After taking care of business to open the 2021-22 season with five-straight wins by 20+ points, Virginia Tech faces their first big test of the season tonight in the NIT Season Tip-Off at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn against the #9 Memphis Tigers.
This is a fascinating matchup between two teams that have aspirations for conference titles and deep NCAA Tournament runs this year, but doing so with different roster makeups as the Hokies are loaded with experience while the Tigers are led by two of the best freshmen in the country.
With that said, here are my three things to watch for tonight's massive showdown between the Hokies and Tigers.
1. Keve Aluma vs Jalen Duren
Two of the best big men in America will face off tonight with Jalen Duren and Keve Aluma set for a showdown that could boost Aluma's future NBA Draft stock and be a showcase opportunity for Jalen Duren against big time competition.
Aluma had dealt with a sore back at times early this season and has had a slow start in part because Tech hasn't needed much from him so far, but he's still been quite effective averaging 12.4 points and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 55.3% from the field. However, Tech will need a little more rebounding tonight as he's only been averaging 4.4 per game though that isn't as bad as it seems since he's only played 22.6 minutes per game which is almost certain to be greater tonight.
Jalen Duren has showed why he was one of the top recruits in the country averaging 15 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 4.8 blocks in 25.3 minutes per game while shooting 75% from the field. Most importantly, Duren is only averaging 2.3 fouls per game though Aluma has done well at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line where he's shooting an impressive 83.3%, something that will test Memphis' star freshman big.
Those are big time numbers though overall for Duren and will require Aluma to step his game up some and find his rhythm from three where he's 0-8 so far this season after shooting 35.1% from behind the arc last year. His ability to stretch the floor will be crucial while Tech may also need some quality minutes from John Ojiako against Duren in this game.
If Aluma can stay up with Duren or outpace him, that will put the Hokies in great position to get the job done.
2. Guard Play Will Be Crucial
While some of the biggest star power is in the frontcourt with Aluma, Duren, Emoni Bates, and Justyn Mutts; the backcourt play will matter and that's where Virginia Tech has a clear advantage. Yes, Memphis has some talented players who've shown loads of upside in the past including former Hokie Landers Nolley and Miami transfer Earl Timberlake, but Tech has the talent and consistency with their backcourt.
Storm Murphy has found his rhythm during the opening stretch and has been playing quite well after a quiet Hokie debut averaging 10.8 points per game (one of 4 Hokies averaging double figures) while shooting an impressive 45.5% from three and averaging under 2 turnovers per game, an impressive stat for a point guard.
Meanwhile, the wing play has been strong led by Nahiem Alleyne who had a brief slump but has found his rhythm the pat 2 games with 30 points total over those while shooting 38.9% from three-point range on the season. Hunter Cattoor has shown growth as well and though he may be the fifth scorer on this team, he definitely can step up when everybody else isn't doing so well. Darius Maddox can't be overlooked either as he's averaging 6.8 points per game and is 7-11 from three-point range, proving to be a valuable first guard off the bench.
Maybe the most important thing with Tech's backcourt is that all four of their guards are shooting over 38% from three-point range with Nahiem Alleyne being the only one averaging more than 2 turnovers per game at 2.2. Tech has the more consistent and talented backcourt with a clear advantage 1-3 especially at the point with Storm Murphy and the high level he's been playing at.
Tech will need their backcourt playing at that high level against Memphis' star freshman frontcourt duo. If the Hokies win the battle in the backcourt as they should, it could make the difference in this one.
3. Can Tech Take Advantage of a Massive Turnover Advantage
When you have a young team, turnovers are likely to be high and that has absolutely been the case for Memphis who are averaging 21.5 turnovers per game through their first 4 games which ranks 350th in the country. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is only averaging 10.4 turnovers per game which puts them in the top 40 in the country for fewest per game.
Tech has been pretty solid at turning opposing turnovers in points as shown below by their points off turnover stats.
- Maine: 22 points off 19 Maine turnovers (22-4 points off turnover advantage)
- Navy: 19 points off 10 Navy turnovers (19-10 advantage)
- Radford: 12 points off 18 Radford turnovers (12-9 advantage)
- Saint Francis: 10 points off 9 Saint Francis turnovers (10-6 advantage)
- Merrimack: 16 points off 15 Merrimack turnovers (16-10 advantage)
In all five games, Tech has had at least a 3-point advantage in points off turnovers while averaging over a point per opponent turnover in 4 of 5 games which is a major plus as well. What may be even better is that the toughest game they faced against Navy, Tech rose to the occasion and averaged 1.9 points per Navy turnover, an insanely good rate.
The Hokies not only need to force lots of Memphis turnovers and keep them uncomfortable, but they also have to turn these turnovers into points not just extra possessions if they want to get the job done against the Tigers. If the Hokies can average above one point per every turnover forced tonight, Tech has a great chance of taking down Memphis.
This is a fascinating matchup between a Memphis team with 2 likely top 10 picks in the next NBA Draft and an older Virginia Tech team that has played great two-way basketball without much early season rust. Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts should play well and may be able to force the Memphis freshman bigs into some mistakes but expect Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates to get their points.
Tech has a depth advantage and a backcourt advantage that could prove crucial with Memphis needing Landers Nolley to find some efficiency and/or guys like Lester Quinones and Earl Timberlake to take their game up a notch. However, rebounding against Duren and company could be a challenge for Tech and is one area where if the Hokies can keep up with the Tigers on the board, it could be a big win for Tech.
Memphis may have the greater upside by a little over the Hokies, but Tech is the older, more mature team that has shown against weaker competition that they can figure things out when not everything is going right. Turnovers will matter in this game and the Hokies have proven they can play clean basketball and take advantage of opponents' mistakes with Memphis having loads of issues in that regard.
In the end, it will be the Hokies' backcourt that will need Tech to a big victory in Brooklyn over Memphis showing that the Hokies are a legit ACC contender and should be ranked well within the top 25 already.