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‘Hoos previews: Virginia looks for first season sweep of Virginia Tech since 2015

Story by Zach Pereles

uva virginia techVirginia. Virginia Tech. It’s a rivalry that stretches back nearly 70 years.

For both teams, it’s an opportunity to pick up a key top-tier win down the stretch of ACC play. For Virginia, it’s a chance to claim state bragging rights with a season sweep for the first time for either team in four seasons. For Virginia Tech, it’s a chance to get revenge for a blowout loss in January as it continues to play through several significant injuries.

The last time these two squads met, Virginia Tech came in having won nine straight and was No. 9 in the nation. With the Cavaliers at No. 4, it was the first top-10 matchup between the two programs ever. It was one of the most highly anticipated games of the year, and rightfully so.

The anticipation went unrewarded. Fueled by 13 three-pointers, Virginia posted 81 points — its most against the Hokies since 1991 — en route to a dominant 22-point win. Since then, the teams have gone in very different directions. The Cavaliers have continued their strong play and have lost just two games, both to Duke. But the Hokies have dropped decisions to North Carolina, Louisville and Clemson. It’s not the losses that have been concerning, though; it’s been the injuries. Star point guard Justin Robinson hasn’t played in February due to a foot injury and remains out, and Buzz Williams has provided few updates on his senior floor leader.

As recent history has shown, though, very little goes as expected in this series. Last year, the Cavaliers went to Blacksburg and left with a 26-point win, but Virginia Tech came back a month later and shocked the John Paul Jones crowd with a 61-60 win. It was Virginia’s only ACC loss of the season.

The year before followed a similar script. The Cavaliers won the first matchup in resounding fashion but fell in Blacksburg by two. The same went for 2016.

From 2016-2018, Virginia won three games by an average of over 22 points. Virginia Tech won three games by an average of under two points.

If the Hokies want to earn yet another split, they’ll likely need to make it a low-scoring contest. In five games without Robinson, Virginia Tech has averaged about 62 points per game, a far cry from the about 75 it averages on the season.

Three Cavaliers to watch:

De’Andre Hunter. The Cavaliers’ small forward led the way in the first matchup, posting 21 points on just 12 shots. Virginia Tech had no answer to Hunter’s size, strength and skill. He’s been on a tear recently, too. He dumped in a game-high 20 points in Virginia’s win over North Carolina and another 20 in the win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

Ty Jerome. It’s hard to top what Hunter did the last time out, but Jerome might have done it with a 14-point, 12-assist game. He was a maestro offensively, making seemingly every pass to perfection early as the Cavaliers buried the Hokies under a deluge of threes and dunks. After a quiet game against Notre Dame, Jerome will want to get back on track against his school’s in-state rival.

Mamadi Diakite. After helping Virginia hold star Notre Dame big man John Mooney to 4-of-13 shooting, Diakite will have another tough task Monday in the form of versatile Virginia Tech big Kerry Blackshear Jr. Diakite’s quickness and athleticism should serve him well. But on the other end, Diakite will look to rediscover his touch after missing a few close opportunities against the Irish.

Three Hokies to watch:

Kerry Blackshear Jr. If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the Robinson injury, it’s been the emergence of Blackshear, who is Virginia Tech’s only true post presence, standing at 6-foot-10. Blackshear is coming off a terrific 29-point performance against Pittsburgh and has been simply outstanding in Robinson’s absence. In the last five games, Blackshear is averaging 19.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in 34.4 minutes of action, all much higher than his season averages. He is also shooting the ball at a high rate: 54.7 percent from the field, 63.6 percent from three and 88.6 from the free throw line. Last time out against Virginia, Blackshear shot it just six times. Look for him to be much more aggressive this time around. When he plays well, he gives the Hokies an entirely new dimension. When he struggles, though, so too do the Hokies.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker. A lanky, athletic scorer, Alexander-Walker was the only Hokie who could get much going against the Cavaliers last month in Charlottesville. The Toronto native dumped in 19 points on just 10 shots. He leads the Hokies at 16.9 points per game on the season and is also a solid rebounder, pulling down four boards per game.

Ty Outlaw. A sharp-shooting wing, Outlaw has seen his minutes skyrocket with Robinson out, and he’s scored in double digits in three of the past four games. A 48 percent three-point shooter, Outlaw is a crucial part of the Hokies’ operation. When he’s shooting up to his usual standard, it spells major trouble for opponents, and he can get hot in a hurry. In the first matchup, he made just one of his four threes, but four days later against Wake Forest, he made four of five. Plus, at 6-foot-6, he could draw the assignment of guarding De’Andre Hunter.

KenPom says: Virginia, 62-59 (59 percent chance of victory)

Final notes:

  • Virginia is 60-44 all time against Virginia Tech.
  • While coaching Virginia, Tony Bennett is 13-6 against Virginia Tech.
  • Virginia Tech has one native Virginian: injured point guard Justin Robinson (Manassas).
  • Virginia has two native Virginians: Austin Katstra and Jayden Nixon, both from Charlottesville.
  • Virginia Tech hasn’t beaten a top-10 team this year, but last year the Hokies beat two top-five teams (Virginia and Duke) and another top-10 team (North Carolina).

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