Virginia Tech's final chance to add a second signature non-conference win has arrived with the 13th-ranked Hokies in Atlantic City to take on Washington in the headline game of the Boardwalk Classic.
After both teams started the season ranked, the Hokies have climbed slightly up to #13 while the Huskies have slipped out of the top 25 with a 7-3 record. The implications of this game vary for both Virginia Tech and Washington
For Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech has their signature non-conference win over Purdue while their lone loss to Penn State currently falls into tier 2 with a chance of it ending up in tier 1, which would have a minimal impact. Meanwhile, today's game presents the Hokies with a great opportunity to pursue a second tier 1 non-conference win against a Washington team that is likely to finish in the top 50 of the NCAA's NET.
This is the Hokies' last challenging game before ACC play and a in today would give their resume another boost as they look to break into the top 4 seed range for the NCAA Tournament. In addition, a win would bring the Hokies closer to breaking into the top 10 of the polls with an outside chance of doing so this upcoming week depending on how well they play if they win.
Meanwhile, a loss would likely drop them several spots down the rankings while making it a little harder for them in their pursuit of a top 4 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, though not impossible.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi had Washington as one of his "First Four Out" in this week's bracketology. While it's probably unnecessary to pay too much attention to bracket projections in December, it shows the position the Huskies are in in part because their best win is against either Western Kentucky or Texas A&M.
With the Pac-12 struggling to have high-end teams with only one current top 25 team (Arizona State), this game presents a major opportunity for the Huskies to pick up a marquee, resume-defining win that may not come again this season.
With a pair of low-major west coast teams left before Pac-12 play begins, the Huskies know this is their last opportunity to pick up that major non-conference win. Washington will know this especially given how senior-laden of a team they have and won't be afraid to come out aggressive in pursuit of it.
Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. Noah Dickerson
Neither team has a lot of size, making this battle between Kerry Blackshear and Noah Dickerson the most interesting of the day. For Washington, Dickerson has proven to be one of their two critical scorers alongside Jaylen Nowell while Blackshear is tied for third in scoring and hasn't had to carry as big of an offensive load.
Both players have similar styles built around being highly efficient in the post while being solid but not great rebounders. One difference between the two is while Dickerson's offensive game is largely limited to the post, Blackshear isn't afraid to stretch the floor and is a solid 6-15 from three-point range.
However, both big men have shown the ability to take over games in certain moments and both teams know that they can't afford to have their star big man in foul trouble. Despite both players averaging around 25 minutes per game, both are also averaging at least 3 fouls per game.
If one of these two gets in foul trouble, it will create a significant matchup advantage that will either open wIde the door of opportunity for Washington or give the Hokies a chance at putting on a dominant performance in Atlantic City.
Keys to the Game
1. Keep the Ball Moving
One of the most important things to do when facing a zone defense is to have lots of good ball movement to make the zone stretch and hopefully, break it down to find some sort of open shot. When Virginia Tech's offense is firing on all cylinders, it's largely due to having effective ball movement and a high number of assists.
So far, the Hokies have been quite effective moving the basketball averaging 18.3 assists per game which is tied for 14th nationally and is third in the ACC behind North Carolina and Duke. That ball movement has been the difference time and time again with the Hokies only game with single-digit assists coming in their loss to Penn State, the only time VT has been held under 70 points.
Ball movement will be critical for this game and while there may be times when having Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker attack the rim will be okay, VT needs to more often rely on their passing. In some ways, VT may have to go inside-out at times using Kerry Blackshear to orchestrate the offense from the high post to find an open shooter. If Blackshear can do that effectively, it will give the Huskies' zone defense lots of problems.
2. Defensive Positioning
Virginia Tech's defensive positioning and aggressiveness has been a big reason why the Hokies are in the top 20 in turnovers forced per game and top 10 in points allowed per game (check out Robert Irby's breakdown of the Hokies' defense here).
One of the best things for the Hokies is the fact that when they have rotated and forced some double teams, they've done an effective job at taking smart angles that limit the passing options for their opponents, forcing teams into turnovers and mistakes. While the Huskies haven't had a lot of turnovers, they've haven't proven to be a great passing team with only around 11 assists per game compared to 13 turnovers.
In addition, the Huskies top two players in Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson both are averaging over 3 turnovers per game. Given those numbers, expect the Hokies to try to create some double teams especially on the perimeter with Nowell via guards like Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson.
If the Hokies can continue their high level of defensive intensity combined with smart rotations, they can prevent Washington from getting much going offensively. If not, it'll open the door for the open shots and easy offensive rebounds that some of the risks they take can cause if not properly done.
Virginia Tech and Washington face off in a rematch of last year's 2K Sports Classic consolation which the Hokies absolutely dominated on their way to a 104-78 victory. However, this should be a different story today with Washington being much improved since then while the Hokies have developed into a legitimate top 15 team.
One of the most interesting things with these teams are the fact that both don't have a lot of size and aren't great rebounding basketball teams with both averaging no more than 35 rebounds per game. That should help the Hokies a lot compared to some of their other matchups especially if Kerry Blackshear, the tallest player in either team's rotation, can stay out of foul trouble and give the Hokies 30+ minutes as he has done recently.
Virginia Tech is the better basketball team, but the Hokies' offense will be slowed at times by a Washington defense that has only allowed more than 70 points twice (Auburn, Gonzaga). However, Virginia Tech's defense will be more than ready against a Husky offense that has only proven to have two consistent scorers in Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson.
The Hokies also have the benefit of being able to rely on guys like Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to be able to attack the rim at a high level. Combine that with the Hokies' extremely good ball movement and Virginia Tech has what it takes to break down the zone. While the Huskies will make this interesting led by their guard-big man duo of Nowell and Dickerson, the Hokies will take care of business with a strong defensive performance and enough offense.
Pick: #13 Virginia Tech 73, Washington 64
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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