Kentucky's stunning upset loss to Saint Peter's has opened lots of opportunity for an easier path to the Elite Eight for the whole bottom half of the East Region including the Virginia Tech Hokies and Texas Longhorns, 2 of the 4 remaining teams who were ranked in either the AP or Coaches Poll this past week in that half of the region.
Of course, the Hokies and Longhorns will have to go through each other to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament let alone make a run to the Elite Eight in a matchup that is one of the most anticipated games of the first round this year.
So with that said, here are my three things to watch for Virginia Tech against Texas.
1. Feed Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts In The Paint
Virginia Tech isn't necessarily a small team but they aren't a crazy big team either. However, the Hokies will have a clear frontcourt advantage and even somewhat of a size advantage regardless of skill when they take on Texas.
Of course, this would have seen more even before the season, but Tre Mitchell, arguably the most talented big man for the Longhorns, left the team in February leaving the Longhorns with a weakness. Texas still has Timmy Allen to lead their frontcourt, but this is a clear opportunity for Virginia Tech.
With that said, the Hokies need to not only feed Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts but also feed them early and often in the paint instead of setting up Aluma and Mutts on the perimeter.
We've seen the Hokies be bad about over-feeding Aluma on the perimeter instead of having him set up in the paint. Both players do have solid three-point shooting and driving skills in their arsenal, but the matchup and size advantage makes this a day to feed Aluma and Mutts on the block for the Aluma baby hook from 5 feet plus Mutts backing down opposing bigs and powering his way to the rim.
If Tech prioritizes attacking the paint and letting their bigs work primarily down low, the Hokies should be able to take advantage of the Longhorns' frontcourt weakness.
2. Protect The Basketball
In a game featuring two of the slowest tempo teams in the country, every possession will be even more valuable than normal given how few possessions there likely will be. That will put turnovers at an even higher premium in this game and make protecting the basketball even more critical than it already is.
Tech Sideline's David Cunningham also had a great stat on how Texas' rate of forcing turnovers has made a big difference in the results of their games this season.
Likely one of the keys to Friday's game in Milwaukee.— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) March 16, 2022
In games this season where Texas forces its opponent to turn it over on more than 21% of possessions, it is 16-1.
If its opponent keeps the rate below 21%, Texas is 5-10.
Virginia Tech's average is 17.0, 81st in the country. Texas turns people over at a rate of 23.3%, 14th in D-I.— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) March 16, 2022
Tech is 4-3 in games with a turnover rate of 21% or higher.
Wins: Radford, at Pitt, at NC State, at Miami
Losses: at Virginia, at Clemson, Miami
The Hokies have done a great job at limiting turnovers this season averaging only 10.8 per game which ranks 37th in the country including 12th among those in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, Texas averages a very good 7.7 steals per game which is even more important than turnovers forced as a whole given that most steals usually lead to transition bucket opportunities which, in a game of limited possessions, is obviously crucial. Additionally, their turnover rate is even better as David Cunningham mentions though the steals part may be most important especially given how often the points off turnover battle has made a difference for the Hokies either for or against which live ball turnovers (steals) drive that.
If Tech can minimize their mistakes against a Texas team that leans on high turnover rates to win games, the Hokies should have a great chance to beat the better-seeded Longhorns.
3. Get To The Line and Make Your Free Throws
This one seems obvious but March Madness is always a time to reinforce the fact that free throw shooting is critical and will make the difference between wins and losses.
The opening Thursday of this year's tournament reminded us of that once again with Kentucky starting their overtime going 1-6 from the free-throw line against Saint Peter's. Meanwhile, San Diego State struggled from the free-throw line down the stretch against Creighton including the Aztecs missing the first free throw of a one-and-one in a tie game with less than 10 seconds to go.
As we know well, both teams lost and while there are plenty of reasons those losses can be blamed on, the free throw shooting is the most clear reason by far.
On paper, these are two teams that know how to take advantage of their opportunities from the free-throw line with both the Hokies and Texas making over 74% of their free throws this season. Those numbers rank comfortably in the top 100 in the country but the pressure of March will undoubtedly test that.
For the Hokies, part of the emphasis also has to be on drawing fouls as Tech's hot streak has been ignited in part by the Hokies being more aggressive offensively which has led to significantly more trips to the line after being consistently in a free throw deficit early in ACC play.
Free throws usually make a big difference in close games in March and both teams will hope to avoid the struggles that cost Kentucky and San Diego State in this year's first round.