Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
After an up and down, but successful trip to Maui that saw Virginia Tech upset Preseason No. 1 Michigan State, the Hokies return to the floor for the first time in a week for a major showdown with No. 10 Duke.
Virginia Tech and Duke have had their fair share of great games in Cassell Coliseum over the past few seasons with the Hokies having the edge the last 3 times these two teams have met in Blacksburg.
However, there are plenty of new faces on the Virginia Tech side of things this time, but the hope is for the same result that would launch the Hokies right into the heart of the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation.
Meanwhile, Duke has had a strong start to their season overall with wins over Kansas and Michigan State, but the Blue Devils also have been upset once this season in a stunner last week by Stephen F. Austin. While any lack of focus in that game shouldn't be an issue tonight, Duke's young team has shown that they are quite vulnerable to an upset even with an experienced point guard like Tre Jones.
With that said, here's our three things to watch and pick for Virginia Tech vs. No. 10 Duke.
1. Rested or Rusty?
Virginia Tech returns to the basketball floor for the first time since finishing up their time at the Maui Invitational with a late night loss to BYU. Part of the plan before the season was to make this a longer break to make it easier to adapt back to the Eastern time zone after a a five-hour time change each way for their Maui trip.
The long time off definitely should have given the Hokies plenty of rest, but the question is will this team still be rusty from their long layoff?
Part of the challenge of a long layoff is having to find a rhythm again when you've been regularly playing multiple games a week. Combine having to start getting back in rhythm against a team as talented Duke and there's no doubt that there is a great challenge in doing that.
Against a Duke team that is in rhythm, the Hokies won't have time to be knocking off that against Duke. If they're rusty and not just rested, it could be a long for Virginia Tech against a talented top 10 Duke team.
2. Containing Vernon Carey Jr
Vernon Carey Jr. has been one of the best big men in America so far this season averaging 19.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 60% from the field. Carey's dominance in the post has been impressive and reminiscent of what Duke had with Jahlil Okafor previously as an old school big man who was a double-double machine.
Mike Young recognizes that Carey will have a size advantage and that part of the Hokies' focus will have to be on trying to keep the ball away from him as he told Mark Berman of the Roanoke Times.
“Michigan State had a really hard time … trying to guard him one-on-one, so we’re going to have to send another [person] at him, make it as hard as we can for him to catch it. That’s easier said than done," Young said.
The Hokies definitely have a disadvantage whether it's a significant size issue with P.J. Horne or John Ojiako being still a raw big man similar to the 2015 VT-Duke matchup between Jahlil Okafor and Satchel Pierce.
Carey is the type of talent that can win a game on his own in the post, and the Hokies will need to try to find ways to limit his access and force others to beat them. If they can limit the opportunities for Carey, the Hokies should have a great chance at pulling off the upset.
3. Threes and Turnovers
Statistically, Virginia Tech has major advantages in two important areas that could make a big difference, turnovers and three-point shooting.
The Hokies are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country making 43.1% of their threes while protecting the basketball well averaging only 10.5 turnovers per game. Duke has been okay shooting from three making 36.2% of their attempts while their youth has shown with their 15.2 turnovers per game. However, the Blue Devils have averaged 9.7 steals per game which could test how well Virginia Tech can protect the basketball.
It's odd to say that a Duke opponent is the team that can make the difference because of their three-point shooting, but that's the case with the Hokies having their top 4 scorers shooting over 43% from three-point range including Landers Nolley at 50.9% and P.J. Horne at an impressive 56% as a stretch big man.
If you want a recipe for pulling off an upset, it's making threes and protecting the basketball well. Virginia Tech has done both of those things extremely well so far this season, and it's a main reason why the Hokies have a great chance to win tonight.
There's no doubt that the Hokies are greater underdogs than the past 3 times Tech beat Duke in Cassell Coliseum, but this team has proven that they have what it takes to pull off a big upset. However, the Hokies are understandably home underdogs against a Duke team that is coming off their best performance of the season with a dominant victory at Michigan State.
There will be plenty of scouts who have their eyes on this game not only for Duke's stars like Vernon Carey Jr. and Tre Jones, but also for the Hokies' talented Landers Nolley. While Duke has numerous stars to turn to, the Hokies will need Nolley to step up and have a big game as he has against Clemson and Michigan State.
The status of Cassius Stanley remains unknown for Duke entering tonight, and the Blue Devils could use Stanley who is their best three-point shooter and third-leading scorer. Stanley missed Tuesday's game against Michigan State and he's the x-factor that Duke could use in what should be a hostile environment.
Virginia Tech has proven they are more than capable of pulling off big upsets, but this is a tough matchup for the Hokies with an elite big man in Carey and an experienced point guard in Tre Jones running the show. The Hokies have the three-point shooting to make this very interesting, but Duke is the more talented team, and the Hokies will come up just short to win their fourth-straight home game against Duke.