After two losses in their past 3 games at Virginia and North Carolina, No. 10 Virginia Tech returns to Cassell Coliseum to face a likely NCAA Tournament team at home for the first time this season in Syracuse. The Orange remained in the now five-way tie for first place in the ACC after three-straight wins (including an upset victory at Duke) while the Hokies lurk a game back.
Syracuse knows a second road win over a "at the time" top 10 team would take away any realistic worry about making the NCAA Tournament while the Hokies are looking for their best win since beating Purdue in the Charleston Classic Championship Game.
With that said, here's our three things to watch for tonight's showdown.
1. Key Matchup: Nickeil Alexander-Walker vs. Tyus Battle
NBA scouts will have all their attention on the backcourt matchup between each team's leading scorers in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Tyus Battle. The two talented wings both seemed poised to be first round picks with Alexander-Walker making a run at going in the late lottery.
Alexander-Walker has become one of the nation's most talented guards averaging 18.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.1 steals in 32.5 minutes per game. A large part of that success has been due to his impressive shooting with a very efficient shooting split of .548/.443/.780.
Alexander-Walker has been able to score just about any way imaginable whether that's creating his own shot, attacking the rim with the control of a future NBA player, or being consistent as a catch-and-shoot guy on the outside.
Meanwhile, Tyus Battle hasn't shot the ball as well from 3 this season, but Battle has improved as a shooter overall making 45.5% of his shots while also only averaging 1.6 turnovers per game compared to 2.4 last season. Battle has proven to be an effective scorer inside the arc that knows how to get to the free-throw line and produce averaging almost 6 free throws attempts per game while shooting 79.6% from the free-throw line.
The battle between Alexander-Walker and Battle should be a fun one to watch not only for fans, but also for all the NBA scouts that are either in Blacksburg or watching ESPN.
2. Avoid Foul Trouble With The Big 3
Virginia Tech's lack of depth showed against North Carolina with the Hokies not having a good enough third option to run the offense when Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson had to sit for a long stretch of the first half with the foul trouble. During that stretch was when North Carolina launched their 20-0 run (with Alexander-Walker picking up a third foul in a less than 1 minute cameo).
That game showed how the Hokies not only can't afford foul trouble with Kerry Blackshear due to PJ Horne's injury but also can't afford to have both Robinson and Alexander-Walker in foul trouble with the lack of a high quality third option to initiate the offense. This is also one way where VT likely misses having Chris Clarke who at times could even be a point forward especially in transition.
Now it seems very unlikely that we'll see a long stretch like that again this season where Alexander-Walker and Robinson will be on the bench, or even any stretch given VT's lack of depth. However, VT's performance against UNC showed how much the Hokies need to have at least one of Robinson or Alexander-Walker on the floor at all times.
Additionally, the Hokies need Blackshear especially tonight against a streaky Syracuse center in Pascal Chukwu who can have some dominant performances on the glass including 18 rebounds against Duke. Chukwu is inconsistent, but the best way for that not to matter is simply having Blackshear in foul trouble on the bench with the tallest player on the floor being 6'5'' competing with a 7'2'' big man. That's a recipe for disaster.
Virginia Tech can't afford to be in foul trouble tonight especially with their big 3 with the Orange ready to give VT problems if that is the case.
3. Virginia Tech Needs to be Efficient Offensively.
Virginia Tech has shown improvement rebounding the basketball including an even 10-10 offensive rebounding split against North Carolina. However, the Hokies have still had issues rebounding the basketball this season and against a Syracuse team with Pascal Chukwu and Oshae Brissett averaging over 6 rebounds per game, the Hokies will need to be efficient shooting the basketball especially given how Syracuse is likely to have a notable advantage in total shots.
Part of that is due to the fact that Syracuse does a good job limiting turnovers averaging around 12 per game with not a single player averaging 2 or more turnovers per game. That is an incredible stat for a team with 3 players averaging 30+ minutes per game.
While the Hokies likely will be able to force some turnovers, Virginia Tech will need to be efficient in a matchup where Syracuse is likely to have a more significant rebounding advantage than VT has in turnovers even playing at home.
On the positive side of things, Virginia Tech has been more efficient from the field including three-point range where they shot over 46% from 3 at North Carolina. Virginia Tech will be challenged though by Syracuse's zone defense and will likely need Kerry Blackshear to be productive and attract more attention to collapse the Syracuse defense and create open space for shooters on the outside or lanes to attack the rim.
Virginia Tech has been built around being one of America's most efficient teams on the offensive end and they'll need to do so once again against Syracuse.
Virginia Tech may be undefeated in Cassell Coliseum, but they'll face a NCAA Tournament quality team for the first time this season in Blacksburg via Syracuse. Both the Hokies and Orange have had strong but slightly roller coaster-like starts in ACC play with VT starting 4-2 with 5 of those 6 games decided by 10+ point margins (including to 20-point losses) while Syracuse followed a home loss to Georgia Tech with a major upset victory at Duke.
This games presents an interesting contrasts in styles and focus with the Hokies being built around their offense and Syracuse being built around their zone defense. A couple of weeks ago, this would have been a bigger concern, but Virginia Tech has found their offensive rhythm over their past few games even if they've gone 1-2 during that stretch.
One of the significant areas of improvement for Virginia Tech this season that may have an impact tonight, their half-court offense. The Hokies have slowed down their tempo significantly yet are still one of America's most efficient teams in part because of the breakout of Nickeil Alexander-Walker as an NBA-caliber shot creator. Additionally, the Hokies have a pair of offense to initiate their offense in Robinson and Alexander-Walker that will allow the Hokies to keep the Syracuse zone on their heels.
This likely won't be a high-scoring game, but the Hokies improvement in their half-court offense will show while their defense will have a better game against a Syracuse team that is only shooting 32.4% from three-point range. Led by big games from Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech will take care of business and stay undefeated at home.
Pick: #10 Virginia Tech 75, Syracuse 67
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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