Virginia Tech Primer No. 2

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Joe Harris and the Hoos eye a win at VT.

After dominating the second half in a 71-44 home victory over Maryland, the Virginia Cavaliers (20-6, 7-5 ACC) hit the road again and travel across the state for a return engagement with the Virginia Tech Hokies (15-12, 4-8 ACC) on Tuesday night. Can the Cavaliers notch 8 ACC wins in a season for the first time under Tony Bennett, or will the Hokies snag the season sweep?

The Virginia Tech Primer for the rematch follows.

1. Almost exactly a year ago, Virginia Tech came to John Paul Jones Arena boasting a 17-7 record, a 7-4 mark in the ACC, and designs on making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Still smarting from a 3-point home loss to the Hoos earlier in the season, the Hokies couldn’t capitalize on the absence of a senior post (Mike Scott) and fell short again in a 61-54 loss to a team several slots below them in the ACC standings. A few weeks later, that loss helped make the difference between Tech going to the Big Dance and hosting a NIT game against Bethune-Cookman.

This season, it is amazing the extent to which the (dancing) shoe is on the other foot. Virginia is now the squad with its eye on its first NCAA bid since 2007 while Virginia Tech is in the lower echelon of this year’s ACC. The Hokies are the team that stole a close game on their rivals’ home floor, and the Hoos now travel to Blacksburg to face a Tech team that likely will not feature senior big man Victor Davila , who is not expected to play due to a groin injury. The Hokies and their fans would like nothing more than to dash our chance to dance like the Cavaliers did to them last season while Tony Bennett, Mike Scott, and the Hoos will accept nothing less than a win.

2. To get a victory, the Hoos will have to counteract what Seth Greenberg threw at them in the first game. The primary wrinkle that Greenberg used was selective double (and triple) teams against Mike Scott, with the second defender often being the player marking Jontel Evans . The gambit paid off in spades. Bodied up by two defenders for large stretches of the game, including most of the second half, Scott had his worst ACC game of the season, finishing with 10 points on 4-9 shooting, 0 assists, and 3 turnovers. Meanwhile, Evans couldn’t take advantage of the space he was given, (1) taking a season-high 12 shots but only connecting on 4 of them, (2) hitting on only 1 out of 5 free throw attempts, and (3) not recording an assist for the only time this season.

Jontel Evans could play a key role in the rematch.

So, will Tuesday be a case of deja vu all over again? I think not. As Sabre poster HOOKnew75 noted on Sunday, Bennett has tweaked the offense to set up blockers (often Joe Harris ) in such a way that Scott can roll off picks, catch, and release before defenders can double down on him. On Saturday, this led to Scott being able to attempt 20 shots, tying his season high. I think that this way of using Scott as more of a mover in the Blocker-Mover offense will avoid a repeat of his earlier offensive performance, especially given the likely absence of Davila, arguably the Hokies’ best post defender.

Meanwhile, Evans has looked like a completely different player since the first Virginia Tech game. I can start at the free throw line, where Bub has seemed to streamline his shooting technique. In the last three games, he has gone 7-7 from the charity stripe, with many of them being nothing but net. But I can also extend my analysis to his play on the offensive end as a whole. In the first four ACC games of the year, ending with the initial Virginia Tech game, Bub was shooting 30.3% from the field and scoring 5.5 points per game. In the eight games since, he is shooting 51.7% from the field and averaging 8.75 points per game. Basically, Evans is taking it stronger to the hole and getting the hoop or the harm with greater regularity. The first Tech game was the only ACC game among the first four in which Evans made it to the free throw line, but he’s made appearances there in each of the last three games. Part of the explanation for this is that defenders are playing Evans more honestly rather than sagging off of him, which also opens the door for more assists. After going sans assist against the Hokies, the junior has averaged 4.25 dimes a game in the last eight games.

3. Another Greenberg strategy in the first game was to have his guards quickly close out on Sammy Zeglinski and Joe Harris to force them to drive or shoot contested 3-pointers. The plan worked like a charm, with the two 3-point threats going a combined 0 for 9 from behind the arc. And, of course, with Harris wearing a cast on his left hand that limits his ability to drive, you can see Seth employing the same tactic again on Tuesday. But I’m not sure that lightning will strike twice.

First, Sammy was flu-stricken in the first game and seemed a step slow all night. Obviously, this affected his shooting, but it also diminished his ability to create for others. Sammy was credited with only 1 assist in the Virginia Tech game, but he’s averaged 3 a game since then. The Maryland game might be an indication that Zeglinski has broken out of his shooting slump, but the last eight games provide substantial evidence that he should be better at creating shots for others if the Hokies crowd him off the arc.

