After blowing out Detroit Mercy
and The Citadel
to start the season, the Virginia Tech Hokies face their first challenge of the season against the Saint Louis Billikens in the semifinals of the 2K Classic. Though the Hokies are significant favorites, this game is a welcome step up in competition from the Hokies' first two victories.
The Billikens struggled in their first season under former Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford, but showed plenty of promise with 6 victories in the Atlantic 10. This year, Saint Louis should be no worse than a mid-tier team in the Atlantic 10 and gives the Hokies a chance to pick up a solid win early in the season.
The Billikens took care of business with a season-opening victory over Seattle followed by a 24-point victory over Division II Rockhurst. So far, Saint Louis has had an even easier schedule than VT with this being their first step up in competition this season.
Michigan State transfer Javon Bess has led the way for the Billikens through the first two games averaging 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Bess has been very effective at getting to the free-throw line and converting making 13 of 15 free throw-attempts in his first two games. Bess has proven that he can get to the line and then take advantage of those easy opportunities.
Chris Clarke will likely match up on Bess for much of this game as the Hokies' versatile forward is one of VT's best athletes and top defenders. Clarke and Bess are similar players who are quality athletes that can attack the rim and rebound the basketball, but aren't great shooters. Bess will bring some challenges, but Clarke should be ready to face a player with some similar skills.
Expect Bess to attack the rim a lot and try to find a way to get the free-throw line even more often. If Chris Clarke and the Hokies can slow that down, it will be hard for Saint Louis to stay in this game.
Saint Louis has averaged 40 rebounds per game in their first two games, but they've done it against weaker competition whereas the Hokies have averaged 49.5 rebounds per game against slightly better, but still weak competition. Saint Louis has a few forwards in the 6'7'' to 6'8'', but the Hokies have the biggest player in 6'10'' Kerry Blackshear.
So far, Blackshear has been dominant through the Hokies' first two games averaging 22.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. Blackshear's mobility is significantly improved due to the foot surgery that he had done last year, and has become a force in the post whether that be on the glass or his more refined post game on the offensive end. So far, Blackshear is looking like a capable replacement for Zach LeDay as the Hokies' primary big man
While Saint Louis has some talented big men, Blackshear will give them problems and have another strong game though he may not have as big of a game as the near triple-double he had against The Citadel (22 points, 15 rebounds, 8 assists).
One of the biggest challenges for the Billikens will be to slow down a Virginia Tech offense that has made an absurd 62.5% of their shots through their first two games. That number will slowly come down, but the Hokies have shown early on that they have the potential to be one of America's most efficient offenses.
One of the players most responsible for that success has been Nickeil Alexander-Walker who is looking like one of the best freshman in America this year. NAW has been impressive averaging 26.5 points per game in his first two games while shooting 63.3% from the field, going 7-for-14 from beyond the arc, and being the Hokies' leading scorers in both of these games and the exhibition against South Carolina.
Alexander-Walker can do it all as a scorer whether that be attacking the rim, getting a quick shot off of a pass, or creating his own shot, something that NBA scouts will be impressed to see. NAW has shown the talent to be the Hokies' third first round pick in school history and will show that off on the big stage of MSG tonight.
Looking for some x-factors in this matchup? Both teams have a player who could surprise.
Devin Wilson has started the Hokies' first two games and looks better than ever after playing football last year. Wilson looks like the defensive stalwart he's always been while being effective on the offensive end early this season averaging 9.5 points per game on 70% field goal shooting.
For Saint Louis, freshman Hasahn French was an impressive pickup for Travis Ford with the Billikens beating out plenty of programs for the Middletown, NY native including fellow 2K Classic teams Virginia Tech and Providence. French has been solid in his first two games averaging 9.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. French has a bright future ahead of him, and is a guy to keep an eye on in this game.
Travis Ford has Saint Louis headed back in the right direction in the underrated Atlantic 10, but the Billikens aren't there yet while the Hokies are establishing themselves as a consistent NCAA Tournament team under Buzz Williams.
Virginia Tech is the more talented and as the competition steps up, the Hokies will be able to rise to the occasion. Saint Louis has played some solid defense early, but the Hokies are too good on offense and will also dominate the boards against another opponent where size isn't an issue.
The Hokies won't get caught looking ahead to a possible showdown with Providence tomorrow night either. Buzz Williams knows how to keep his players focused, and VT won't overlook the Billikens. This game will be much more competitive than the first two games, but the Hokies will cruise to a comfortable victory over Saint Louis in the end.
Pick: Virginia Tech 83, Saint Louis 70
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