After splitting their first two games without Justin Robinson against N.C. State and Louisville, No. 11 Virginia Tech returns to action as they head on the road to take on a Clemson team that has won three-straight games to climb back into the bubble picture.
For the Hokies, this game presents another opportunity to pick up a quadrant 1 victory with Clemson comfortably in the top 75 of the NET while the Tigers are looking for a big win to add to their resume and climb even more into the bubble and NCAA Tournament picture.
With that said, here’s our three things to watch for today’s game.
1. Clemson’s Poor Three-Point Shooting Presents Ideal Defensive Matchup for Virginia Tech
Clemson’s biggest weakness is arguably its three-point shooting as the Tigers are shooting a dismal 32.2% from three-point range with only one player in their regular rotation shooting over 35% from deep in David Skara shooting 39.3% from beyond the arc.
Contrast that with the fact that Buzz Williams has said that he has emphasized defending the paint and limiting paint touches on the defensive end forcing more three-point shots and this matchup seems like a recipe for success for Virginia Tech.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Hokies can afford to give up open threes as the Tigers have the talent to give VT problems especially via Marcquise Reed. However, Clemson has an offensive weakness outside the arc which makes this a better matchup for Virginia Tech given their expected approach for this game on the defensive end.
2. Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. Elijah Thomas
The matchup to watch will be in the post between Kerry Blackshear and Elijah Thomas as the two bigs are both critical to their respective team’s success. The importance of Blackshear is already well-known as the only healthy Hokie big man and only VT player in the rotation that’s above 6’5” while Thomas is a classic post player and one of the most efficient bigs in the country shooting 65.9% from the field this season.
Both Blackshear and Thomas have had issues with foul trouble and average over 3 fouls per game. Thomas also hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in his past four games while Blackshear has back-to-back games with 30+ minutes including 39 minutes this past Monday.
What may be most interesting about this matchup is how Blackshear does have the skill set to stretch the floor while Thomas will do most of his work from the post and is 0-2 over a four-year career from three-point range.
Part of the challenge for the Hokies may be having Blackshear stretch the floor and draw Thomas out of the paint to create less danger going to the rim as Thomas averages 2.0 blocks per game with 12 blocks in his past two games. Even if Blackshear doesn’t have the best scoring day, simply getting Thomas away from the basket defensively and staying out of foul trouble may prove more important than anything else.
3. Can Someone Else Step Up Alongside Alexander-Walker and Blackshear
There is no doubt that Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear can lead the offensive charge for Virginia Tech, but the Hokies can be at their best on that end when they have a third guy scoring at a high level as they would have with Justin Robinson. The Hokies need someone to step up on a consistent basis whether that’s Ty Outlaw, Ahmed Hill, or someone else.
Outlaw may be the person to watch more than anyone else as the senior wing is one of the nation’s best three-point shooters making 48.5% of his shots from beyond the arc. Outlaw has also been in a similar position before 2 years ago stepping up for Chris Clarke in his absence and breaking out as a dangerous sharpshooter during ACC play, stepping into the third scoring role alongside Seth Allen and Zach LeDay.
Outlaw has also shown signs of finding his stroke at a high level shooting over 57% from three-point range in three of his past four games with the lone exception coming at N.C. State (0-3).
Meanwhile, Ahmed Hill had a strong start to ACC play including a six-game run scoring in double figures but in the past two games, Hill has been held to only 9 points on a poor 7-25 shooting from the field including 1-14 from three-point range. Hill has even stepped into the third man scoring role at times this season with Justin Robinson in action but with Robinson out and Hill likely to receive more attention, the Hokies will need Hill to find some consistency.
The Hokies need a third man to step up on the offensive end whether that’s Hill, Outlaw, or someone else though the two seniors are the best candidates given their experience.
While Virginia Tech is probably the better team even without Justin Robinson, Clemson has shown signs recently of playing like the preseason top 25 team that they were. The Tigers also have momentum with three-straight victories and though those wins have come against Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech; all 3 victories have been by at least 13 points.
However, the Hokies will provide some much tougher competition against a Tiger team that isn’t much deeper usually going with a seven-man rotation. Additionally, the Hokies also will benefit from basically having a full week of rest thanks to playing on Monday during the week.
Even without Justin Robinson, the Hokies have done a good job of protecting the basketball. The biggest question is whether the Hokies can find some of the offensive creativity that went missing Monday night without Robinson along with a greater emphasis on attacking the rim from the outside earlier in the game. If the Hokies do those 2 things, expect their offense to have a bounce back day.
With Clemson being a better defensive team and the Hokies looking to slow the tempo, this is poised to be a low-scoring game and while Clemson will benefit from their crowd, they also don’t have much of a depth advantage to utilize that to their advantage as a Louisville was while the Hokies still are the more talented team.
Expect Virginia Tech to find their offensive rhythm led by a big game from Nickeil Alexander-Walker while being able to put the hammer down defensively in playing a paint containment style of defense that will force Clemson to make threes that they haven’t shown an ability to make. This should be a really close game but in the end, the Hokies will have just enough to get the job done at Clemson and improve to 8-3 in the ACC, staying unbeaten against unranked ACC teams.