Second, Greenberg’s strategy is reliant on his post players picking up the defensive slack when UVa’s guards get by cheating defenders. In the first game, the primary players occupying those positions were 6’7″ Jarrell Eddie (37 minutes) and 6’8″ Victor Davila (22 minutes), with relief off the bench from 6’8″ C.J. Barksdale (12 minutes) and 6’9″ Cadarian Raines (9 minutes). As noted, Davila is likely out with a groin injury. Meanwhile, Barksdale missed the Florida State game with a bum ankle before returning to play 20 minutes against Georgia Tech during which neither his defense nor his ankle looked 100%. The result on Saturday was the Ramblin’ Wreck’s frontcourt of Kammeon Holsey and Daniel Miller putting up a combined 29 points and 14 rebounds on Saturday.

This speaks well for Scott’s ability to increase his scoring total from last game, and the same goes for Akil Mitchell . Mitchell recently has looked much more aggressive on the offensive end than he did in the first VT game, which was his first start of the year after Assane Sene went down. In that first game, Akil attempted only 3 shots and didn’t get to the line even once. In the eight games since, he has averaged 4.375 shots and 2 free throw attempts a game.

4. I also think that Virginia Tech’s frontcourt woes open the door for Darion Atkins to do some work down low, which leads into another change that I expect from the first game. In that game, Virginia’s five starters and Malcolm Brogdon played 190 out of the 200 available minutes in the game while Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson only saw 6 and 4 minutes of action, respectively. Those 6 minutes were a season-low for Atkins in ACC play, and he’s averaged more than 10 minutes a game since. Meanwhile, Jesperson is averaging more than 8 minutes a game since that first contest, and Coach Bennett seemed to make a concerted effort to get both guys on the court for extended minutes in the first half of the Maryland game. Some of these rotation decisions are no doubt based upon the inability of Joe Harris to play his usual minutes, but it certainly seems as if Bennett recognized that his guys wore down in the second half against both UNC and Clemson. Of course, the same happened late in the first Virginia Tech game, and I expect that both Atkins and Jesperson will play more minutes on Tuesday to keep players fresh for the closing minutes of what should be the sixth straight tight game against Tech since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville.

5. On the defensive side, I don’t have too much to say. With each successive game that Bennett has coached against Coach Greenberg, UVa’s defense has looked better and Virginia Tech’s offense has looked worse. 76, 61, 54, 54, 47. Those are the six point totals that the Hokies have put up against Tony Bennett’s teams in chronological order. And keep in mind that the last game was the Hoos’ first game without Assane Sene . The biggest thing that killed UVa in that game was Erick Green ‘s ability to get into the lane and dish or finish (he led the Hokies with 15 points). As Sabre poster KaHOOnah noted this morning, a large part of the explanation for Green’s ability to penetrate might have been the fact that the Cavaliers were adjusting to the absence of Sene’s hard hedges on perimeter screens. I buy that explanation and think that Evans and Brogdon will have better success against Green this time around like they did against Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin on Saturday.

The only other Hokie to score in double digits was Dorenzo Hudson , who was an efficient 5-7 for 12 points. Hudson got many of those points on isolation plays in which the Hokies overloaded one side of the court. I think that Virginia’s secret weapon in counteracting Hudson in the second game might be Brogdon, who is playing much better defensively than he was at the time of the first game, culminating with his best defense of the season this past Saturday.

That leaves Jarrell Eddie, who had 8 points against in the first contest. With Davila likely out, Barksdale at less than 100%, and Raines not much of an offensive threat, I think that the Hoos take a page from Tech’s playbook from the first game and double Eddie early and often.

6. The Team Rankings simulation (available here) has the game as a 61.3-55.2 Virginia win.

I basically agree with the spread but think that the game will be a bit of a lower scoring affair, albeit not as low scoring as the first encounter. Both sides are desperate for a win, and I think that will translate into a sloppy, physical game. But without Davila (or, at best, with a diminished Davila), I don’t see how the Hokies can execute the same game plan that stymied the Hoos last time. I think that Coach Bennett has addressed the issues that sunk UVa before. In the end, I predict a 57-52 Virginia win.

Author’s Note: Many of the statistics and analysis in this article were gathered through watching the two teams, ESPN.com, 504-C Brandon’s TAPE site, Warren Nolan RPI site, Teamrankings.com, and KenPom.com.

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