After winning their first NCAA Tournament game since 2007 with a 66-52 victory over Saint Louis, Virginia Tech has their eyes set on their second Sweet 16 appearance in program history with only one hurdle to clear, 12 seed Liberty.
1. Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. Scottie James
There’s no doubt that the focal matchup in tonight’s game will come in the post between Kerry Blackshear and Scottie James, two of the best bigs in the East Region. Liberty has built their offense around an inside-out attack with James while Blackshear will be the best big man that Liberty’s star has faced all season.
Once again, Blackshear will have a size advantage against the 6’8” James, but James, on-paper, will provide Blackshear with a tough matchup. Offensively, Blackshear is much more versatile shooting 52% from the field including 35% from three-point range while James has been insanely efficient at 66.9% from the field and a solid 33.3% from three-point range, though James doesn’t take nearly as many threes.
Both are very good rebounders as well with James averaging 8.7 per game while Blackshear only averages 7.2 rebounds per game. However, Blackshear’s rebounding dominance comes on the offensive end where he is averaging 2.8 offensive rebounds per game, an impressive improvement that has helped take his game to the next level and transform him into an All-ACC Second Teamer this year.
Blackshear is the more skilled big man, but James will provide a good challenge for him. James only averages about 25 minutes per game so Blackshear winning the battle during his limited minutes would be a major problem for Liberty and their hopes of pulling off another major upset.
2. Defend The Three
Unlike Saint Louis, Liberty is very good from three-point range shooting 36.7% from three as a team with a trio of rotation players shooting at least 42% from beyond the arc. The Hokies have forced teams to beat them from beyond the arc on the defensive end with Saint Louis being unable to do so going 4-23 from deep Friday. However, the Hokies won’t be able to be as lax defending the perimeter against a Liberty team with the shooters.
The focus of that will be on senior Lovell Cabbil Jr, a potential x-factor who is averaging only 11.7 points per game but is shooting 45.6% from three-point range. Additionally, Caleb Homesley, Liberty’s second-leading scorer, may shoot under 32% from three-point range but his 5-11 night from three against Mississippi State, on his way to a 30-point game, shows how dangerous Liberty can be when they get going from three-point range.
Now this is where it helps the Hokies that they have a true eight-man rotation for the first time since before ACC play with Justin Robinson and PJ Horne healthy, and Isaiah Wilkins improving and earning a spot in the rotation. That will be valuable as the Hokies will need to rely on Blackshear defensively in the post while trying to limit Liberty’s quality of three-pointers.
If the Hokies can prevent Liberty from finding their rhythm or getting a high volume of solid three-point chances, Virginia Tech should be in good shape to take care of business and get a win.
3. Nickeil Alexander-Walker May Be Finding His Best Form
With Justin Robinson back, Nickeil Alexander-Walker was able to move back into his more natural off-the-ball shooting guard role and it showed as Alexander-Walker shined going 8-13 with 20 points to lead the Hokies to victory. Alexander-Walker made it almost look effortless in getting to the basket at will throughout the game with drives that looked like someone who should be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
The question is was that just a big game against a 13 seed or is Alexander-Walker rounding back into his best form with Robinson back? The answer appears more likely to be the latter.
There’s no doubt that Liberty will give Alexander-Walker lots of attention, but it may not matter with Alexander-Walker having greater comfort when he can start off-the-ball. From there, the Hokies are able to create the space that gives him the lanes he needs to glide to the hoop starting around the midpoint of the shot clock while also having the range to pull up for a mid-range shot, or take a catch and shoot three.
If Alexander-Walker is back to playing like the NAW that broke out during non-conference play and seemed bound for All-ACC First Team honors before Robinson’s injury, Liberty will likely be in for a very long night against the Hokies.
4. Better Ball Movement
Virginia Tech was quite effective at driving the basketball and either getting layups or drawing fouls against Saint Louis, but one concerning stat was the fact that the Hokies only had 10 assists. For a team that averages an insane 15.3 assists per game, this number was startlingly low especially with Justin Robinson making his return.
While that number seems like an aberration, Virginia Tech knows that if they want their offense to be at its best, their ball movement must be a major part of it.
The stats showed the fact that the Hokies relied largely on attacking the rim off the dribble with the Hokies only taking 10 three-point attempts. While part of that may have been due to the size advantage that they’ll once again have against Liberty, the Hokies have to be able to move the ball better to get the premium quality shot opportunities that they are used to getting as they did some during the first half against Saint Louis.
Liberty will know this and likely build their defensive gameplan on forcing the Hokies into an isolation offense. While VT has the guys who can still being forced into that style with Kerry Blackshear, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Justin Robinson; the Hokies are at their best when the ball movement is at their best and the assist rate per made field goal is high.
Ball movement will be critical for the Hokies’ offense to reach their peak potential in this second round matchup against Liberty.
5. Road Game Approach Required
Virginia Tech will have to be ready for a loud, raucous atmosphere that will be against them Saturday night if the game is close. In a location where they are the only well-seeded team left, where there will be more fans of Oregon and UC Irvine due to location, and in front of a crowd that will likely want to see an upset outside of VT fans; the Hokies have to take a road game approach into this game.
Now this can be one of the hardest things to do or even expect especially when your the better seeded team getting to wear your home uniforms, but this is set up to be an environment where neutral fans will be ready to rally behind the underdog Liberty if they’re in it. Additionally, that crowd will be at its largest at the end of the first game, the spot the VT-Liberty game surprisingly drew despite being in the late session for the first round.
Virginia Tech has fortunately played in plenty of tough environments at Virginia and North Carolina this season so they have experience, but VT will have to go into this game expecting that it’ll be a crowd hungry to see a big upset and more than just one double-digit seed make the Sweet 16 from San Jose.