Photo Credit: Liam Sment
Virginia Tech is set to open their two-game stint at Bubbleville against a team from Philadelphia but not who anyone expected. Instead of Temple who had to cancel their game due to COVID issues for the Owls, #3 Villanova stepped in and gives the Hokies a signature non-conference game that boosts their strength of schedule and provides a great litmus test for the Hokies.
So can the Hokies pull off a shocking upset at the Mohegan Sun reminiscent of what they did just over a year ago against Michigan State in Maui? Here's my three things to watch and pick for the Hokies and Villanova.
1. How Will Keve Aluma Follow Up His Impressive Debut
Keve Aluma may not have had the most impressive statistical debut for a transfer big man for the Hokies, that honor goes to Zach LeDay, but the Wofford transfer was extremely good against Radford with 19 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks for the Hokies while shooting 7-10 from the field including 3-5 from three.
While that performance was impressive in just about every aspect, this game is a massive step up in competition to what he can regularly expect in ACC play to say the least. The question is how will Aluma hold up facing guys like Jeremiah Robinson-Early and Villanova's other talented big men?
Now it isn't like Aluma doesn't have experience against high-end competition during non-conference play as Wofford regularly faced teams like UNC during that stretch during Mike Young's tenure while Aluma faced high-quality competition in the NCAA Tournament. However, this game should be a great test of the growth in his game especially from three-point range going from someone who never took three at Wofford to a potential dynamic, stretch 5 for the Hokies.
One thing that will be interesting is how Villanova tries to match up against Aluma with Robinson-Earl being likely to receive a lot of the time, but also Cole Swider potentially working on him at times.
2. Containing the Preseason All-Big East First Teamers
Villanova is led by a pair of stars in forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who could be a 2021 NBA Draft first rounder, and point guard Collin Gillespie, both of whom earned Preseason All-Big East First Team honors and are key pieces for this team. Finding ways to contain these two guys will be critical to have a chance at pulling off the upset.
Given that, expect plenty of Wabissa Bede matching up against another senior point guard in Gillespie as Bede has earned his reputation as one of the best defenders in the country. However, Gillespie is one of the best point guards in the country and it will be a challenge for Bede to try to contain him.
Of course, Bede (and Cartier Diarra who seems like the top candidate to guard Gillespie when Bede isn't on the floor) knows that getting Gillespie out of rhythm running the offense could throw Villanova off their game. That is easier said than done as Gillespie has an impressive 11 assists compared to 1 turnover so far at Bubbleville against Boston College and Arizona State, but there's no doubt that Bede will be his toughest defensive matchup to date.
Meanwhile, guarding Jeremiah Robinson-Earl will be a big challenge for Tech's frontcourt, but this is where the fact that Tech is significantly bigger this season should help give Tech a chance at slowing down Robinson-Early some.
Expect to see Justyn Mutts a lot on Robinson-Early with maybe some David N'Guessan as well while Keve Aluma may also be faced up with Robinson-Earl at times. Robinson-Early is undoubtedly one of the best forwards and a serious All-American contender who will undoubtedly test Tech's defensive abilities in their frontcourt throughout this game and be a good gauge for where they're at ahead of ACC play full of talented and versatile forwards to face.
If the Hokies are going to pull off the upset, they need to find ways to contain Villanova's two star players. If not, it's hard to imagine the Hokies having a chance at pulling off the upset.
3. Which Three-Point Shot Shows Up
It was a tale of two halves for Virginia Tech from three-point range against Radford as they struggled in the first half, but found their rhythm in the second half led by Hunter Cattoor who got hot during the second half. Against Villanova, the Hokies will need their three-point shooting on point for 40 minutes.
Now not having top three-point shooter Jalen Cone definitely hurts, but guys like Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne have both shown signs of growth from their season-opening performances against Radford. Tech will need those two guys in particular to be sharp from three-point range especially to create more space for guys like Cartier Diarra, Wabissa Bede, and Tyrece Radford to attack the rim.
Additionally, strong three-point shooting is usually a common trend for teams that can pull off big upsets and for a Tech team that is showing some offensive growth, they still rely a lot on the three-point shot and will need that part of their offensive attack firing on all cylinders.
Virginia Tech will need their three-point shooting to be sharp today if they are going to have any realistic chance to take down #3 Villanova.
It's simply insane how quickly we went from Virginia Tech-Temple canceled to Virginia Tech-Villanova being on, all of which happened seemingly over a 12 hour period on Thanksgiving day with Villanova also needing an extra non-conference game with Temple, scheduled to face the Wildcats a few days after VT was, off the schedule.
Now, Tech has a signature non-conference game that boosts their strength of schedule guaranteed and provides an opportunity for a litmus test where an upset would be huge for their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Virginia Tech definitely has the opportunity to pull off the upset against a Villanova team that has been busy in Connecticut and just got a day off yesterday. However, they are going to need to be sharp from three-point range and have to protect the basketball extremely well against a veteran Villanova team that is averaging under 10 turnovers per game so far this season.
The Hokies will give Villanova another good test, but the Wildcats are too talented and while we will see a Virginia Tech team that has what it takes to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, they won't have enough to slow down Jeremiah Robinson-Early and company as Villanova goes 3-0 at Bubbleville.