Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
After suffering a heartbreaking, triple-overtime loss to Miami, Virginia Tech heads away from Blacksburg looking to bounce back. Unfortunately for the Hokies, they have to go on the road to arguably the toughest environment in college basketball against one of the ACC's top 3 teams this season, Duke.
Yeah, not exactly an easy way for a young, struggling team that's lost 6 of their last 7 to end their recent struggles.
The Hokies and Blue Devils faced off once earlier this season in Cassell Coliseum with Tech leading by three at halftime before some second half adjustments propelled Duke to a comfortable 77-63 victory. Those adjustments involved limiting the role of Vernon Carey to provide more athleticism at the 5 with long wing Jack White while fellow Duke star Cassius Stanley only played 7 minutes in the first game.
So can the Hokies build off their strong first half in December and possibly pull off a massive upset against a Duke team hungry to bounce back back after a blowout loss at N.C. State? Here's our three things to watch and prediction for the Hokies and Blue Devils.
1. Limit Mistakes
Virginia Tech has continued to do an impressive job at protecting the basketball averaging only 9.8 turnovers per game (ranking third behind Liberty and Notre Dame). That has been led by point guard Wabissa Bede who ranks fourth in the nation in assist-turnover ratio.
Tech's limiting of turnovers will be tested today against a Duke team that, given their size advantage, will likely have a rebounding advantage, making a turnover imbalance the one root VT has to prevent a shot volume advantage for Duke. Additionally, the Blue Devils have done well at forcing turnovers averaging 8.7 steals per game while also forcing 14 turnovers off of Virginia Tech in the first game, nine of which came from Landers Nolley.
Given the amount of time Nolley spends on the ball, one of Duke's defensive priorities is likely to be to force Nolley to speed up his decision-making and force him into mistakes because of that, something they did very well to flip the first game in their favor early in the second half of that. More than that, Duke will likely try to bring lots of heavy pressure (and maybe some full-court pressure) early to try to use their home court advantage to rattle a young Virginia Tech team.
If the Hokies are going to pull off the upset, they MUST limit their mistakes and force some Duke turnovers as well. If not, it will be a long, long night for Virginia Tech.
2. Contain Vernon Carey
Virginia Tech may have not been able to adapt to Duke's changes in their first game, but they showed in that game that any gameplan that is going to be successful for Tech has to start with containing Vernon Carey.
One-on-one, the Hokies don't have a player who can match up effectively with the talented big man who may be the most dominant post player in the country. It's not by accident that Carey is averaging 18 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 58.4% from the field with the Hokies' team effort to deny access for Carey being impressive in the first matchup.
That will have to continue in this game for the Hokies not necessarily as a final path to victory, but as a starting point to try to get Duke out of their comfort zone and force the Blue Devils to make adjustments that the Hokies should be more prepared for this time.
However, there will be times that the Hokies will need their big men to step up against Carey. That may include John Ojiako a lot more this time as the freshman big man has played more recently and stepped up with 4 points and 9 rebounds against Pittsburgh followed by 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 blocks against Miami. Tech will need an improving Ojiako at times in addition to the tough but undersized P.J. Horne against an All-American candidate in Carey.
If the Hokies can contain Carey again, they will give themselves a respectable chance to pull off the upset. If not, the Hokies will have a lot of scrambling to do throughout this game on the defensive end.
3. Will Duke's Length Hurt Tech's Three-Point Shooting
Duke may not have the same length as Florida State, but Duke has plenty of length to guard Virginia Tech's perimeter players and try to keep them out of rhythm. That was credited as a main reason for Tech's shooting struggles against Florida State, and may have been a main reason for their struggles in their first matchup with Duke where the Hokies were 5-20 from three-point range.
Virginia Tech will not only need to have more composure, but they will also have to be better at attacking the rim to force Duke to collapse to defend the paint more and create more space on the outside.
Now Tech will have to go with a significant size disadvantage at times in part because the offensive potential with Jalen Cone on the floor is worth the size decrease. Cone has proven to be one of the ACC's best three-point shooters making 52.6% of his threes while working very well off the ball with Wabissa Bede at the point.
However, the Hokies will need more than Cone as they had against Pittsburgh when Tech had P.J. Horne step up down the stretch from three to go with Cone. That will involve more than just those two as they will need Landers Nolley, Nahiem Alleyne, and Hunter Cattoor to all find some more consistency from three to have a realistic chance.
Tech will also have to be smart with their three-point shots while maybe not making the extra pass when they have a comfortably open shot given the risk that one more pass gives a long team a second longer to close down space. Additionally, Tech will need to be effective with their screens to set up shooters and the timing of their passes to take advantage of those windows.
Virginia Tech's offensive motto has been to live and die by the three and even against a long Duke team that will cause problems, Tech will have to find ways to be productive from behind the arc.
Virginia Tech will fight admirably this game and while they may not have the same success containing Vernon Carey as last time, they will have some success. More importantly, the Hokies will come out with lots of energy in the first half and their lack of knowing will prove beneficial playing on the road.
Unfortunately, the wear and tear of playing a triple overtime game Wednesday followed by a road game will show against a hungry Duke team that did not play in nearly as intense or grueling of a game this past week. Additionally, Duke has shown promise from three-point range in part because of the emergence of Matthew Hurt as a fourth option to go with Carey, Tre Jones, and Cassius Stanley.
Landers Nolley should have a much better game than his past two and Tyrece Radford's aggressiveness will cause problems. However, playing on the road in a hostile environment against the No. 6 team in the country only a few days after a tough triple overtime loss will prove to be too much for Virginia Tech to overcome.