There may be no Zion Williamson or Justin Robinson, but there is no denying the magnitude and stakes in this showdown between the Hokies and Blue Devils.
After taking care of business against Notre Dame, Virginia Tech is right in the hunt for a double bye tied for fourth with Florida State in 10-5 (though next week's matchup between VT and FSU will likely decide that one). Meanwhile, Duke remains in a three-way tie for first in the ACC alongside UVA and North Carolina with this being easily their toughest test before travelling to Chapel Hill on the final weekend before the ACC Tournament.
The Hokies have had lots of success against Duke with back-to-back wins against the Blue Devils in Cassell Coliseum over the past two years and plenty of primetime instant classics between the two in general in the past especially in Blacksburg. However, Duke will be looking to avoid an upset this time against a pair of top 20 teams without their most important players. With that said, here's our three things to watch for this major showdown in Cassell Coliseum.
1. Matchup to Watch: Nickeil Alexander-Walker vs. RJ Barrett
NBA scouts will have their eyes fixed on the matchup between Nickeil Alexander-Walker and RJ Barrett with the pair of long, athletic wings set to be focal points, especially the five-star freshman Barrett.
While Zion Williamson has attracted most of the highlights and headlines, Barrett, despite the fact that he was arguably the top recruit in the county, has flown under-the-radar to an extent. Now with Williamson out, Barrett is getting his fair share of attention and respect in the midst of an impressive season that is ACC Player of the Year caliber averaging 23.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 46% shooting from the field.
Inside the arc, Barrett is a dynamic offensive player who can score in a multitude of ways. For the Hokies, the gameplan has to be to force Barrett to shoot lots of threes where he has only shot 33.3% this season. Barrett's disappointing three-point shooting is a microcosm for Duke's struggles from deep with the Blue Devils shooting 30.6% from three-point range as a team which ranks 330th in the country only ahead of Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and West Virginia among major conference programs.
Meanwhile, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has slumped significantly without Justin Robinson being forced into a more on-the-ball that the true shooting guard has not been comfortable in. One positive against Notre Dame was the fact that he went 7-7 from the free-throw line to break his mini-slump there, but there is no denying the struggles that the Hokies need Alexander-Walker to break out of.
If Virginia Tech is going to pull off the upset, they need Alexander-Walker to not only contain Barrett to an extent, but get himself going on the offensive end in this battle of 2 guards. If Alexander-Walker has another under 30% shooting performances, it'll likely spell trouble for the Hokies
2. Kerry Blackshear Should Dominate the Post
Without Zion Williamson, Duke will have a problem in the post going against Kerry Blackshear with Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. Both of those players are respectable talents who are solid ACC big men, but they are nowhere near the level
3. X-Factors: Ty Outlaw and Alex O'Connell
Cam Reddish was nearly included on this list as though he's averaging 14.4 points per game, there is no doubt that Reddish has the potential to get hot from three and flip this game completely upside down in the favor of the Blue Devils. However, Reddish is more expected to be productive whereas both Ty Outlaw and Alex O'Connell are a pair of shooters that can get really hot and give their opponent a major problem, or struggle and fall into anonymity on the offensive end.
Outlaw has been one of America's best three-point shooters, but is only shooting 46.2% from three on the season due to a slump over his past three games where he has gone 3-13 from three-point range shooting no better than 33% from deep in any particular game.
Meanwhile, O'Connell is Duke's best three-point shooter making just over 38% of his threes. More,importantly, O'Connell appears to be heating,up after a 20-point performance at Syracuse where he went 5-8 from three-point range.
Both of these players are dangerous three-point shooters who can get hot from three-point range and drop 20+ points or can quietly have less fewer than 5 on a bad night. If one of them does have a big game, it could be the difference in what is setting up to be a lower-scoring, low-possession battle.
There's no denying that not having Justin Robinson hurts Virginia Tech significantly, but Duke not having Zion Williamson may be more important for this matchup specifically given how Kerry Blackshear has emerged among the ACC's best big men, and is a serious contender for All-ACC First Team honors. Duke has some solid frontcourt pieces with DeLaurier and Bolden, but they aren't on the same level as Blackshear, giving the Hokies a post advantage they need to take advantage of.
Offensively, Duke has been one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country while Virginia Tech has been among the ACC's worst at defending the three. Something will have to give tonight and without Zion Williamson in the post, that could very easily be in the Hokies favor.
The big problem for Virginia Tech is the fact that outside of Kerry Blackshear, the Hokies' veteran guards have struggled offensively including Nickeil Alexander-Walker who has back-to-back games shooting under 30% from the field. Meanwhile, Duke needs more than just a typical RJ Barrett performance and a bounce-back night from Cam Reddish on the offensive end.
Duke has been in plenty of tough environments, but they haven't done that much without Zion Williamson after facing a record crowd in Syracuse but under difficult circumstances for the Orange. Cassell Coliseum will be loud and the Hokies will turn this game into the type of low-scoring, interior battle that they can win against a Zion-less Duke.
This game could go either way, but Virginia Tech will have enough from a dominant Blackshear and the benefit of shooting at home to pull off a narrow upset over Duke and make a serious run at a double bye in the ACC Tournament.
Pick: #20 Virginia Tech 68, #3 Duke 66
Photo Credit: Bobby Murray
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