N.C. State and Miami but lose Justin Robinson indefinitely due to an unknown injury, the Hokies return home for their first home game against a ranked opponent this season in No. 15 Louisville.
So far, Cassell Coliseum has been an oasis for the Hokies regardless of circumstances with an unbeaten home record that includes the margin of victory being in double digits every single time. However, the Hokies will face their toughest home opponent to date in No. 16 Louisville without having Robinson making this a fascinating matchup between two teams battling for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.
With that said, here are our 3 things to watch for tonight’s Big Monday showdown.
1. Virginia Tech Looking to Beat Louisville For the First Time Under Buzz Williams.
If there’s one team that’s been a thorn in the Hokies’ side, it’s the Louisville Cardinals, the only team that Buzz Williams hasn’t beaten during his tenure as the Hokies’ head coach.
After a week of getting a mini monkey off their back in winning a pair of road games by double digits, the Hokies now have another shot at home to end their losing streak against Louisville. Despite that, the Hokies seem focused on not getting too caught up in treating Louisville with a different approach than normal just because of the past history.
“We definitely want to beat them. We want to beat every team. That’s a big home game for us. Looking forward to that one. Quick turnaround for us,” Kerry Blackshear said after Saturday’s win at N.C. State.
While the Hokies may not be outwardly talking about having a chip on their shoulder, it’s clear that they’ll be focused for this big game mostly because of the ranking and quality of this Louisville team, but maybe even a little more because of the past history of struggles against a Louisville team VT hasn’t beaten since 1990.
2. Matching Up Against Jordan Nwora
Jordan Nwora has been one of the biggest surprises in ACC play and a major reason for Louisville’s surprising breakout under Chris Mack. After averaging only 5.7 points in 12 minutes per game last season, the sophomore is averaging 17.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in 31.1 minutes per game while shooting 47.9% from the field and 40.2% from three-point range.
Nwora has proven to be a versatile forward that can score in plenty of different ways. The big concern for the Hokies is the fact that they don’t have a wing with the height to match the 6’8” Nwora. However, Nickeil Alexander-Walker does have the wingspan to match up against Louisville’s talented sophomore with the Hokies needing their star guard to have a strong defensive game.
While Louisville may match someone else up against Alexander-Walker on the other end, expect the Hokies to have their star matched up against Nwora especially with how Alexander-Walker has averaged 2.3 steals per game facing Nwora who has averaged 2.3 turnovers per game himself.
If the Hokies can shut down Nwora, it’s unclear if the Cardinals have a secondary guy who can step up and take on the lead scoring role like the Hokies still have with Kerry Blackshear to compliment Alexander-Walker. That’s best shown by the fact that Nwora’s two lowest-scoring games of ACC play have been 11 points in Saturday’s loss to UNC and 8 points in an early ACC loss to Pittsburgh, the Cardinals’ only 2 conference losses.
3. Turnovers at a Premium
Neither team turns the basketball over much as the Hokies average on.y 11.7 turnovers per game while Louisville is averaging 12.4 turnovers per game. Given their turnover tendencies, expect to not see a lot of fast break opportunities between two teams who have shown competent, smart offensive basketball even if the Hokies are without Justin Robinson (see the 2nd half Saturday when VT had only 3 turnovers).
While the Hokies have clearly shifted to trying to minimize the number of possessions with a six-man rotation, Virginia Tech still will look for transition opportunities to take advantage of while Louisville knows that turnovers could be the secret to upping the tempo and pushing the Hokies’ stamina.
The Hokies will benefit from returning home and playing in Cassell even as they’ve shown that they’re more than good enough to be quality competition outside of Blacksburg without Justin Robinson. One of the biggest challenges for the Hokies will be the two-day turnaround especially after having Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ahmed Hill, and Wabissa Bede play all 40 minutes against N.C. State.
This game will show us how well the Hokies managed their recoveries over the past two days and whether this could be an issue for other two-day Big Monday turnarounds including when the Hokies face Virginia in two weeks on a Big Monday. As we’ve seen in the past, it appears the Hokies are capable of being able to make sure they are ready to go on short rest though we’ll see how having an even shorter bench affects this.
Louisville may not have as much size as they’ve had in the past, but the Cardinals still have a size advantage along with having a nine-man rotation that could give the Hokies problems as this game progresses.
Despite all of that, Virginia Tech has continued to be one of America’s most efficient offensive teams even if Saturday’s performance was a clear off day. Additionally, the Hokies have a pair of high-quality scoring options in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear who both can take over games while it’s unclear who the guy is after Jordan Nwora other than maybe Dwayne Sutton.
Expect Virginia Tech to be much better shooting the basketball at home in the comfortable confines of Cassell Coliseum while Louisville will come out hungry to bounce back after a tough loss at home to UNC.
While the Hokies are definitely far from full strength, they are still a very good team that will be able to lean on their home crowd and strong home shooting from three-point range. Combine that with having the best player in Alexander-Walker and true big man in Blackshear, and the Hokies will get the job done and stay undefeated in Cassell Coliseum in a close one.