Akil Mitchell and the Hoos hope to grab their first ACC road win of the season.
After a dominating defensive performance in a 56-36 home victory over Florida State, the Virginia Cavaliers (12-5, 2-2 ACC) head to the southwest to face the Virginia Tech Hokies (11-6, 2-2 ACC) at Cassell Coliseum on Thursday night. Will the Wahoos win their first ACC road game of the season or again dip below .500 in conference play? Find out in the Virginia Tech Primer.
1. Team Introduction. Last year, in what turned out to be Seth Greenberg’s swan song season in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech limped to a 15-16 (4-12 ACC) record that featured four consecutive losses to close the regular season. The Hokies took a 47-45 win at JPJ but dropped a 61-59 decision in Blacksburg. VT then topped off its year in the ACC Tournament by beating Clemson before losing a surprisingly close 60-56 game against Duke in the quarterfinals. After a coaching change and some offseason attrition, Virginia Tech was tabbed to finish 10th in the ACC in the preseason media poll.
With the arrival of new coach James Johnson , the Hokies started off the season like gangbusters, racing out to a 7-0 record that included home wins over a pretty good Oklahoma State team (81-71) and a decent Iowa squad (95-79) in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Then, some combination of depth, injuries, the flu, and regression to the mean had the Hokies crashing back to earth. Since that 7-0 start, Virginia Tech has gone 4-6, with one of those losses coming at the hands of Georgia Southern (78-73). In ACC play, Virginia Tech got stomped at Maryland (94-71) and lost at home to bottom feeder Boston College (86-75) before slipping past Georgia Tech on the road (70-65 in OT) and Wake Forest at home (66-65). On the season, Virginia Tech is No. 109 in RPI, No. 151 in KenPom, and No. 186 in TAPE.
2. Offense. In the movie “Speed,” the solution that Keanu Reeves had to every problem was to “go faster.” James Johnson has employed a similar philosophy in his first year as the man in charge in Blacksburg. The Hokies try to get out on the fastbreak when they can and tend to shoot the ball pretty quickly when they get into half court sets. According to Johnson, such offense has been necessitated by the team’s lack of depth: “It plays into our hands to try and get some easy baskets as opposed to having to grind it out,” Johnson has said. “We want to try to get up the floor, try to score easily and not have to take that pounding and that grinding in the half court. ” Given this philosophy, the Pack-Line defense likely will not be a welcome sight for this year’s Hokie squad.
Indeed, consider the adjusted tempos of 5 of the 6 teams that have beaten Virginia Tech this season: West Virginia (No. 232), Georgia Southern (No. 335), Colorado State (No. 238), Maryland (No. 173), and Boston College (No. 241). Simply put, if you force the Hokies to grind out scores out in the half court game, you have a good chance of beating them. And, as Virginia Tech has faced more of these teams as the season has progressed, its adjusted offensive efficiency has dipped to No. 79.
3. Defense. Early in the season, James Johnson had his team playing primarily man-to-man defense. But with this defense routinely being shredded and the Hokies not having the horses (or the fouls) to maintain it, Johnson has begun to incorporate more zone defense, principally in the form of a 2-3 zone. The early results seem to be promising. During a four-game losing streak, Virginia Tech gave up 88, 97, 94, and 86 points. Then, the Hokies employed more zone against Georgia Tech and held them to 55 points in regulation before limiting Wake Forest to 65 points on 36.8% shooting. We’ll have to see what Johnson chooses to emphasize against the Cavaliers, but one thing is clear: in both its man and zone defenses, Virginia Tech is terrible at forcing turnovers. The Hokies stand at No. 339 nationally in opponent turnovers per possession, which helps explain their No. 251 rank in adjusted defensive efficiency.
4. Player Turnover/Injuries. Last season’s second-leading scorer, shooting guard Dorenzo Hudson (10.9 points per game), has graduated. Also gone is big man Victor Davila , who was fourth on last year’s team with 7.5 points per game. Freshman swingman Dorian Finney-Smith (6.3 PPG and 7 rebounds per game) took his talents to Gainesville to play for Billy Donovan. Furthermore, freshman forward Marshall Wood (5.8 PPG, 4.5 rebounds per game) has been out with a broken foot, with James Johnson calling him a “long shot” to play against UVa.
5. Possible Starters. A look at the potential first five from VT …
Point Guard: Virginia Tech’s best player and one of the best players in the ACC is Erick Green (No. 11), a 6’3″, 185-pound junior. Green is definitely a dual threat “1,” who is adept at both distributing (4.4 assists per game) and finishing (24.6 PPG). Last season, I called Green more of a slasher than a shooter, but that’s no longer an accurate description. Green is hitting a solid 36.5% of his 4.4 3-point shots a game, and he’s connecting 53.9% of his shots from inside the arc. There’s very little that Green can’t do. He can create his own shot, knock down his free throws (82.5%), and more than hold his own on the boards (4.2 per game). Green has even improved defensively and uses his length to force 1.5 turnovers per game. With a week off, Jontel Evans seemed to find his form a bit in the win over Florida State, and the Hoos will need him to play even better to contain Green.
