About four years ago, Buzz Williams made his ACC-Big 10 Challenge by leading Virginia Tech on a road trip to Penn State to face the Nittany Lions in a game that most probably overlooked with the focus being on Penn State. Now, the Hokies head to State College in a game where the Hokies are the clear main attraction in the midst of a 5-0 start with a team that can realistically go undefeated in non-conference play.
With that said, here is our preview for tonight's game between the Hokies and Nittany Lions.
Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. Lamar Stevens
With Tony Carr gone, Penn State has become the Lamar Stevens show as the junior big man has averaged 24.8 points per game, 13 more than co-second leading scorers Josh Reaves and Myles Dread. Stevens has been Penn State's offense with the Nittany Lions not having a clear second option unlike the Hokies who have the two-headed monster of Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker along with a third option in Ahmed Hill.
The Hokies will look to have Kerry Blackshear matched up against him, but Blackshear has struggled with foul trouble, causing him to average only 20.2 minutes per game. Blackshear has been efficient when on the floor averaging 12.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in those limited minutes while shooting 58.1% from the field.
Penn State knows that Blackshear can be an x-factor when he stays on the floor and will likely look to go after him feeding Lamar Stevens and building their offense around their leading scorer. If Blackshear can stay on the floor, he has the talent to match Stevens and minimize the advantage that Penn State has in the frontcourt. If not, Penn State will be able to do what they do best offensively in feeding Stevens.
Key Stat: Virginia Tech Shooting Percentage (51.3%)
Once again, Virginia Tech has one of America's most efficient offenses shooting 51.3% from the field including 41.4% from three-point range. Meanwhile, Penn State has been inefficient shooting 42.2% from the field and 32.3% from three-point range, a telling sign about the wide gap in offensive prowess between these two teams.
The Hokies' shooting efficiency hasn't been driven by one player either as the Hokies' top 5 scorers all are shooting at least 50% from the field (Alexander-Walker, Robinson, Hill, Blackshear, Wilkins). Virginia Tech also has 5 players shooting at least 40% from three-point range with three of their top 5 scorers shooting over 80% from the free-throw line.
The main reason for this has been the Hokies' greater effectiveness at attacking the rim and getting easy buckets via Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson, creating space beyond the arc for Alexander-Walker, Ahmed Hill, and Ty Outlaw who is starting to find his rhythm from beyond the arc.
Virginia Tech's has been one of the most efficient teams in America on the offensive end, forcing most teams to need to have a significant advantage in total shots and scoring opportunities to have a chance.
Keys to the Game
1. Keep the Total Shot Margin Minimal
For Virginia Tech, one of their most important things is to keep the total shot margin minimal knowing that more often than not, the Hokies are significantly more efficient shooting the basketball. Against Purdue, the Hokies did exactly that almost being even in total shots taken, allowing them to come back and beat Purdue once their offense got going in the second half.
Part of that was due to the minimal difference in offensive rebounding for the first 39 minutes of the game. Against Saint Francis, the Hokies struggled on the offensive glass and only kept the total shot margin roughly even because of the immense number of turnovers by the Red Flash.
While Penn State doesn't have a crazy amount of size, the Hokies still need to do better rebounding the basketball. Part of that comes down to the Hokies' over-rotation at times defensively that Buzz Williams mentioned has taken his team out of good rebounding positions on the defensive end.
In addition, the Hokies will need to be smart with the basketball as they face a Penn State team that has four layers averaging at least 1 steal per game. If the Hokies have issues rebounding the basketball and aren't to balance it out with a turnover advantage, the Hokies will open the door for Penn State to have a chance at pulling off what would likely be the biggest upset of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge.
2. Don't Overlook Your Opponent
Yes, Virginia Tech may not be facing a Big 10 program that either has a big name or a top 25 ranking, but the Hokies can't afford to overlook Penn State. The Nittany Lions aren't as good as they were when the NIT last season mainly due to the departure of Tony Carr for the NBA, but Penn State is good enough to pull off the upset if they overlook them.
In addition, the Nittany Lions are a hungry team looking for a big win after a slow 3-2 start that has included a road loss at DePaul and a home loss to Bradley. Penn State may also have forward Mike Watkins for the first time this season, something that should give Stevens some help in PSU's frontcourt and allow them to go bigger at times which could be to the Hokies' detriment if they go cold on the offensive end.
Virginia Tech is clearly the more talented team and will likely have four of the five best players on the floor to start the game. However, that doesn't give the Hokies too much margin for error if they don't show up well for this game especially given how Penn State has some scoring depth even if they don't have a true secondary option currently after Stevens.
If the Hokies show up and play like they have the ability to, Virginia Tech will comfortably win this game. If not, Penn State will have their shot at pulling off a big upset and getting the win they desperately need.
Outside of the matchup between Iowa and Pittsburgh, this may be the biggest mismatch of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. The Nittany Lions have not looked like a team that will be able to finish outside of the bottom third of the Big 10 this season while the Hokies appear on the verge of breaking into the top 10.
Though the Nittany Lions haven't looked very good, they have enough talent to keep this game interesting well into the second half. For the Hokies, they need to show up and not overlook a Nittany Lion team that hasn't given much reason to think that they are on anywhere near the same level as the Hokies.
While Penn State has the most talented big man, the Hokies have the three most talented guards and the two most talented players regardless of position with Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. In addition, the Hokies have multiple players who can lead the way scoring the basketball while VT's defense has taken some steps forward this season.
Virginia Tech is the more talented team, but Penn State should be able to rely on their star big man Lamar Stevens to stay in this game. However, Alexander-Walker and Robinson will lead the Hokies away during the second half to a comfortable road victory to improve to 6-0 with only one major challenge left in non-conference play against Washington in Atlantic City.
Pick: #16 Virginia Tech 80, Penn State 68
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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