#9 Virginia Tech. #4 Virginia. 14-1 versus 15-0. Solo first place in the ACC on the line. A program high ranking versus a #1 ranking at stake for each team respectively.
For the first time ever, Virginia Tech and UVA will face off when both teams are in the top 10 in what has become the most highly-anticipated basketball game ever in the VT-UVA rivalry.
As both teams continued to pick up big wins and climb the rankings, the possibility of a top 10 matchup only grew and the excitement across the Commonwealth began to build. As Virginia Tech survived a scare at Georgia Tech and Virginia pulled away from Boston College after a tight first half, it became clear that the highly-ranked matchup that both fan bases had been dreaming of was going to happen.
Now, that day has come with both teams knowing the stakes are higher than ever.
Virginia knows that wins over Virginia Tech and Duke would likely secure them the #1 ranking in college basketball along with making them the early leader in the clubhouse to be the #1 overall seed (though we all know how that went last year).
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech has a chance to not only solidify their status as a top 4 NCAA Tournament seed, but also earn their highest ranking in school history and make a strong case that they can earn a top 2 seed this season.
The one guarantee is that the winner of this game will be the last unbeaten in ACC play after Syracuse stunned current #1 Duke.
With all that said, here's a look at our 5 things to watch for #9 Virginia Tech against #4 Virginia.
1. A Historic Showdown
For basketball in the state of Commonwealth, this is a historic moment as the first top 10 matchup between Virginia Tech and UVA. For more on that, read our feature on the historic nature of this game for college basketball in the Commonwealth here.
Given the significant nature of this game, many have rightfully been frustrated to hear that this game won't be nationally televised on ESPN. However, the people likely to be the most frustrated are those in charge of programming in ESPN knowing that they could've had a lineup that featured either North Carolina or Kentucky leading in to a top 10 matchup.
Regardless of that, tonight's game is a chance to celebrate the tremendous coaching jobs Buzz Williams and Tony Bennett have done in transforming Virginia Tech and Virginia into top 10 teams and national title contenders.
2. NBA Scouts Pay Attention
Virginia Tech and Virginia haven't had many first round picks, but both the Hokies and Cavaliers have expected 2019 first round picks in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and De'Andre Hunter. Alexander-Walker and Hunter have emerged as two of America's best sophomore and have benefited from having a year of experience.
Alexander-Walker has been phenomenal averaging 17.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.2 steals per game with a shooting split of .546/.424/.791, all of which involve at least a net 3% improvement including an overall shooting percentage jump from 44.9% to 54.6%. His breakout performance has earned Alexander-Walker one of 25 spots on the prestigious Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 along with lots of speculation that he has a chance to be a lottery pick.
Meanwhile, De'Andre Hunter has gone from sixth man to being a key part of the UVA big 3 averaging 14 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists with a shooting split of .511/.441/.810, all of which are improvements as was the case for Alexander-Walker. Additionally, Hunter was also named to the prestigious Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 as both Hunter and Alexander-Walker have All-American aspirations.
What's clear is that both players are very likely to be gone after this season given their pro prospects. For now, both players have their eyes on continuing to show they're versatile wings who can be productive NBA players and help lead their teams on seasons to remember.
3. Both Teams are Better in the Areas You Wouldn't Expect
Under Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech has become known for being one of the most efficient offensive teams in America while Tony Bennett has transformed Virginia into a defensive powerhouse that no one in college basketball has been able to either replicate or create an antidote to fight against UVA's defense.
However, both of these teams have proven to be more than above-average in the other areas of the game.
Virginia Tech's defense has been a revelation this season ranking fourth in the country in allowing only 57.3 points per game, trailing only UVA, Michigan, and Texas Tech. The metrics back up the Hokies' defensive success with KenPom ranking VT as the nation's 19th best defensive team according to their adjusted defensive metric.
That defensive success hasn't gone unnoticed whatsoever with Kerry Blackshear crediting VT's defensive engagement for the massive improvement.
