GAME PREVIEW: VIRGINIA TECH

By RossWB on November 28, 2017 at 10:32 am
Hokie up.
© Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports
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GAME INFO

WHO: Virginia Tech Hokies (5-1) | KenPom #45
WHEN: 8:00 PM CT
WHERE: Cassell Coliseum (Blacksburg, VA)
TV: ESPN2
ONLINE: WatchESPN
RADIO: Learfield Sports affiliates
ONLINE AUDIO: TuneIn
VEGAS: Virginia Tech -8

Iowa basketball returns to the continental United States to participate in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and in even better news -- they're finally playing a game widely available on television! After six games on BTN Plus or FloHoops, Iowa basketball will be on ESPN2 tonight, meaning that most people will finally get their first real glimpse of the 2017-18 Iowa Hawkeyes. Admittedly, that was a more exciting proposition before Iowa's disappointing trip to the Cayman Islands last week, where they went 1-2, losing to noted powerhouses Louisiana and South Dakota State and beating UAB in a shootout. That said, this is still mostly the same team that thrilled Iowa fans at the end of last season, now fortified with a pair of intriguing (and inconsistent) freshmen in Luka Garza and Jack Nunge. This is also still a team that's almost entirely reliant on freshmen and sophomores; inexperience and inconsistency tend to go hand in hand, unfortunately. 

Iowa is 5-11 overall in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but 3-4 under Fran McCaffery. They had a three-game winning streak in the Challenge snapped last year in a 92-78 loss at Notre Dame. The Challenge was also the source of one of Fran's most famous wins at Iowa -- the 60-55 win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2014. 

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT VIRGINIA TECH

The Hokies have been the most common opponent for Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge (this will be their fourth meeting; their next most frequent opponents are Florida State, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest, who they've played twice apiece in the Challenge), but not one whom the Hawkeyes have had much success against. They're 0-3 against the Hokies, losing to them in Blacksburg in 2006 and 2012 and in Iowa City in 2009. 

Virginia Tech is 5-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming on a neutral floor against Saint Louis in the 2K Classic in New York. That said, they haven't faced the stiffest competition so far -- the best team they've played thus far is Washington, who checks in at #144 in the KenPom rankings. Their other four wins have come against teams ranking #269 or lower in the KP rankings (Morehead State, The Citadel, Detroit, and Houston Baptist). Their non-conference SOS is almost as dreadful as Iowa's: KenPom has it at #333, with Iowa at #336. 

That said, Virginia Tech has been absolutely pulverizing the patsies they've faced (minus Saint Louis). They've scored at least 96 points in all five of their wins and posted an average margin of victory of 34.8 points. They're tops in the nation in effective FG%, at a sizzling 67.7%; not surprisingly, they're also best in 3FG% (49.6!) and third-best in 2FG% (63.6). They're making practically everything they're shooting right now. They're also draining 74.2% of their free throws (and they get to the line a lot; their free throw rate of 53.7% is 7th best in the nation). About the only things they're not elite at on offense are offensive rebounding (they're hauling in 27.1% of their (rare) misses, 232nd in the nation) and turnovers (they're giving the ball away on 19.1% of their possessions, 173rd in the nation). But make no mistake: this is a very, very proficient offense and one that is going to pose significant challenges for the Iowa defense. 

Defensively, the Hokies have been good, but not exceptional at anything. They have a defensive efficiency rating of 99.9, good for 86th in the nation. Teams are posting a 48% eFG% against them (#100), including 32.3 3FG% (#115) and 47.9 2FG% (125). They don't foul much (opponent free throw rate of 33.8%, 157th), but they also don't block many shots (8.4%, 187th) or grab many steals (7.5%, 244th). Turnovers were a problem for Iowa down in the Caymans, but perhaps they'll be better able to take care of the ball in Blacksburg. They'll likely need to in order to keep up with the Hokies on offense.

The Hokies have a junior and senior-led team, led by Justin Bibbs and Ahmed Hill, with a very balanced scoring attack. Bibbs is a 6-5 senior guard who looks like a match-up nightmare for Iowa. He's leading the team in scoring with 21.3 ppg on 78.1 eFG% (!); he's converting an absurd 81% of his 2-point attempts (21/26) and 50% of his 3-point attempts (11/22). We're still in fairly small sample size territory at this point, but: damn. Ahmed Hill is a 6-5 junior forward averaging 19.8 ppg on 76.8 eFG; he's only making 62.5% of his 2-pointers (20/32), but is making almost 60% of his 3-pointers (22/37). He's also hauling in 4.7 rebounds per game. Justin Robinson, a 6-1 junior is their starting point guard; he's scoring in double figures (10.8 ppg on 58.1 eFG%; he's yet another guy making 50% of his threes as well, 9/18) and also leading the team in assists (5.0 per game) and steals (2.0 per game). 

