Back-to-back losses at Boston College and Miami have seen Virginia Tech go from being on the right side of the NCAA Tournament to the wrong side. However, the Hokies have a golden opportunity to flip the script with No. 5 Florida State, the only ranked home game left on Tech's schedule, coming to Blacksburg.
Of course, the Seminoles are looking for a bounce back game of their own after losing on the road at Virginia. A loss could send most projections of them down towards the 4 seed line rather than the 2 seed line where most had them at the start of the week.
This matchup also pits the two frontrunners for ACC Coach of the Year: Mike Young and Leonard Hamilton.
Mike Young has taken a Virginia Tech team that was rightfully projected 14th in the ACC to becoming an NCAA Tournament bubble team despite having 6 freshmen and 0 seniors in his rotation. Meanwhile, Leonard Hamilton has Florida State continuing to climb higher and ascend into the upper echelon alongside Duke and Louisville in this year's ACC.
With that said, here's our 3 things to watch and prediction for Virginia Tech against No. 5 Florida State.
1. Get To The Free Throw Line
Florida State has lost three times this season with two common threads in all three games: they were on the road and their opponent attempted more than double the amount of free throws as the Seminoles.
When FSU has been beat, it's been because teams have been able to get to the free-throw line. That shows with the Seminoles ranking around 200th in the country in fewest total fouls this season. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech has been consistently among the best power programs in limiting fouls ranking among the top 50 consistently in that stat.
In theory, that would mean this should be a major advantage for Virginia Tech, but that isn't the case for the Hokies as they rank around 300th nationally in free throw attempts per game.
One player has shown the ability to get to the free throw line often at times, Landers Nolley. Over his past three home games, Nolley has attempted 10+ free throws in wins over N.C. State and North Carolina. Against Syracuse, the star redshirt freshman failed to record a single attempt from the charity stripe.
If the Hokies is going to pull off the upset, it starts with consistently getting to the free-throw line against an FSU team that has had issues with fouling on the road. That means when the Hokies pump fake from three, they need to have a mentality change to pass it to another shooter or attack the rim for a layup or a foul off the fake rather than go by the defender off the fake only to take a 15-20 footer.
If Virginia Tech can adjust that and attack the rim, they should get the type of high volume of free throws that can give them a great chance for an upset.
2. Florida State's Size Advantage
It's impossible to ignore the size advantage that Florida State has compared as the biggest team in college basketball compared to the Hokies who are the smallest team in major college basketball.
Surprisingly, the Hokies have actually averaged more rebounds per game than the Seminoles (35.3 to 33.3) in part because of the hustle and work ethic of players like Tyrece Radford. Even with that, it's hard to imagine Florida State not winning the battle on the glass though the Hokies have as good of a rebounding team, both in terms of productivity and mentality, that Tech has had in years.
With that said, the likely rebounding disaparity could cause a total shot disparity. Tech can balance that out though if they protect the basketball well.
The Hokies have been consistently around the top spot in fewest turnovers per game averaging only 9.8. However, we've seen what happens when the Hokies struggle to protect the basketball with Boston College taking advantage of the Hokies' unusually high turnover rate to stay in the game and pull off an upset that has the Hokies on their recent slide.
If Virginia Tech is going to pull off the upset, they have to protect the basketball well as they have done for most of the season to ensure balance or an advantage in total shots attempted. If not, it will be a long afternoon for the Hokies inside Cassell Coliseum.
3. Can P.J. Horne & John Ojiako Protect The Rim
A big reason for Miami's success against the Hokies was because of their ability to attack the rim with Rodney Miller as the undersized P.J. Horne was overmatched at times. More notably, John Ojiako was held to fewer than 5 minutes for the second-straight game, a sign that while Ojiako has shown promise, his development still has a long way to go.
Like Miami, Florida State has plenty of size in their frontcourt that may not be well-known, but have the skill to take advantage of an undersized Tech frontcourt. Given the stars being in the backcourt, the Hokies will need their interior defense to step up and will have to rely on their taller players to have big defensive games, especially Horne and even Ojiako.
At 6'10'', Ojiako is the one player who has the size to have a better chance to start with. Of course, it's unlikely we see Ojiako for more than 10 minutes, but Tech needs a high end rim protector for those 10 minutes. If not, the pressure will increase on Horne who has fought admirably, but has seen teams try to go after him. Even if Ojiako does well, Horne will need to have a strong game on the defensive end.
Now it wouldn't be surprising to see Tech try to find ways to limit the amount of paint touches for the Seminoles as we've seen them do at other times given their size, but Florida State's best talent being on the perimeter will force Tech to trust their bigs on paint defense. If they fail to achieve that, the Hokies will have some major problems.
This is a fascinating matchup between a Virginia Tech team full of depth, but built around star Landers Nolley, and a Florida State team that is as deep as always, but also has a pair of stars this season in Devin Vassell and Trent Forrest. The praise has been immense for Vassell in particular with ESPN's Jay Bilas calling Vassell a first round talent.
If the Hokies are going to pull off this upset, they need an efficient big game from Landers Nolley whether that's by traditional methods of efficiency or by counterbalancing a bad shooting day with consistent appearances at the free-throw line. More importantly, the Hokies will need their supporting cast to keep stepping up and have to find ways to get the hot shooting Jalen Cone involved more unlike they did at Miami.
Both teams will be hungry to bounce back and Virginia Tech will show why their NCAA Tournament hopes are far from over. However, Florida State is a potential Final Four team and that will show with the Seminoles pulling out a close victory led by their star backcourt duo of Vassell and Forrest plus a strong game from their big men led by Patrick Williams and RaiQuan Gray.