The anticipation for Virginia Tech's first Sweet 16 game since 1967 has been building even as most national outlets have focused on Duke and their run as the pre-Tournament anointed king. While the Hokies have been cast as massive underdog by some, Virginia Tech is coming into this game ignoring that knowing that the last time these two teams met without their best player, the Hokies got the job done in Cassell Coliseum.
Tonight will be different with both Justin Robinson and Zion Williamson back, but both teams have the talent and capability to take out the other. With that said, here are 5 things to watch for the Hokies against Duke.
1. Can Kerry Blackshear Avoid Foul Trouble?
Virginia Tech desperately can't afford Kerry Blackshear to be in foul trouble and his minutes to be limited. While the Hokies have been improved on the glass, the Hokies will need Blackshear to almost play 40 minutes given the immense size and length that Duke offers along with the high quality rebounding.
With Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier averaging over 4 rebounds in under 20 minutes, and Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett each averaging over 7 rebounds per game; Virginia Tech will be tested on the glass and needs Blackshear.
The Hokies' lack of size is well-known, but only having one player above 6'5'' could be a significant issue if Blackshear is has foul trouble problems. As we saw against UCF, Duke's inability to get Tacko Fall out of the game until late due to fouls opened the door for UCF to force Duke outside while that size advantage was exposed quickly with RJ Barrett's putback on Williamson's free throw after Fall's departure.
While the Hokies have improved as a team on the glass in part due to the performance of guys like Ty Outlaw and Isaiah Wilkins, VT needs Blackshear to avoid foul trouble to give themselves the best chance to minimize Duke's advantage on the glass.
2. Does Virginia Tech Focus Defensively on Zion or Everyone Else?
One of the most interesting to watch will be to see how Virginia Tech approaches Duke this time with Zion Williamson and what he brings as an athlete unlike any other we've seen. While VT will obviously try to slow down Duke's future #1 overall pick, there will also have to be thought given to figure out ways to either let Zion get his and contain the rest of his teammates or drop back defensively and let Duke, a poor three-point shooting team, try to beat you from three-point range.
Check out our defensive breakdown and gameplan for what Virginia Tech may do here
3. Experience Matters
CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein tweeted out an interesting stat in regards to the disparity in experience between Virginia Tech and Duke.
There's no doubt that experience matters in March as most of the teams are highly-talented, veteran teams. The gap in age is usually a major concern especially as the unique pressure that the NCAA Tournament cranks up along with the quality of competition.
There's something to be said for knowing what's to come and knowing how to deal with this level of pressure, something that the Hokies have shown with their veteran players stepping up to lead their comeback against Liberty. Meanwhile, Duke had a more nervy experience against UCF and were lucky, as Coach K said, to escape with a second round win.
One place where that experience may show is at point guard where Justin Robinson has been on plenty of big stages and knows how to handle it and not be overwhelmed while Tre Jones struggled against UCF at times forcing shots that weren't wise for him to take rather than play his style. At a critical spot like point guard, experience can matter even more especially on a big stage like this.
Now Duke's talent level may be so high with their star freshman trio that it may take out much of the experience factor. However, there's no doubt that VT should benefit from being the experienced team that really has nothing to lose taking on the younger Duke that has all the pressure of having been the anointed, future champion by many from the moment this season started.
Experience matters in March and it's one of the reason to believe the Hokies can pull off what would be the biggest bracket buster of March. However, Duke has also shown that they might just have the talent to negate even the biggest experience gaps.
4. The Turnover Battle
While Virginia Tech likely will have a disadvantage on the glass, they've also shown that they can counteract that in the turnover category. The Hokies have been one of the best at avoiding bad passes and mistakes averaging 11.4 turnovers per game while averaging 6.7 steals and consistently winning the turnover battle. Meanwhile, Duke is averaging 13.1 turnovers per game and brings a young team without veteran ball handlers that they can turn to in stressful situations, presenting a potential major advantage for the Hokies.
Check out more on the turnover battle in our By The Numbers breakdown here
5. Will the Crowd Be a Factor?
It's rare to be in a situation where Duke may be at a fan disadvantage when facing a non-blue blood yet that appears likely to be the case tonight in Washington D.C. against the Hokies. The excitement around Virginia Tech basketball is at a level that has never been seen before and has been part of the reason why East Region tickets are 3-4 times more expensive than those in the other 3 regions.
While most of the talk was about 4 seed Kansas having a chance to play in Kansas City if they made the Sweet 16, many also saw Virginia Tech as a team that could pack Capital One Arena if they got to the Sweet 16, raising some questions about why a 4 seed would receive a potential homecourt advantage. Regardless, the Hokies will have that opportunity to likely play in front of a pro-VT crowd even if, as usual, there will still be plenty of Duke fans in the building.
Virginia Tech has shown that they can take their game to another level in front of a friendly crowd as their three-straight wins against Duke in Blacksburg have shown. The question is can the Hokies use the crowd to their advantage or at least to help them break out of Duke runs and launch their own? If they can, it could make a big difference in the end of this one.
Photo Credit: Bobby Murray
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