After beating Morehead State
Saturday, Virginia Tech is facing what Buzz Williams is calling the "most important" week of non-conference basketball since his arrival. For the first time in the Buzz Williams era, the Hokies will play two power conference teams in non-conference during the same week outside of a tournament.
Virginia Tech starts this big week off with an ACC-Big 10 Challenge showdown against Iowa. This game gives VT a chance to pickup a quality win over a Big 10 team that has had plenty of recent success.
The Hawkeyes are 4-2, but are struggling with back-to-back losses to UL-Lafayette and South Dakota State at the Cayman Islands Classic last week. Iowa's best win is currently against a UAB team that is 4-3 and lost all three of their games in the Cayman Islands Classic.
However, a win shouldn't be assured against a Hawkeye team that knows they need a big win soon. Fran McCaffery will make sure he has his team ready entering a matchup where the Hawkeyes are eight-point underdogs.
The key matchup to watch will come at point guard between Justin Robinson and Jordan Bohannon, both of whom are averaging over 5 assists per game. Robinson has been quite good at forcing turnovers this season averaging 2 steals per game, but Bohannon has done well at keeping possession with only 1.5 turnovers per game.
Both players have significantly improved from three-point range and are shooting over 48% from beyond the arc. The big difference is that Bohannon is a primary scorer for Iowa while Robinson can focus more on his role as a facilitator. If Robinson can slow Bohannon down, Iowa will have a tough time pulling off the upset.
This game will present some contrast in lineups. Iowa has more size and will go with a more traditional lineup with forwards Tyler Cook and Luke Garza while the Hokies will only have one player over 6'5'' starting in 6'10'' Kerry Blackshear.
Cook and Garza have both been effective on the glass averaging a combined 14.4 rebounds per game. Blackshear has averaged 7 rebounds per game this season, but he has also had more than 6 rebounds twice this season with one of those being a 15-rebound game against The Citadel. The Hokies will need Blackshear to be effective on the glass and not give Iowa the second chances that they are looking for.
Expect Iowa to try to build their offense around the post with Cook and Garza knowing the Hokies lack much size after Blackshear. Expect Iowa to also go after Blackshear knowing that he has had issues with foul trouble in the past and fouled out in VT's loss to Saint Louis. The Hokies will need Blackshear to play some major minutes and stay out of foul trouble against an Iowa team that has the size to give VT problems on the glass.
Iowa has struggles on defense recently giving up at least 80 points in each of their past three games. Iowa will need their defense to improve significantly against a Virginia Tech team that has been a scoring machine.
Virginia Tech has been one of the best offensive teams in America this season averaging 102 points per game, shooting 58.3% from the field, and making 49.6% of their three-pointers, all of which lead the nation. While weak competition and a game against The Citadel helped those numbers, what's impressive is the fact that Virginia Tech has scored at least 96 points in five of their six games. The Hokies' offense has been scoring at video game levels through their first six games.
One big reason for that success has been Virginia Tech's impressive passing as the Hokies also lead the nation in averaging 22.2 assists per game. Buzz Williams has been impressed with VT's passing himself and took two timeouts after made threes to "thank" his players for sharing the ball so effectively.
If Iowa is going to slow down the Virginia Tech offense, they are going to have to find ways to get in the Hokies' passing lanes and force some turnovers. The good news for the Hokies is that Iowa isn't great at doing just that.
Secondly, Virginia Tech is also one of the best teams in America in transition. The Hokies love to get out and run the floor when they get 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 opportunities and they almost always end in points or free throws. Iowa is going to have to be smart and try to limit the opportunities VT has to get in transition where they are most comfortable offensively.
Looking ahead to ACC play, Virginia Tech is already showing that they have the depth of shooters to make life difficult for any opponent. Every single Hokie that has attempted at least four three-pointers is shooting above 42% from beyond the arc. For many teams, simply having one or two guys who can do that is enough, but the Hokies have so many talented shooters that can space out the floor and create lots of lanes for guys like Justin Robinson and Chris Clarke to attack the rim.
One player who has a chance to impress on the national stage is Justin Bibbs. Bibbs has been insanely good in his four games this season averaging 21.3 points on 66.7% field goal shooting, 90.9% free-throw shooting, and 50% three-point shooting. The Morehead State game was the first time this season that Bibbs didn't shoot over 65% in a game. Those numbers are incredible and while that pace likely isn't sustainable, it's clear that Bibbs will be a scoring force to be reckoned with this season.
For Iowa, Isaiah Moss has been their lead scorer as the Chicago guard has taken a big step this season averaging 15.8 points per game seeing his field goal percentage improve from 41.2% to 47.8%. The Hokies' defense will have to make containing Moss a priority in this matchup.
A pair of freshman will be the x-factors to watch in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Luke Garza. NAW has been Jeckyll and Hyde at times this season with four games of 18+ points and two games of 6 or fewer points. Expect the freshman from Toronto to have a strong performance against a struggling Iowa defense that will have a hard time covering the multitude of VT shooters.
We mentioned Garza earlier, but the freshman center leads Iowa with 8.2 rebounds and 2 blocks per game while averaging 9.7 points as well. Garza has a bright future ahead and like NAW, has an opportunity to showcase himself tonight. While Garza doesn't have some of the NBA Draft interest that NAW currently has, Garza has a bright future as a very talented rebounder and shot blocker.
Looking at this matchup, Iowa will give Virginia Tech the only challenge they should face at home before conference play. The Hawkeyes are entering a tough stretch and know they need to start picking up some quality wins. However, the Hokies are in the same boat as well in needing a quality win, and won't come out flat as they did against Saint Louis.
Virginia Tech's high-powered offense may not lead the nation in scoring after tonight, but the Hokies will show they their offense will be one of America's best. Led by their star trio of wings in Justin Bibbs, Ahmed Hill, and NAW; Virginia Tech will pull away to a comfortable victory over Iowa to get the quality win that they've been looking for.
Pick: Virginia Tech 95, Iowa 81
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