After a historic season of firsts, Virginia Tech takes on Saint Louis in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament looking not only to pick up their first NCAA Tournament win under Buzz Williams, but also looking to avenge their loss to the Billikens last season. Meanwhile, Saint Louis is looking for a second-straight upset on a neutral site against VT after beating the Hokies at Madison Square Garden last season.
With that said, here’s our five things to watch for the Hokies against Saint Louis.
1. How Healthy is Justin Robinson?
Justin Robinson is back, but questions remains about whether Robinson will be at full strength or anywhere close to that. There’s no doubt that even Robinson in a small role makes Virginia Tech a better basketball team, but the magnitude of his role due to his current health is likely to make a difference.
The biggest question is whether Robinson is healthy enough to be able to be dangerous when attacking the rim. When Robinson is at his best, he is able to attack the rim at will and do one of three things: make an easy layup, draw a foul, or kick out to an open shooter.
Saint Louis likely will be conservative early and expect that Robinson is 100% knowing the risk if they are relaxed defensively on Robinson and allow him to be a spark plug right at the start. However, Travis Ford is a veteran coach who will be ready to adapt his approach defensively should Robinson not be at full strength and unable to attack the rim in the ways that he’s shown he can in the past.
Robinson’s health will be a factor in whether the Hokies could be in danger of being upset on the opening weekend or if Virginia Tech could be set to make a run unlike any other in the past 50 years. Tonight should give us our first insight into how healthy Robinson is and how healthy he may be able to come if VT can make it to the second weekend.
2. Expect Lots of Kerry Blackshear
While some may expect Virginia Tech’s offense to look a lot different with Justin Robinson back, it seems more likely that we’ll see a hybrid throughout. However, the Hokies’ offense may look much more like we’ve seen in recent weeks tomorrow especially given the size advantage the Hokies actually have.
Whenever Kerry Blackshear is on the floor, he’ll be the tallest player with every SLU player being 6’8” or shorter. That size advantage is something VT will know quite well and has to be a top priority on the offensive end of the floor even more than it has been at times.
Now Saint Louis does has some solid big men led by Hasahn French, but the Hokies have a clear advantage not only in literal size with the 6’10” Blackshear but also in the talent level of the All-ACC Second Teamer. After a brief slump during the final week of the regular season, Blackshear impressed in Charlotte averaging 18 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game against Miami and Florida State.
The dominance that Blackshear has been able to have even when he hasn’t been the biggest guy on the floor (i.e. FSU) is quite impressive and going to be a major challenge for a Saint Louis built more around their strong play from their guards.
While VT will likely use Justin Robinson to initiate the offense a fair amount, expect the Hokies’ offense to largely center around Kerry Blackshear not only because of a possible transition, but also because of the matchup.
3. Be Ready to Rebound
Virginia Tech has shown improvement rebounding the basketball staying up on the glass with plenty of well-known rebounding teams like North Carolina even if their style has kept the volume down. However, Saint Louis is built on their rebounding averaging 39.8 rebounds per game with SLU coach Travis Ford mentioning after the Billikens’ A-10 Tournament that the Billikens are at their best when they are rebounding the ball at a high level.
While forward Hasahn French has led the way averaging 8.4 rebounds per game, it’s been important guards like Javon Bess and Jordan Goodwin, both of whom average over 6.5 rebounds per game, who are big reasons why the Billikens are a great rebounding team. Additionally, all 5 of Saint Louis’ top healthy players are averaging at least 4 rebounds, another sign of how Saint Louis’ rebounding success has been a collective effort.
To beat Virginia Tech, you have to find ways to create a significant shot advantage and Saint Louis has the tools to do that on the glass. Virginia Tech will have to make their defensive rebounding a priority knowing that Saint Louis has the aggressiveness and physicality to attack the glass and create second chance opportunities. If Saint Louis is going to have a realistic shot at pulling off the big upset, they are going to have to have a big day rebounding the basketball.
4. The Free Throw Difference
As good friend of The Tech Lunch Pail’s Matt Zemek and others have emphasized, March is “Free Throw Awareness” month with both teams being on opposite ends of the spectrum this season at the free-throw line.
The Hokies have been extremely good shooting 75.8% from the free-throw line, putting themselves 22nd nationally and eighth among NCAA Tournament teams at the charity stripe. Meanwhile, the Billikens have had major issues at the free-throw line making only 60% which is ranked 350th out of 351 Division I teams.
Yeah that’s a major gap and a huge area for the Hokies to take advantage of especially if this is a close, ugly game down the stretch.
While Saint Louis does have a pair of key guys shooting over 70% from the free-throw line in Javon Bess and Tramaine Isabell Jr, the Billikens as a team have major issues at the line. For comparison, six of Virginia Tech’s eight-man rotation are shooting over 70% from the free-throw line with PJ Horne also shooting over 65% at the charity stripe.
When the stakes becomes this high, easy opportunities like free throws matter especially to teams looking to pull a major upset. For the Hokies, this is one area where they may be able to keep Saint Louis at a significant distance in this game.
5. X-Factor: Ty Outlaw
Ty Outlaw has been very hot or cold recently as shown by the fact that after he opened his ACC Tournament with a 14-point first half, the senior didn’t have a single point in the next three halves and overtime. Additionally, Outlaw went from three games being held under 10 points to three-straight with at least 10 points (including 19 against Miami) to end the regular season.
There’s no doubt that when Outlaw is rolling, he’s as good as any three-point shooter in the country. The question is can the Hokies get Outlaw rolling like VT was able to two years ago entering their first NCAA Tournament under Buzz Williams?
Outlaw should benefit from having Justin Robinson back to help create more catch-and-shoot opportunities and take some of the extra defensive attention off of him, giving him more space. The bigger question is can Outlaw find a rhythm from deep that can take him from useful role player to a “where did that guy come from” type of player?
Part of the key, and another area where Robinson could help, is that Outlaw is at his best when he can anticipate the pass coming his way before it arrives allowing him to both mentally and physically prepare for the catch-and-shoot as he said earlier in the season. With Robinson back, there should be a more natural, comfortably ball movement rhythm that may allow Outlaw to anticipate rather than react more when trying to get catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities.
If Outlaw is able to anticipate more than he is forced to react, Saint Louis will likely see the Hokies’ most talented three-point shooter at his best in this first round matchup.