After losing back-to-back games to No. 16 Louisville and Clemson for the first time this season, Virginia Tech returns to Cassell Coliseum to take on a struggling Georgia Tech team that have lost five-straight and seven of their last eight games.
Even without Justin Robinson, there is no doubt that Virginia Tech is the overwhelming favorite entering this game. However, the Hokies
1. Can Virginia Tech Find Their Offensive Rhythm?
Virginia Tech's offense hasn't been the same without Justin Robinson as Nickeil Alexander-Walker has tried to adjust into being more of an offensive initiator with Wabissa Bede's role and total playing time growing significantly. While the Hokies' offense hsan't had issues with turnovers, the Hokies have seemed to lack some creativity and inspiration on the offensive end leading to less assisted field goals and worse offensive performances.
During the past three games, Virginia Tech has averaged only 54 points per game and only 9.7 assists per game, showing how the Hokies' great ball movement simply hasn't been there. While Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear have shown that they can be effective scorers in isolation situations, Virginia Tech's offense is built on great ball movement that simply hasn't been there largely because of Justin Robinson's offense.
Part of that is due to Robinson's ability to attack the rim at a high level that simply hasn't been there without him. Outside of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Hokies don't have a great rim-attacking guard while Alexander-Walker isn't the most effective passer when attacking the rim, being more of a scoring-first player which is okay, but doesn't get VT those open three-point opportunities that they've had more often.
One possible adjustment for the Hokies is using Alexander-Walker out of the high post to initiate the offense at times, something they did against Syracuse. While doing this against man-to-man defense is clearly different, the Hokies did use the look at times against N.C. State and had some moderate success.
Virginia Tech's offensive struggles are clear and fixing them starts with improving their lacking ball movement, staying away from an isolation offense that has led to disaster in recent performances for the Hokies.
2. Turnovers Could Be a Major Difference for Virginia Tech
One thing that hasn't changed for Virginia Tech is the fact that they aren't turning the ball over a high rate even without Justin Robinson with an average of 12 turnovers per game in their 3 games without him. That compares extremely well to their season average of only 11.7 turnovers per game, showing that while the Hokies' offense has struggled, it hasn't been due to an increase in turnovers.
VT has also continued to play very good defense forcing 21 steals in their past 3 games and now face a vulnerable Georgia Tech team that is averaging 15.2 turnovers per game including a trio of players averaging more than 2 per game. Combine that with Georgia Tech not being that much better of a rebounding team and that has the potential to be a major problem for the Yellow Jackets.
In the past, the Hokies have had to be way more efficient that just about any ACC opponent given their rebounding issues. This year, that's changed as the Hokies have become a respectable team on the glass and one of the best at forcing turnovers. That's led to the Hokies having some advantages in total shots at times including a seven-shot advantage at Clemson (though shooting 28.3% from the field is a great way to equalize that advantage).
Virginia Tech has always been a better offensive team at home and combine that with the issues Georgia Tech has had turning the basketball over, and that appears to be a major mismatch on paper. Don't be surprised to see the Hokies have an advantage in the number of shots they get up if they can force the amount of turnovers that seem likely against an inexperienced GT team that has an issue holding on to the basketball.
3. Can Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ahmed Hill Break Out of Their Shooting Slumps?
Without Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech's two most talented scoring threats in the backcourt have struggled with Nickeil Alexander-Walker shooting under 45% in each of his past 3 games (including 3-14 from the field vs. Clemson) while Ahmed Hill has shot under 35% in each of his past 3 games while shooting 1-17 from three-point range.
Of course, Alexander-Walker's shooting slump hasn't been as bad relative to Hill's, but it is below the high standards that he's set this season shooting 51.5% from the field and 41.3% from three-point range even with his slump. On the positive as well is that Alexander-Walker has gotten to the line having a minimum of 6 free throws in each of his past 3 games.
Looking ahead to tonight, the Hokies need Alexander-Walker to be more efficient and be the consistent scorer before going to the free-throw line that he hasn't been.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech needs Ahmed Hill to break what almost seems like an annual tradition of slumping during ACC play albeit this one happening later on in early February instead of mid-January. If Hill can't break out of his slump, Buzz Williams may even be tempted to use Isaiah Wilkins more at times in place of the veteran Hill with Wilkins showing some scoring promise and potential, but having the inconsistency that you would expect from a freshman who was planning on being a recruit at this point until the middle of last summer.
The Hokies need Alexander-Walker and Hill to find their rhythm
Expect another close first half similar to what we saw early in ACC play against Boston College and Notre Dame given that Georgia Tech will likely be desperate to end a long losing streak and see the Hokies as vulnerable, even if all three of their poor offensive performances have come either on the road against two bubble teams or at home against a top 20 team.
Virginia Tech is still the clearly better basketball team and while their offense has suffered, their defense hasn't. Combine that with a Georgia Tech team that is shooting an atrocious 29.3% from three-point range and averages over 15 turnovers per game and this looks like a very good matchup for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech also will still have the two most talented players on the floor in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear and though that hasn't mattered at times, it will make a difference in this game.
Meanwhile, the Hokies have the biggest x-factor in Ty Outlaw who has made 50% or more of his three-point attempts in four of his last 5 games along with having at least 6 rebounds in four of those games during that same stretch. Outlaw has stepped his game up in recent weeks, and the Hokies seem poised to reap the benefits once again from their senior wing.
Georgia Tech will put up a solid effort, but Virginia Tech is still significantly more talented than the Yellow Jackets while Jose Alvarado won't be able to be the one-man show that he was in the near upset the first time these two played. In the end, Alexander-Walker, Blackshear, and Outlaw will lead the Hokies to a comfortable, important home victory to rebuild some momentum after their first two-game losing streak of the season.
Pick: #22 Virginia Tech 70, Georgia Tech 59
Photo Credit: Bobby Murray
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