After taking care of business against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech gets their first of 2 major primetime showdowns over the next two weeks in Cassell Coliseum against No. 4 Virginia. The Cavaliers have been as dominant as ever with only a pair of losses on Duke to blemish their record.
The Cavaliers enter this game as the clear favorites especially with the Hokies not having Justin Robinson. However, Virginia Tech and Virginia have been able to split this series for the past three years with the Hokies being able to find some magic inside Cassell Coliseum even when it's seem unlikely (see ball stuck on rim two years ago in Cassell).
With that said, here's our three things to watch for tonight's rivalry showdown.
1. Containing Virginia's Big Three
Virginia has one of America's best trio of perimeter stars with future first round pick De'Andre Hunter alongside Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. All three players have the talent to take over and have a big, highlight-leading performance with all 3 averaging at least 13 points per game and shooting at least 43% from the field and 42% from three-point range.
For the Hokies, it will be next to impossible to shut even one of them down, but the focus has to be on finding ways to contain them and force other players to step up more than normal to win this game.
Expect a lot of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, and Ahmed Hill in this game given the athletic advantages they bring to the table over other wings like Ty Outlaw and Isaiah Wilkins. While Alexander-Walker is likely to play almost 40 minutes anyway, expect Bede and Hill to play a significant amount of minutes unless VT gets in a hole and needs more scoring, something that would likely push both Outlaw and Wilkins into the game with Bede on the bench.
Finding a way to contain the big three and prevent them from taking over and putting on a show will be important unlike Notre Dame who kept it close but gave up 42 points to Hunter and Guy, which proved quite costly in the end. If the Hokies can contain those 3 and force other players to step up and win this game, they can give themselves a better shot at pulling off the upset.
2. Feed Kerry Blackshear
Kerry Blackshear has stepped up during Justin Robinson's absence and has another favorable matchup against a UVA frontcourt that doesn't have a dominant player whether that's the veteran Jack Salt or the inconsistent Jay Huff. Both players have shown flashes of higher potential, especially Huff, but neither player has been consistent whatsoever with Blackshear being the significantly more-skilled big man on both ends of the floor.
Blackshear enters this game coming off an impressive 29-point, 9-rebound performance that has him averaging 19.2 points and 7.6 rebounds during the absence of Robinson. Blackshear has also been able to produce in a multitude of ways stretching defenses out with an improved three-point shot that he's making 41% of the time this season while also being able to take over as an offensive initiator at times.
His recent play has also made it clear that Blackshear is one of the top true big men in the ACC alongside Luke Maye and has shown an ability to take over in big moments as top bigs in the conference should be able to.
Additionally, Blackshear has done well to stay out of foul trouble including early in games with no fouls in the first half against Pittsburgh before picking up four fouls in the second half. Despite playing more minutes, Blackshear has only fouled out once during the past five games, something that has to be extremely encouraging going forward given his past struggles.
3. Can Nickeil Alexander-Walker Break His Slump?
While Kerry Blackshear has stepped up without Justin Robinson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has struggled averaging only 13.2 points per game in his past 5 games including 9 points in only 17 minutes against Pittsburgh due to foul trouble.
Virginia Tech was able to get away with Alexander-Walker having an off day on Saturday, but they'll need their star sophomore to be at his best tonight against a likely 1 seed in Virginia.
Of course, if you are looking for a positive out of Saturday's performance for Alexander-Walker, it may be the simple fact that he only played 17 minutes and should be much more rested than most stars in this game would be playing two days later. Combine that with UVA having to grind out a win over Notre Dame and there's definitely a potential for a rest advantage for Alexander-Walker among the star players in this game.
One thing the Hokies need to be able to do is to find ways to use Alexander-Walker in his best role as a shooting guard and keep him off the ball to start possessions. That role hasn't gone so well for the scoring productivity of the Hokies' future first round pick as someone who isn't a natural point guard whatsoever. That will force a guy like Wabissa Bede and possibly Ahmed Hill to step up and be able to at least start the show to allow Alexander-Walker to go to work off the ball as VT needs him to do.
Virginia Tech needs a big game from Nickeil Alexander-Walker that breaks his recent slump. If he can't break it, it's hard imaging the Hokies having much of a chance at pulling off the upset.
Though Virginia Tech could really use Justin Robinson in this game, Virginia Tech has the talent to keep themselves in it especially due to their three-point shooting potential with guys like Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Ty Outlaw. The issue for the Hokies is the fact that their three-point defense has been ugly and while they've been able to mask that against poor three-point shooting teams like Pittsburgh, they likely won't be able to do that against a Virginia team that shoots 40% from three-point range.
That poor three-point defense has been a major problem with teams shooting almost 3% higher than their normal average from beyond the arc, second worst in the conference behind only Pittsburgh.
Yeah, that three-point defense is a major difference between these two teams that isn't a stat of luck but a clear indication of a place of greatness for UVA and a major problem for the Hokies going forward.
Despite that, this game will be inside an electric Cassell Coliseum that usually finds a way to become even more chaotic and intimidating for games against the ACC's best in UVA and Duke. Combine that with a clear post advantage having Kerry Blackshear and there are ways for the Hokies to win this game that largely involve them doing what they've done best in the past, attack the rim.
Unfortunately, the big issue the Hokies are going to have is not only is UVA more talented in the backcourt, they have the three-point shooting that makes them a much worse matchup than Duke next week and are a veteran team who know what it takes to play in the toughest environments in the ACC including Cassell Coliseum. This game will definitely be closer than the first matchup but against UVA's stringent defense, the Hokies will miss Justin Robinson more than normal and go 0-2 against UVA for the first time since year 1 of the Buzz Williams era.
Pick: #4 Virginia 67, #22 Virginia Tech 58
Photo Credit: Bobby Murray
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