Virginia Tech's most notable non-upperclassmen is freshman Nickell Alexander-Walker, a 5-star recruit at shooting guard out of Canada who's been lighting things up so far as well. The 6-5 wing is scoring 16.8 ppg on 66.9 eFG%, making 63% of his 2-point shots (19/30) and 46.9% of his 3-point attempts (15/32). He's more than just a scorer, too -- he's averaging 3.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, and 0.8 bpg. Finally, Virginia Tech's last double-digit scorer (they have five in total) is Kerry Blackshear, Jr., a 6-10 center averaging 12.8 ppg on 70.3 eFG%. He's making 67.6% of his 2-point attempts (23/34) and while he spends most of his time down low, he's at least a little bit capable from deep too (2/3, 67% this year). Blackshear is also second on the team in rebounds (7.0 per game) and tops on the team in blocks (1.0 per game). The other main Hokie of note is Chris Clarke, a 6-6 post player who leads the team in rebounding (7.8 per game) and is actually second on the team in assists (4.2 per game). He doesn't score all that much (6.5 ppg), but he doesn't really need to with the other scorers on this roster.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

1) Defense defense defense

Defense has been a pain point for this Iowa team since the start of last season and it was a big factor in their losses down in the Caymans last week; even in their win over UAB the defense wasn't particularly great -- it just didn't matter because the Iowa offense erupted for 95 points behind career-best games from Bohannon and Cook. Fran and the players have mostly chalked up the defensive shortcomings to a lack of focus; if that's the case, let's hope that they're locked in on that end of the floor from the opening whistle tonight, because if they're not VT easily has the firepower to run them off the court in this one.

On paper, Iowa has a lot of tools that you'd like to see on defense -- plenty of length and a fair amount of quickness overall -- but it hasn't cohered into an effective defense very often so far. Virginia Tech also has a lot of match-ups that look problematic for Iowa; Bohannon versus a quick guard is always going to be an issue, but Bibbs, Hill, and Alexander-Walker are going to be a real handful. Iowa is probably going to need Wagner's defensive presence in this one, but playing him will have accompanying downsides on offense too. And Blackshear could be a load to handle down low for Garza.

2) Size

That said, one area where Iowa appears to have an edge on VT is in the height department. The Hokies have only one player taller than 6-6 who gets big minutes (Blackshear). With Cook, Pemsl, Nunge, Wagner, and maybe Baer (see below), Iowa ought to have a size advantage on the Hokies in several match-ups; hopefully they can use that to their advantage. 

3) 3-Point Shooting

Dreadful shooting torpedoed Iowa in the opener in the Caymans last week; they couldn't make anything in the first half against Louisiana and the 20-point hole they dug themselves was just too deep to escape. Iowa's shooting improved over the rest of the tournament, though, especially from deep. They're going to need to that strong shooting to carry over into this game. This figures to be a high-scoring game -- KenPom projects an 85-78 VT win, but I think we could easily see both teams in the 80s, if not higher -- and for Iowa to keep up they're going to need to drain threes. That means Bohannon will need to keep his hot-shooting form from the UAB win, but it also means that we need Moss and Ellingson to drain some threes as well -- and the odd three from Nunge or Wagner wouldn't go amiss, either. 

4) Tempo

As we know, Iowa likes to play at a fast tempo under Fran; so far this year they're averaging 71.1 possessions per game. Well, Virginia Tech is actually playing at an even faster tempo so far this season -- 73.7 possessions per game. Both teams are among the nation's leader in shortest possessions too -- VT averages 13.9 seconds (7th shortest in the nation) and Iowa averages 14.7 seconds (18th shortest in the nation). Expect a lot of fast-paced, up-and-down the court action in this one. 

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

PG: Jordan Bohannon
SG: Isaiah Moss
SF: Ahmad Wagner
PF: Tyler Cook
C: Luka Garza

Wagner missed Iowa's game against UAB (Nunge got his first career start), but there was good news on the injury front from Fran in his teleconference yesterday. 

If Wagner is healthy, I would assume he would retake his starting position at the three. As noted above, his defense could be much-needed for Iowa in this game. Baer's return would also be a tremendous boon for Iowa; he would give Iowa some much-needed on-court leadership, as well as his invaluable ability to do a little bit of everything on the court. That said, he hasn't played all season so even if he is able to go, I can't see him starting or even playing huge minutes just yet. But any impact from Baer would be hugely appreciated. 

Connor McCaffery's return (official debut, really) is still up in the air. During his teleconference on Monday, Fran indicated that Connor had a setback with his recovery from mono and was hospitalized last week and has lost a lot of weight. 

“He’s really behind physically. I don’t think he’s behind in other aspects because he knows what we’re doing and has stayed up to speed,” Fran said.

“He’ll probably be cleared to play sometime at the end of this week and then it’s going to take him awhile. You’re [sic] body is severely compromised so we’ll see how long it takes him to get back to where physically he can run consistently.”

It sounds like Connor has been dealing with a pretty severe bout of mono, so I wouldn't anticipate seeing him on the court for Iowa anytime soon. It's going to take him some time to regain his physical conditioning after this illness. I'd be surprised if we saw him until after Christmas at this rate. In his absence, Ellingson and Dailey should continue to serve as Iowa's primary backup point guards and get more time off the bench. 

Overall, this is a really intriguing game -- for both teams. Virginia Tech has rolled so far this year (minus the blip against Saint Louis where shaky shooting cost them; they were 21/52 from the floor in that game, including 6/19 from 3-point range), but they haven't played anyone of note. Iowa was the same before the Caymans, where they faced an uptick in quality and, frankly, didn't handle it very well. Virginia Tech will be by far the best team Iowa has faced this year -- but Iowa will also be the best team the Hokies have seen too. Iowa's defensive lapses and occasionally streaky shooting make me concerned in this one, especially since it's in Blacksburg, but if they can get things clicking, this could be a nice win to get momentum back on their side after last week's rocky outings. 

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