Photo Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics
March Madness is back with Virginia Tech set to kick off the long-awaited opening round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed and popular double-digit seed upset pick against 7 seed Florida. The Hokies and Gators both have dealt with some significant challenges this season and overcame them to reach this year's Big Dance with the chance to be the first team to reach the second round.
So with that said, will it be the Hokies or Gators who come out on top? Here's our staff's picks.
Virginia Tech got about as good of a matchup as they could imagine as a 10 seed against 7 seed Florida who hasn't beaten an NCAA Tournament since late January and has been somewhat inconsistent in recent weeks. However, while Florida seems to be sliding the wrong way, Tech has shown signs of finding their form before their February and early March COVID issues especially against a North Carolina team that was a bad matchup for them.
Florida is also a lot different from the Tar Heels and doesn't have nearly the same size that the Tar Heels had. If anything, the Hokies are the bigger team and for a team that has been at their best when they control the scoring in the paint. The matchup of Keve Aluma and Colin Castleton will be fascinating with Castleton averaging over 2 blocks per game. If anything, Justyn Mutts may be the x-factor with Florida not having a deep frontcourt at all.
Tech will also need Wabissa Bede on his top defensive form against Gators' leading scorer Tre Mann though one thing that is clear is that Bede should be more than comfortable on the biggest stage in college basketball.
This should be a competitive game but in the end, Virginia Tech will get the job done as their inside-out offense will shine will their defense will force their fair share of turnovers against a turnover prone Gator team to reach the second round likely against Ohio State.
Pick: Virginia Tech 70, Florida 63
Despite the inconsistent schedule for the Virginia Tech Hokies over the past month, they are dancing for the fourth straight NCAA Tournament.
Entering the tournament as a No. 10 seed will be a daunting challenge for the Hokies, but in my opinion, they got a very favorable draw to start off the tournament against the Florida Gators.
After finishing fifth in the SEC this season, the Gators were good enough to stay out of the bottom of the standings, but lacked in competing against the higher end talents of Alabama and Arkansas in the conference.
Their best win of the season in conference came against Tennessee on Jan. 19 when the Gators blew out the Volunteers 75-49 in Gainesville, but they suffered back-to-back losses to the same Tennessee squad in the regular season finale and in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals.
Tre Mann is the stand-out player on the Gators roster as he boasts a team-best 16.0 PPG, four more points a game than the next Gator, and is the only player on the team averaging over thirty minutes a game.
His matchup against Wabissa Bede will be a fun one to watch as Bede is quite arguably one of the best on-ball defenders from the ACC this season. If the Hokies are able to contain Mann and force other Gators to shoot, then the matchup will work in the way of Virginia Tech.
On the Hokies side of the matchup, it’s Mike Young’s first time leading Virginia Tech to the Big Dance; but the last time he was in the Tournament, he was coaching an exciting Wofford team that fell just short of the Sweet 16.
A familiar player on that Terriers squad was Keve Aluma, who started in thirty-four games for Mike Young that season. As he wasn’t putting up a similar statline like he has this season for the Hokies, his presence with that team was still felt and he will most likely have the same impact on the court Friday.
The Second-Team All-ACC player has been dominating the Hokies’ opponents down low in the paint this season, and now he will look to victimize a Gators team that has struggled to keep their opponents out of the paint.
The biggest hole the Hokies will have to fill is for the absence of Jalen Cone. Though he hasn’t been in the Hokies lineup that much over the past few weeks, the Hokies have lacked at times to get their shots going from behind the arc. If they are able to produce reliable outside scoring, the Hokies will find themselves in a much easier position come Friday.
I like the Virginia Tech Hokies in this matchup as they will most likely be able to use their strengths on the court to help put themselves on the right side of the result.
Pick: Virginia Tech 73, Florida 68
Virginia Tech will play in only its third game in 40 days when it takes the court against Florida on Friday in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. Tech is coming off an 81-73 loss to North Carolina in the second round of the ACC tournament.
As far as my prediction for the game, I lean slightly more towards the Hokies even though the line for the game is even as of the writing of this piece. There are really two factors I evaluate when picking this matchup: wins against top 25 teams and average win margin by points.
Virginia Tech is an impressive 4-0 against top 25 teams, while Florida is only 2-2. When it comes to win margin, Florida averages a four point margin of victory, whereas Virginia Tech averages seven points.
Really the only advantage Florida has over Tech is the fact that it's been able to play over the past month. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Hokies start the game a little slow, but I do expect them to come out with the victory.