In what has been a down year for the ACC, Virginia Tech and N.C. State have been pleasant surprises with the Wolfpack consistently on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble currently while the Hokies are unexpectedly on the bubble.
Surprisingly, this matchup between Virginia Tech and N.C. State has become an early season bubble watch game with Tech looking to maintain their perfect record in games outside the first quadrant and N.C. State looking to add a valuable Quadrant 1 victory to their resume.
With that said, let's get into our preview and prediction for the showdown between the Hokies and Wolfpack.
Key Matchup: Markell Johnson vs. Wabissa Bede
A pair of veteran point guards who have varying strengths face off as Markell Johnson and Wabissa Bede's matchup likely will prove critical in this game. Johnson has emerged as one of the ACC's best all-around guards averaging 13.9 points, 6.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game.
Meanwhile, Bede isn't a great scorer, but he is more than proven in every other aspect with averaging 6.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and only 1.7 turnovers per game; impressive for a point guard. Additionally, Bede has proven himself to be one of the league's best defenders and should enter this game with a chip on his shoulder after having not his best performance against Virginia's Kihei Clark last weekend.
Bede will have a tough matchup this game against Johnson but if he can find a way to slow down Johnson and keep him from being the dynamic playmaker that he's shown to be, Virginia Tech will have a great chance at taking down the Wolfpack.
Keys to the Game
1. Protect the Basketball
This is a fascinating matchup as Virginia Tech leads the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 9.8 while N.C. State is third in the ACC averaging 8.0 steals per game.
We've seen the Hokies have issues with turnovers at times in ACC play especially at Virginia where the Hokies had 13 turnovers, but improved upon that some with only 11 at Syracuse. The fact that those are bad number for a team this young says a lot, but the Hokies have also been reliant on maximizing opportunities in part because of this.
N.C. State will provide a stern test though as the Wolfpack have four players averaging at least 1 steal per game including 3 averaging 1.7 or more steals per game. N.C. State's ability to not only force turnovers, but steals that become opportunities rather than turnovers that simply go out of bounds will be something that Tech has to minimize to limit the Wolfpack's opportunities.
This matchup should be fascinating to watch between the nation's leader in fewest turnovers per game and one of the ACC's best at forcing turnovers.
2. C.J. Bryce vs. Landers Nolley
This matchup could have easily made the previous list, but these two teams both have star scorers on the wing in the senior C.J. Bryce for N.C. State and the freshman Landers Nolley for Virginia Tech. Both are versatile scorers and quality rebounders who are each averaging more than 16 points and 5.5 rebounds per game though Bryce has been more efficient shooting 52.9% from the field and 43.5% from three compared to 42.5% from the field and 39.4% from three for Landers Nolley.
Part of that is due to the fact that Bryce has only taken 23 three-point attempts compared to Nolley who already taken 104 three-point attempts this season. Bryce is someone who will look to attack the lane and get to the rim while Nolley has shown more shooting range, or at least greater willingness to use it.
This matchup should be one of the interesting ones to watch as both teams will need their star scorers to step up in a big way in this game. If one has an off game, expect the other team to come out of Cassell Coliseum with the victory.
Virginia Tech: Hunter Cattoor
Going into the main portion of ACC play, Hunter Cattoor had emerged as Tech's sixth man but in recent games, Cattoor has received more attention, and it's showed with only 7 points over his past 2 games. More importantly, Cattoor hasn't been efficient going 0-1 at UVA followed by 1-7 at Syracuse including 1-6 from three-point range.
However, Cattoor has proven he can be a scoring spark off the bench with 6 games in double-digit points including 2 of those games coming in Maui against Michigan State and Dayton, two teams well on their way to being top 4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Cattoor can absolutely be a big difference maker off the bench, but he'll need to re-find his form that made him a lethal three-point threat during November and December.
N.C. State: DJ Funderbunk
While the greatest attention will rightfully be on stars C.J. Bryce and Markell Johnson, DJ Funderbunk has emerged as a serious third option in the paint shooting at least 60% from the field and scoring at least double-digit points in his last 5 games.
The 6'10'' big man has become an x-factor for the Wolfpack despite the fact that he doesn't play a lot of minutes with 4 fouls in each of his past 2 games despite playing only 23 minutes at Clemson and 24 minutes at Notre Dame. If anything, what's clear is that the Hokies will need to try to go after Funderbunk early and often to see if they can get him in foul trouble.
If Funderbunk can avoid foul trouble, the Hokies could have some problems trying to slow down N.C. State's emergent post threat.
Virginia Tech returns to the comfortable confines of Cassell Coliseum for only the second time against an ACC or other major conference opposition. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack come to Blacksburg knowing this is one of their few opportunities to pick up a valuable Quadrant 1 victory in ACC play.
The Wolfpack have a much more experienced team with senior star C.J. Bryce and junior point guard Markell Johnson providing a dynamic one-two punch that will give Virginia Tech challenges. However, the Hokies have had much of their success with Landers Nolley leading the charge and a variety of players stepping up time and time again from P.J. Horne to Nahiem Alleyne to Jalen Cone.
The big question is whether Virginia Tech can find their rhythm again from three-point range. While playing at home should help the Hokies, it seems clear that Tech, while being a good three-point shooting team, isn't as good as we thought they were during non-conference. This should be a very competitive game inside a sold out Cassell Coliseum, but N.C. State has the experience to handle the environment well and survive a tight game between two bubble teams who have been pleasant surprises this season.