Shooting Guard: Robert Brown (No. 1), a 6’5″, 190-pound sophomore, should get the starting nod at the “2.” Whether he deserves it is another question. After offseason foot surgery, Brown came charging out of the gates much like Virginia Tech as a team. In his first eight games, he averaged 14.38 points on pretty decent shooting from the field. His last eight games have been a different story as he’s averaged a mere 6 points per game. Part of the blame for this dip in production has to go to a bout with the flu that caused him to miss the Boston College game. But it certainly seems as if his slump started well before his recent illness. On TheSabre.com, poster uvadeac92 cited the incredible statistic that Brown has missed on 60 of his last 76 field goal attempts. With Brown being the clear No. 3 scoring option on the team (10.8 shots per game compared to 5.8 attempts for Cadarian Raines ), is it any wonder why the Hokies have cooled off after their hot start? And another problem for Virginia Tech is that Brown doesn’t bring much more than shooting to the table. He only averages 2.8 rebounds per game, and he’s not a very good defender (only .6 steals per game). I can see Paul Jesperson getting a lot of open looks against Brown, and Justin Anderson might see some open lanes to take it to the hole.
Small Forward: The Hokies’ second scoring option is Jarrell Eddie (No. 31), a 6’7″, 218-pound junior. After playing a good deal last year out of position at the “4,” Eddie has shifted back to his more natural spot at the “3.” And yet, Eddie has looked a bit uncomfortable playing more on the perimeter this season. His turnovers per game have jumped from 1.4 to 2.4 per game, and, as he’s taken a higher number of 3-point shots per game (5.4 vs. 3.7), his accuracy has dipped (37.4% vs. 44.3%). Of course, part of the problem is that Eddie has been asked to shoulder more of the scoring load, which he has done reasonably well, increasing his points per game from 9.1 to 14.5. Eddie also uses his length to good effect in corralling 6.6 rebounds per game, but he also can struggle against quicker “3”‘s. Look for UVa to set a lot of screens on Eddie to try to free Joe Harris up for 3-point attempts and drives to the basket.
Power Forward: C.J. Barksdale (No. 42), a 6’8″, 232-pound sophomore, should get the start at the “4.” In last year’s Virginia Tech Primer, I compared Barksdale to Darion Atkins as both were energy guys off the bench who provided some athleticism but not a huge amount of offensive potency. Like Atkins (before his injury), Barksdale has made strides on the offensive end. He’s more than doubled his points per game (5.5 vs. 2.7) and increased his shooting percentage from 41.7% to 55.4%. That said, he’s still very inconsistent. Against Georgia Tech, he scored 11 points in 33 minutes, but he only scored 10 total points in 33 total minutes in the Wake Forest and Boston College games combined.
Center: Cadarian Raines (No. 4), a 6’9″, 238-pound redshirt junior, hasn’t made the same offensive leap as Barksdale. Despite playing 5.5 minutes more per game than last season, his scoring average has only marginally increased from 5.9 to 6.8, and his shooting percentage has dipped from 51.6% to 47.5%. He’s also turning it over 1.5 times per game, almost double his number from a year ago. Raines is largely a garbage man who get his points on putbacks and dunks and has struggled when trying to do much more. That said, he appears to be in better shape than last year and is playing better defense, averaging a career-high .8 blocks per game.
6. Key Reserves. Some of the other Hokie contributors …
Point Guard: It has been a disappointing sophomore season for Marquis Rankin (No. 10), a 6’1″, 170-pound backup point guard, who also plays some “2.” Despite seeing his minutes per game increase from 13.5 to 18.7, his points per game have actually gone down from 2.5 to 2.4. That’s because Rankin simply can’t hit the broad side of the barn with his shot. He’s shooting a mere 31.6% from the field and 28.6% from 3-point range. Rankin has a pretty decent handle and only turns it over .9 times per game, but he simply is not an offensive threat who has to be guarded closely. Rankin is a decent defender, but he’s not a guy who should be averaging about 26 minutes per game in ACC play, which is what he has done so far.
Forward: With the injury to Marshall Wood , Christian Beyer (No. 22), a 6’7″, 200-pound walk-on, has seen significant minutes for the Hokies. In ACC play, he’s averaged just less than 15 minutes per contest and averaged just less than 4 points per game. Beyer is the definition of a garbage man who isn’t going to try to initiate much of anything on offense. Where he has really earned his minutes had been on the boards, where he is averaging 4.3 rebounds in his 12.7 minutes per game.
Power Forward/Center: Joey Van Zegeren (No. 2), a 6’10”, 225-pound redshirt freshman from Holland, has steadily improved this year after missing last season with a head injury. Van Zegeren still needs to put on some weight, but he’s averaging a decent 4.6 points per game on 58% shooting. But he’s a bit of a black hole when he gets the ball as he only has 2 assists on the year, and he’s had 7 turnovers in his 4 ACC games.
I know that Virginia has had its troubles on the road, but I like this matchup. As noted, Virginia Tech is one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers (No. 339), and the Hokies are not a good offensive rebounding team (No. 165 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage). These are the two key statistics I consider in determining the likelihood of success of any team against a Tony Bennett team, and the Hokies are far worse in these categories combined than any team that has beaten UVa in at least the last 2 years. Add to that the fact that Virginia Tech relies upon transition and early offense to get its points, and I think that the Cavaliers have a great chance to take one on the road.
I’ll say that that Virginia takes this one 63-57.