After making their second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance last year, the Virginia Tech Hokies return with arguably their highest expectations in program history after being ranked 15th in the preseason AP poll. While Chris Clarke's suspension has dampered some excitement, it hasn't changed the fact that Virginia Tech should have their best team of the Buzz Williams era and is poised to make their third-straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history.
Virginia Tech makes their season debut tonight against a Gardner-Webb team that opened their season with a loss to VCU as they swing through the Southeast with trips to Furman and Savannah State to follow. With that said, here are our three things to watch for tonight's season opener.
1. Will Landers Nolley Play?
The biggest surprise that came out of Virginia Tech's exhibition at Liberty was that Landers Nolley was unable to play due to an unspecified NCAA eligibility issue.
Since then, there has been no clarity given on whether Nolley will be able to play this Saturday and if not, how long the Hokies hyped-up freshman will be out?
If Nolley is able to play, it will be intriguing to see how large of a role Nolley has especially with Chris Clarke indefinitely suspended. Nolley doesn't necessarily have the same style as Clarke, but he does have the size to be a 4 on the floor for the Hokies at 6'7'' and a listed 230 pounds according to Virginia Tech. Nolley also would give the Hokies more ability to stretch the floor as someone known as a quality three-point shooter coming out of high school.
Instead of Hokie fans having excitement to see Landers Nolley make his collegiate debut tonight, the biggest question now is whether Nolley will simply be able to make his debut tonight in the Hokies' season opener.
2. How Good is Isaiah Wilkins?
Throughout the offseason, most of the focus with the freshman class has been on the aforementioned Landers Nolley. However, it was Isaiah Wilkins who stole the show in the Hokies' exhibition against Liberty with 16 points on 6-7 shooting from the field including 3-4 beyond the arc.
Wilkins didn't have a large role playing only 16 minutes, but Wilkins seems poised to have a consistent role given the fact that he played 16 minutes. Of course, that could ebb and flow some once Landers Nolley's eligibility status gets cleared up and is able to play, but Wilkins is positioning himself well to have a consistent role that extends into ACC play.
Non-conference play should provide a great opportunity for Wilkins to establish a role for himself on this team while he should also have a great opportunity to get lots of second half minutes in tonight's minutes. While it's unlikely that Wilkins will be able to be as efficient as he was against Liberty, the Hokies may have found a potential scoring boost of the bench in the late-signing freshman.
3. What Does VT Do Without Kerry Blackshear On the Floor?
After Khadim Sy's second departure from Virginia Tech and Nick Fullard's transfer, the Hokies were left with only one player taller than 6'7'' in Kerry Blackshear. While the Hokies likely will be shooting to use Blackshear for 30 minutes per game during ACC play and other important games, the question is what will the Hokies do without him on the floor and who will they silde into that center role.
Virginia Tech does have some options though Chris Clarke was likely the top option as someone who has been used in that center role at times. With Clarke out, PJ Horne appears to be the top candidate to be used in that role and as undersized frontcourt player who has shown plenty of toughness in the paint and some high-level rebounding ability that makes you wonder how good he could be if only he was a couple inches taller than 6'5''.
Ty Outlaw was used at times in that center role as a true freshman and lineups that include him at the five with Isaiah Wilkins or Wabissa Bede in the game would force defenders to intently guard the three-point line, potentially creating space for Justin Robinson and others to attack the rim at will depending on the opponent.
Tonight should start to give us some insight into what Buzz Williams intends to do with the 10 minutes per game that Kerry Blackshear won't be on the floor in ACC play when he isn't in foul trouble for VT.
Virginia Tech was able to get some of the kinks out of a long offseason during the first half of their exhibition at Liberty. Now, the Hokies should be ready to go against a Gardner-Webb team that had its first losing overall record (14-18) and .500 or worse conference record (9-9) under their head coach TIm Craft (entering his 6th season in 2018-19).
While defense has been a top priority throughout this offseason, Virginia Tech is still an offense-first team and that should once again show especially with the return of the team's best three-point shooter Ty Outlaw. Though Chris Clarke is a great slasher, having Outlaw on the floor should stretch out the defense some and create more space and lanes for Justin Robinson to attack the rim and either draw a foul, kick it outside to an open shooter, or move it across the pain to Kerry Blackshear. After a strong second half against Liberty, expect VT to be firing on all cylinders especially on the offensive end of the floor.
Expect Virginia Tech to try to get some of their younger players some playing time down the stretch of this game including Wilkins, Wabissa Bede, PJ Horne, and Jonathan Kabongo. In addition, don't be surprised to see the Hokies try to even get their young walk-ons in Brendan Palmer and Tyrece Radford some late playing time in this game though that'll be likely limited to the final few minutes.
The Bulldogs opened the season with a 69-57 loss at VCU and though they may be able to keep it interesting for a half, the Hokies should comfortably take care of business in this game.
Pick: #15 Virginia Tech 90, Gardner-Webb 68
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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