On Monday, Virginia Tech picked up the elite quality win they've been looking for with an 80-69 victory over #10 North Carolina
. The win improved the Hokies' NCAA Tournament hopes, but Virginia Tech still has plenty of work to do starting today against fellow bubble team Notre Dame.
ESPN's Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Fighting Irish currently on the inside of the NCAA Tournament field while the Hokies sit just outside.
Despite that, the Hokies have a great chance in what feels more and more likely a game the Hokies should and need to win. That's largely due to how Notre Dame has been decimated by injuries with ACC Preseason Player of the Year Bonzie Colson and rotation player DJ Harvey out till at least March.
Earlier this week, we found out that Notre Dame will also be without their second-best player Matt Farrell.
Notre Dame has struggled recently losing four-straight games including a pair of home games to North Carolina and Louisville by less than five points. Notre Dame has had a full week of rest, but the Hokies have the benefit of having played on Monday, giving them more time than normal to rest up after a weekday game.
The Fighting Irish may be decimated by injuries, but you can never take a Mike Brey team lightly. Notre Dame was able to go to Syracuse and upset the Orange without Colson and Farrell earlier in ACC play.
This is a bubble battle with the Hokies beginning to trend in the right direction but on the outside of the field, while Notre Dame is still in but trending in the wrong direction.
Virginia Tech: Justin Robinson
Justin Robinson is the only Hokie who has scored in double figures in every ACC game this season. Virginia Tech will need a big game from their star point guard who has played some of his best basketball recently averaging 22.7 points per game in the past three games.
Though Robinson hasn't had as many assists with only 13 in his past 3 games, Robinson has been extremely efficient during that time from the field going 9-17 from three-point range and shooting over 53% from the field in all three of those games. Robinson's strong play has been a leading reason for the Hokies playing much better than the team that was blown out by Syracuse and Virginia.
With Matt Farrell out, this is a great matchup for Justin Robinson who VT will be looking to for a big game. Robinson has been hot in ACC play and no one should be surprised if he scores 20+ points for the third time in his past four games.
Notre Dame: TJ Gibbs
TJ Gibbs will be the focal point for Notre Dame today without Colson and Farrell. The sophomore guard stepped up the last time the Fighting Irish were without Colson and Farrell with 18 points against Syracuse in their big road win in the Carrier Dome. Today, Notre Dame will need another big performance from Gibbs who is the star of the future for ND with Colson, Farrell, and Martinas Geben all graduating.
Gibbs has had double-digit points in all of Notre Dame's ACC games this season, but hasn't been as efficient lately only shooting over 40% from the field once in his past five games (43.8% at Clemson last Saturday). Gibbs wasn't the most efficient against Syracuse either, but the Fighting Irish will need Gibbs to be shooting the ball at a much better rate against a Virginia Tech team that, despite struggling from beyond the arc, has been quite efficient from the field in ACC play.
TJ Gibbs has stepped up before without Colson or Farrell to lead the ship, but Notre Dame will need a big game from their leading healthy scorer to take down the Hokies.
Keys to the Game
1. Stay out of foul trouble.
Notre Dame is one of the best free-throw shooting teams Virginia Tech will face this season shooting 76% from the free-throw line. Though the Fighting Irish don't have a lot of size, they still have some very capable big men including Martinas Geben who is Notre Dame's second-leading scorer among their healthy players averaging 10 points per game.
The Fighting Irish's best healthy players are also their best free-throw shooters with Geben, TJ Gibbs, and Rex Pfllueger all shooting over 80% from the free-throw line. Notre Dame hasn't been as efficient shooting the basketball this season, and you can bet that the Fighting Irish will look to get to the line.
Part of their goal will also be to try to get Kerry Blackshear in foul trouble knowing the Hokies' lack of size. For Blackshear, it will be important for him to stay out of foul trouble as we've seen VT has been a lot more successful when he's stayed out of foul trouble.
Notre Dame may have a lot of injuries, but they have some quality players who will look to attack and get to the free-throw line, making it critical for the Hokies to stay out of foul trouble and avoid any soft or stupid fouls.
2. Can VT attack the paint effectively?
As much as we talk about the Hokies as a team built around the three-point shot, a big reason for that is because their offense is built on being able to attack the lane. On Monday, the Hokies were impressive at attacking the paint despite UNC's size outscoring the Tar Heels in the paint 32-26.
Against a smaller Notre Dame team, the Hokies will need to be aggressive in attacking the rim to set up their three-point shooting that was more effective against UNC (40% from 3).
The Fighting Irish may be without Bonzie Colson, but Martinas Geben is a quality big man who has broken out as a senior with Colson out. Part of the Hokies' paint success will have to rely on Kerry Blackshear and Chris Clarke being effective in the post, but VT will also need guys like Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill to get in the lane and make plays.
Notre Dame may be without three of their top six scorers, but as long as Mike Brey is on the sideline, this will never be an easy game. The Fighting Irish have seen older players like TJ Gibbs and Martinas Geben step up, but the Fighting Irish know they desperately need a win with their NCAA Tournament decreasing quickly and a trip to Duke two days after this game.
Kerry Blackshear has faced some quality matchups and hasn't been slowed down against tougher opponents including strong games against Kentucky, Louisville, and UNC. The matchup between Blackshear and Geben will be one to watch and if Blackshear wins this battle, it'll make the Fighting Irish's hopes of winning quite low.
However, the Hokies will be tested in a tough road environment against a Notre Dame team that nearly has pulled off a big home upset without Colson. The Hokies will also need their defense to continue to play well against a ND team that hasn't been as efficient this season, but knows what it takes to be efficient on the offense end.
Before the season, most people would have likely not considered this a game that VT needs to win, but one that would be a really good win if they could steal it. Now, it almost feels like a must win given the immense injuries that Notre Dame has suffered.
The big question is was Monday just a one-off performance or was it a breakthrough performance for a team that had been in a rut to start ACC play? We'll learn tonight, but that performance looked like the performance of a team getting out of a rut and ready to play up to expectations.
Notre Dame's injuries will catch up in this game as Justin Robinson will have a big game without Matt Farrell to slow him down while Virginia Tech will be effective from beyond the arc and attack the paint well with Blackshear, Clarke, Robinson, and Hill to go on the road and pick up a big road win to get back to .500 in ACC play.
Pick: Virginia Tech 79, Notre Dame 76
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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