What Virginia needs to do to beat Virginia Tech

uva basketballDuke was getting blitzed by Virginia Tech in its ACC opener in Blacksburg last month.

OK, it was only 41-38 Hokies at the half, and a couple of quick buckets to open the second half pushed the lead to seven, but it felt like more.

Basically from the get-go, Tech was running circles around Duke with Mike Young’s five-guard lineup.

And this was with Duke having its way inside with 6’10” freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. scoring 12 points in 15 minutes.

Problem was, Carey and 6’9” freshman Mike Hurt couldn’t keep up with the smaller, quicker Hokies on the defensive end.

Virginia Tech had made 10 of its first 14 shots and led by as many as 12 in the first half.

The solution from Mike Krzyzewski: well, first he called a timeout, with 18:56 to go.

Then: he went small.

Carey and Hurt went to the bench.

Carey would sub back in twice, for a total of three and a half minutes.

Hurt would not return.

6’9” senior Javin DeLaurier also got about three and a half minutes.

The game turned with Duke going with 6’3” sophomore Tre Jones, 6’2” junior Jordan Goldwire, 6’6” freshman Wendell Moore Jr., 6’6” junior Alex O’Connell, 6’7” senior Jack White and 6’7” sophomore Joey Baker for the bulk of the minutes.

Duke would go on to outscore Tech 39-18 over the last 18:56 to win, 77-63.

I give you that detailed breakdown of a game from a month ago to give you some insight into how Saturday might go when Tech visits JPJ.

First-year Virginia Tech coach Mike Young didn’t have much to work with when he arrived on campus, but he’s making the most of 6’7” freshman Landers Nolley and a bunch of kids who would be borderline rotation guys anywhere else in the Power 5.

The method to the madness is playing Nolley nominally at the five, thus going essentially five-guard for 94 percent of his minutes.

The risk is giving up points in the post and rebounds, but the reward is turning opponents’ strengths in the post into weaknesses when bigs have to chase around smaller players on the perimeter.

Tech has already pulled off one massive upset, of preseason #1 Michigan State, and has that near-miss with Duke on its resume as well.

Go figure that those teams are big. Duke’s average height on the floor is 78.5”, 10th-biggest in D1, according to KenPom.com; Michigan State’s average height is 77.7”, 58th nationally.

Virginia, also big: with an average height of 77.5”, 82nd in D1.

Virginia’s four most frequent lineups include 6’9” Mamadi Diakite and one of 7’0” Francisco Caffaro and 7’1” Jay Huff.

Two of those three have been on the floor for 54.6 percent of Virginia’s minutes over the past five games, according to KenPom.com.

What we’ve seen out of Tech this season tells us that you’re just not going to see Tony Bennett using that kind of lineup much if at all in this one.

The best lineup, whether it’s the starting lineup, or the lineup that Bennett goes to a few minutes into the second half, and leaves on the floor for the key stretch late, is going to be Diakite, 6’8” Braxton Key, 5’9” point guard Kihei Clark, and then two of three from the group including 6’5” junior Tomas Woldetensae, 6’7” sophomore Kody Stattmann and 6’3” freshman Casey Morsell.

I like the matchup at point for Virginia with Clark checking Wabissa Bede (6.5 ppg, 6.4 assists/g, 38.4% FG, 20.7% 3FG, 56.5% FT).

The Tech offense works with Bede penetrating gaps and kicking out to shooters on the three-point line, so if Clark is able to keep Bede from touching the paint, that should make it more difficult for the shooters to get clean looks.

I’d expect to see Key getting big minutes in this one checking Nolley (17.4 ppg, 5.8 rebs/g, 43.5% 3FG), the one guy on the Tech side who can create his own shots on a consistent basis.

The Key-Nolley matchup likely determines how this one plays out. If Key is able to keep Nolley under some degree of wraps, at least make him work hard for his makes, the supporting cast has to step in to make big shots.

If Nolley starts to go off early, or if Key gets in foul trouble, it could be a long afternoon for the ‘Hoos, who can use Morsell, despite the height discrepancy, to give Key some breaks, on Nolley, but the responsibility for Nolley is going to have to fall on Key’s shoulders.

Another matchup to watch would be whoever Diakite ends up on. I’d expect it would have to be 6’6” junior P.J. Horne (8.6 ppg, 4.6 rebs/g, 55.4% FG, 43.2% 3FG).

Horne’s ability to score from three will mean Diakite will find himself chasing a bit on the perimeter, but Horne is purely a spot-up shooter from behind the arc, so that should mitigate the challenge there a bit.

Virginia Tech is unnaturally reliant on threes for its points: ranking third nationally, getting 43.5 percent of its points from three-pointers.

Its share of points on two-point field goals (43.5 percent, 328th nationally) and free throws (13.0, 337th nationally) gives you the blueprint.

On the offensive end, Diakite (13.8 ppg, 6.5 rebs/g, 46.5% FG, 44.0% 3FG) is going to need to have a big game with the edge in size and athleticism on whoever ends up checking him. I’d expect it to be Horne, just to keep Nolley from being exposed to possible early foul trouble.

Huff (9.2 ppg, 6.3 rebs/g, 60.3% FG, 31.6% 3FG) probably gets limited minutes, almost certainly the ceiling being the 8-10 minutes that Diakite isn’t on the floor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of those minutes don’t go to a guard.

This means Key (9.4 ppg, 7.0 rebs/g, 50% FG, 22.7% 3FG) is going to have to shoulder some of the load on offense.

It would be nice if one of the Woldentensae/Stattmann/Morsell trio would finally play up to their potential, but then, it would be nice if I’d win the lottery so that I can finally retire to San Diego.

One may happen someday, and it may be that the lottery/San Diego combo is as likely as the other.

Story by Chris Graham

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