No one could have imagined that Virginia Tech would be at 0-4 in ACC play in mid-January entering the 2021-22 season, but that's where the Hokies are at entering a must-win home game against Notre Dame with their NCAA Tournament hopes on the verge of completely collapsing. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish come to Blacksburg with momentum having won six-straight games headlined by an important home win over UNC, starting ACC play at 4-1.
Both teams need this win for their NCAA Tournament hopes for very different reasons as the Hokies need to right the ship ASAP while Notre Dame could gain a valuable Quad 1 win that would boost their resume that already includes home wins over Kentucky and North Carolina.
So with that said, here are my three things to watch for the Hokies against Notre Dame.
1. Can Nahiem Alleyne Break Out of His Slump?
Nahiem Alleyne is far from the only reason why Virginia Tech has struggled in recent weeks, but when Alleyne is at his best, this Virginia Tech team is significantly elevated and has a guard who can truly assert themselves to take over a game. Alleyne showed signs of life against UVA making a pair of threes and though he didn't take many shots, it was only the second time since the start of December that he has shot 40% or better from the field.
There's no doubt that Alleyne has the capability to be a difference maker on the wing as we've seen numerous times throughout his Virginia Tech career to date highlighted by how he carried the Hokies to overtime against Florida in last year's NCAA Tournament. Alleyne is the best shot creator off-the-dribble for the Hokies and at his best, is Tech's best guard and the lone guard that has All-ACC talent.
That upside along with some solid play in other areas is a big reason why we haven't seen Alleyne have a big minutes drop in favor of Darius Maddox who probably should be getting more playing time regardless.
The question now is whether his performance against UVA, small as it may be, is enough to get Alleyne out of his slump? If it is, this could be a big victory for the Hokies today against the Fighting Irish.
2. Isolate Keve Aluma
When Virginia Tech isolated Keve Aluma against whoever Virginia threw at him, the Hokies' star center was unstoppable. It was only late in the game when Jayden Gradner provided heavy double teams that UVA was actually able to slow down Aluma and slow down the Tech offense. However, when Justyn Mutts was able to pull Gardner to the other side of the court and give Aluma isolation, Aluma was dominant to say the least.
Now it's one thing to go against a Tony Bennett-coached UVA defense and another thing to go against almost any other defense in the country even one coached up by the talented Mike Brey. For the Hokies, the gameplan needs to be built once again around getting Keve Aluma into isolation spots early and forcing Notre Dame into radical adjustments that create more space for guys like Justyn Mutts and Storm Murphy to attack the rim or more space on the three-point line for Hunter Cattoor and Tech's backcourt.
Aluma may not have the high-end overall scoring average skewed lower by a slow start to ths eason, but he has made a strong case for ACC Player of the Year averaging 22 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game in four ACC contests with his lowest scoring output being 18 points against N.C. State.
If Aluma can fire on all cylinders, the Hokies should be in good position to win this game. If Notre Dame can find a way to contain Aluma, the Hokies could be in serious trouble of falling to 0-5 in ACC play.
3. The Backcourt Battle
Notre Dame has the longer and better backcourt currently with the Fighting Irish being led by a pair of star guards in Dane Goodwin and breakout freshman Blake Wesley who are both averaging well over 14 points per game. The Hokies have a solid backcourt with upside when Nahiem Alleyne is at his best, but the Irish have the advantage on paper in the backcourt from what we've seen so far this season and of late.
For the Hokies, they'll need their guards to keep it close with the Irish because if they can do that, they have the frontcourt to dominate and win this game.
Wesley, a South Bend native, has been a scoring hot streak lately with 18+ points in each of his past three games, all of which were ACC games. Meanwhile, Goodwin has been the star and leader of this team offensively leading the Irish with 15.4 points per game while shooting an impressive 45.7% from three-point range this season.
Tech is a solid team defensively at the backcourt and though there isn't a lockdown defender like Wabissa Bede, this is a group that is very good as a whole. However, the length advantage of Notre Dame's guards could be something to keep an eye on especially given how longer teams have given the Hokies issues at times this season.
If Tech is going to win this game, they have to at least be close with Notre Dame's guards especially their wings leaning on Hunter Cattoor, Nahiem Alleyne, and Darius Maddox to rise to the challenge in this game.