Virginia Tech has gotten hot recently winning five of their last six games including a shocking upset victory over now #1 Virginia
. The Hokies' reward for their success? A trip to Duke to face the 12th-ranked Blue Devils.
The Hokies enter this game not only with a surging record, but also as a team climbing away from the bubble. VT's win over Duke has most projecting the Hokies anywhere from the 8 to 10 seed range with Bracket Matrix
, a site that aggregates over 100 brackets, projecting VT as the top 10 seed. Our Bubble Watch
goes more in-depth on the Hokies' rapidly improving resume that is full of chances for improvement down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Duke enters this game looking to finish the season strong. The Blue Devils were a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament selection committee's top 16 seed release on Sunday. Duke has a tough closing stretch that includes games at Clemson and VT plus tonight's game against VT and three other home games against UNC, Louisville, and Syracuse. If Duke can go 5-1 or better during this stretch, they will have a great case for a #1 seed even if they don't get to the finals of the ACC Tournament.
The big story entering this game is the fact that Duke's star freshman and ACC Player of the Year frontrunner Marvin Bagley will be out for tonight's game. The loss is significant for the Blue Devils, but Duke has plenty of quality big men to replace him fairly well including former top 5 recruit Wendell Carter Jr.
With that said, let's take a look at tonight's preview and pick.
Virginia Tech: Justin Robinson
Justin Robinson has stepped his game up in ACC play and is the biggest reason why the Hokies are on course to finish with an above .500 record in ACC play for the third-straight season. For the season, Robinson leads the Hokies in points (13.8), assists (5.7), and steals (1.3) while shooting 47.5% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 77.2% from the free-throw line.
Robinson has been on fire in ACC play as the only Hokie who has scored in double figures in every ACC game while he has also had at least 19 points and/or 7 assists in each of the past 10 games. Those are extremely impressive numbers for Robinson who has developed into one of the ACC's best guards and is bound to receive some sort of All-ACC recognition this season.
Robinson has stepped up when the Hokies have needed him to and tonight will once again be one of those nights. The junior point guard is slowly starting to get the recognition he deserves after receiving the Naismith Award Player of the Week honors for his pair of big games last week. Don't be surprised if Robinson has 20+ points for the fourth-straight game tonight.
Duke: Wendell Carter Jr.
With Marvin Bagley out tonight, Duke will be needing some others to step up especially in the post. Enter Wendell Carter Jr., a former top 5 recruit who would have been a star on this team if it wasn't for the presence of Bagley and Grayson Allen. Despite them, Carter has had an extremely good season in his own right averaging 14.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 60.5% from the field and 46.9% from three-point range.
Carter stepped up when Bagley was out Sunday with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks in Duke's win at Georgia Tech
that ended a two-game losing streak. Carter has been relatively consistent throughout ACC play and has stepped his play up when Duke has needed him to do so.
While Bagley being out helps, Duke will just shift their post focus to their other five-star freshman big man and future NBA Draft lottery pick in Carter. No one should be surprised if Carter has another big performance as he did against Georgia Tech and their talented center Ben Lammers.
Keys to the Game
1. Kerry Blackshear must stay out of foul trouble.
As important as it was for Kerry Blackshear to stay out of foul trouble against Virginia, it's even more important tonight against a Duke team with one of its best frontcourts of the Coach K era. The Blue Devils may not have Marvin Bagley, but they still have Wendell Carter, a former top 5 recruit averaging almost a double-double to lead the charge in the Duke post.
Combine that with Marques Bolden and Javien DeLaurier, two former four-star big men who have some collegiate experience beyond this season and VT will need Blackshear to stay out of foul trouble. If he can't, the Hokies will have to possibly collapse their defense at times around Carter and others, opening up space on the perimeter for Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen.
With Blackshear on the floor and hustling against Virginia, the Hoos had a hard time trying to attack the lane and get buckets in the post. If Blackshear can find a way to slow down Duke's bigger, more talented frontcourt, it can give the Hokies hopes of pulling off a huge upset.
2. Can VT be consistent game-to-game on defense?
Virginia Tech has had its best stretch of defensive play the past two games with the crescendo coming against UVA, holding the Hoos to 49 points and under 35% shooting from the field in regulation. Those numbers are extremely impressive, but the Hokies will face a tough challenge tonight against the ACC's best offensive team.
Virginia Tech's defensive intensity will have to be at an extremely high level against a Duke team that won't be afraid to be aggressive and attack the rim similar to the Hokies. In addition, VT will have to be smart and alert when providing help defense as Duke has the shooters to punish VT for overcompensating and the big men to take advantage of easier matchups like Wendell Carter especially if Blackshear isn't guarding him.
After having their best defensive performance of the season against UVA, the Hokies need to replicate that against arguably the best offensive team in America. Is it possible? Yes as UVA's elite defense has shown they can slow the Blue Devils down, but there aren't many who have had much success outside of the once in a decade UVA defense. However, that's almost the type of performance that VT may need tonight on the defensive end.
While Marvin Bagley III being out does help Virginia Tech, VT still has a tough challenge against a Duke team that has the pieces to replace Bagley at a satisfactory level. However, taking the frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year still does help the Hokies' chances tonight, but given the talent and location of this game, this is still an extremely tough matchup for VT.
For Virginia Tech to pull off the upset, they must have another great defensive performance and they can't afford to have a poor shooting night. While they struggled to attack the rim against Virginia, they shouldn't have those same issues against a Duke team that hasn't been very good defensively and is without Bagley.
The big difference here is the fact that Duke is about as efficient offensively as the Hokies are, making this matchup more difficult for a team that has usually needed to be significantly more efficient shooting the ball given their rebounding struggles.
VT will have to be highly efficient especially from beyond the arc where Justin Bibbs and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have started to find a rhythm while Ahmed Hill has entered a massive slump that Virginia Tech needs him to break out of. If VT can be firing on all cylinders from beyond the arc for both halves as they did in the first half at Virginia, the Hokies can pull off the upset.
The Hokies will give Duke a great test, but it's fortunate for the Blue Devils that this game is at home and not Cassell Coliseum given the loss of Bagley. Virginia Tech will show why they are pushing to be a top 25 team with a strong performance, but Wendell Carter will step up while Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. will hit some shots on the outside. Robinson and Bibbs will help keep it close throughout, but Duke will be able to still dominate the glass and get second chance opportunities that help give them some separation with both teams being efficient from the field tonight.
Pick: #12 Duke 84, Virginia Tech 76
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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