What to Watch for No. 9 Virginia Tech at No. 13 North Carolina

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomasTLP | Jan 21, 2019
After a crazy week in the ACC, six teams are tied at the top of the ACC including Virginia Tech and North Carolina after they beat Wake Forest and Miami respectively this past Saturday. Now, Virginia Tech heads on the road looking for their best win of the season while in the midst of winning 10 of their past 11 games. Meanwhile, they face a North Carolina team that is also playing well winning six of their past 7 games while being one of the few top 15 teams in a power conference to go undefeated last week. Over the past several years, North Carolina appeared to have Virginia Tech's number until the Hokies ended their seven-game losing streak with an 80-69 victory inside Cassell Coliseum. Almost exactly one year later, VT will be looking to win in Chapel Hill for the first time since February 13th, 2007. The question is can the Hokies finally get the job done against UNC away from Blacksburg? Here's our 3 things to watch and pick for this ACC showdown.

1. Can Virginia Tech Be Efficient on the Offensive End?

After seeming to lose their offensive rhythm, Virginia Tech finally put together 40 minutes of efficient offensive basketball shooting 56.9% from the field including 42.3% from three-point range. However, the most important stat is the fact that every Hokie that took at least one shot had a shooting percentage of at least 50% for the game, a great sign of the strong offensive showing across the board. While VT's defense has been a major factor for their improvement, this is still an offense-first team that has relied on being hyper efficient more than anything else to win basketball games. That starts with attacking the paint consistently and getting shots within 10 feet on a consistent basis, creating space on the outside for three-point shooters. Against Wake Forest, the Hokies were able to consistently do that outscoring the Demon Deacons 30-14 in points in the paint. If the Hokies are going to beat North Carolina, they are going to have be efficient on the offensive end which means VT will need not only a solid game in the paint from Kerry Blackshear, but also Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson to be efficient when attacking the basket. If they can do that, they'll have a great chance to get a win in Chapel Hill. If they can't, then VT will likely have some problems given UNC's big advantage once again in an area that has been a major issue for VT under Buzz Williams.

2. Rebounding Could Be a Major Factor In This Game

The biggest reason why Virginia Tech has struggled against North Carolina over the past few seasons has been rebounding. This matchup presents another rebounding mismatch on paper with UNC ranking second nationally in total rebounds per game (44.2) and 23rd in offensive rebounds per game (13.4). Their rebounding is a big reason why North Carolina is averaging the fifth most points per game (87.4) despite being 73rd in the country in field goal percentage (46.9%). Part of that is due to the fact that North Carolina once again has tons of size with half of their 10-man rotation being 6'7'' or taller compared to just Blackshear for VT. The Hokies have been able to overcome that size advantage at times in games against Boston College and Georgia Tech, but UNC has always been on another level. While VT seems to be re-finding their impressive offensive efficiency after shooting at least 50% from the field in their last 3 halves of basketball, they likely don't want to have to put a premium on doing so. For that to even being possible, they'll have to find a way to at least keep it close on the glass, something that has been a major struggle for VT to do over the years on the road at UNC.

3. Key Matchup: Kerry Blackshear vs. Luke Maye

The battle in the post between Kerry Blackshear and Luke Maye will definitely have a clear spotlight in this game as both teams will look for their veteran big man to win in the paint. Blackshear has been far more efficient shooting 54.1% from the field compared to Maye's 42.7% from the field. However, Maye has been a rebounding machine averaging 10 rebounds per game while Blackshear has been held to under 6 rebounds per game. Blackshear did get off to a stronger start rebounding the basketball with 8 boards per game in the first 3 ACC games, but has only had 5 rebounds in the past two games. Meanwhile, Maye hasn't had less than 9 rebounds in an ACC game this season including double-digit rebounds in 4 out of 5 games. For the Hokies to be successful, they'll need Blackshear to step up and have one of his better rebounding performances while UNC will be looking for Maye to slow down the solid efficiency Blackshear has provided. More importantly, VT will need Blackshear to stay out of foul trouble and play 30+ minutes against a UNC team that has as much size as they've ever had with those 5 players of 6'7'' or taller. Maye has proven to be the more talented big man, but Blackshear has been the more efficient scorer in ACC play and if he can do that again in Chapel Hill, it could make this battle pretty even, something that would be advantageous for VT.

Prediction

Virginia Tech and North Carolina both have emerged as two of the conference's best offensive teams, but both have done so in different ways with VT being ultra efficient from the field, and UNC finding ways to get second chance opportunities. For the Hokies, if they can find a way to keep the total shot margin close, they should have a great opportunity to go on the road and win this game. It's hard to call Nickeil Alexander-Walker an x-factor in any way, but the Hokies' leading scorer has been a difference maker shooting over 58% from the field in four of his first 5 ACC games as the one consistent highly-efficient scorer for VT. Meanwhile, UNC's leading scorer Cameron Johnson seems to be finding his rhythm after 22 points on 57.1% shooting including 5-7 from three-point range against Miami. Expect both leading scorers to have strong performances with Alexander-Walker having the potential to go for even 30. The big challenge for Virginia Tech is the fact that North Carolina can go 10-deep while the Hokies have been limited to what feels like a 7.5-man rotation with Isaiah Wilkins only breaking 10+ minutes once through five conference games. While that shouldn't be as big of a factor in the first half, it likely will be in the second half and may increase the need for Buzz Williams to have 3 timeouts to use during the final 8 or so minutes of the game where that wear and tear can show up. For Virginia Tech, their true x-factor may be Ty Outlaw as the senior sharp shooter has been one of America's best three-point specialists shooting 50% from three-point range. Meanwhile, UNC has five-star freshman Nassir Little in a smaller than expected role off the bench, but the talented small forward has the potential to cause some major problems for VT in their attempts to defend him. Virginia Tech has had their fair share of issues playing on the road in Chapel Hill over the years with few close games. Expect this game to be different in part because though UNC is as dominant as ever on the glass, VT has a notable advantage in averaging only 11 turnovers while UNC has been averaging around 14 turnovers per game. The Hokies are going to have to be efficient from the field and that starts with Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson. While UNC has been rebounding the basketball as well as ever, the Hokies are the more talented team in the backcourt with Kerry Blackshear showing enough improvement to minimize UNC's frontcourt advantage. While UNC will be able to win the rebounding advantage, the Hokies will find ways to minimize the shooting margin and win in Chapel Hill for the first time in over a decade led by a huge game from star sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker along with strong outside shooting from Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill to compliment.

Pick: #9 Virginia Tech 79, #13 North Carolina 74

Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics

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