“I think our engagement defensively has been very key for us, and it’s like those little things that each and every guy is looking to fix. I think our team is grateful to play on both ends this year and that the brotherhood that we have on defense shows just as much as it does on offense helping each other.”
Meanwhile, Virginia has been one of the best three-point shooting teams averaging 39.8% from three-point range while shooting 47.4% overall from the field. That success is largely due to their star trio of Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome that are each shooting over 39% from three-point range and averaging a combined 42.4 points per game. Like VT's defense, the metrics also support UVA with the Cavaliers ranking sixth in adjusted offense according to KenPom ahead of the eighth-ranked Hokies.
While offense has been the calling card of the Hokies, and defense the calling card for UVA; both teams have stepped up on the other ends of the floor, pushing both teams into the top 10.
4. Kerry Blackshear Can Be the Difference Maker
While Virginia arguably has the better backcourt given their slightly more talented trio than VT's top 3 guards, the Hokies have the advantage in the middle with Kerry Blackshear especially given his strong early season play.
Blackshear is in the midst of the best run of his career averaging 18.3 points and 8 rebounds per game in ACC play this season. Blackshear has also done that against some solid big men with 20+ point performances coming against Nik Popovic and Boston College, and John Mooney and Notre Dame.
UVA presents another matchup where the Hokies have the advantage in the paint when Blackshear is on the floor. While Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite have developed into solid big men, Blackshear is clearly the more talented center and has a favorable matchup that VT needs him to win tonight.
If Blackshear can have a dominant performance, it will gives the Hokies a major boost and put a significant amount of greater pressure on UVA's star perimeter trio to outplay VT's backcourt.
5. Expect VT to Use Wabissa Bede More Than Ty Outlaw
While Ty Outlaw is the more skilled shooter, the Hokies will need to likely go with a more athletic lineup and Wabissa Bede gives the Hokies that.
Bede has a clear athletic advantage on Outlaw that gives him the speed to stay up with any defender and not be easily beaten in man-to-man. Beyond just that, Bede has also shown that he is more than capable of taking on the Devin Wilson defensive mantle that has made a difference already in ACC play and received plenty of praise from Buzz Williams including after the win over Boston College that Williams said was Bede's "best game as a college player."
Part of this is due to the fact that UVA should have a smaller, quicker backcourt lineup more often with freshman Kihei Clark at point guard to go along with the trio of Hunter, Guy, and Jerome. When UVA uses Braxton Key instead of Clark, pushing Jerome to the point, don't be surprised to see the Hokies go with Outlaw more given his size and scoring.
Of course, the situation and flow of the game could also dictate how VT splits minutes between Bede and Outlaw, but don't be surprised to see VT go with their more athletic, sophomore point guard in Bede rather than the bigger, three-point specialist Outlaw.
This is going to be a tough environment for Virginia Tech going on the road into a raucous John Paul Jones Arena against a UVA team that knows they can earn the #1 ranking if they can beat VT and Duke this week.
For the first time this season, the Hokies do not have the better group of guards in part because of UVA having a star backcourt trio of Hunter, Guy, and Jerome who all will have NBA opportunities The Hokies have a pair of star guards in Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson, but a relative drop-off to Ahmed Hill (who is quite good in his own right, just not on the same level as the previously mentioned 5).
Virginia Tech's cold shooting will be improved in this game, but the Hokies will need a big game from Kerry Blackshear. Expect Blackshear to have a strong performance to help create some space on the outside for the Hokies' shooters.
Despite all the impressive offenses, expect Virginia to be able to limit possessions and help make this a low-scoring defense with the Hokies being able to stay right with UVA in this type of battle. UVA may be the slightly better team, but playing at home will help them even more.
Virginia Tech will show why they are one of the ACC's top 3 and shouldn't drop in the rankings at all, but Virginia will win the first matchup as their backcourt depth will make life difficult enough for VT's defense while feeding off a raucous environment at UVA.
Pick: #4 Virginia 63, #9 Virginia Tech 58
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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