Three Things to Watch for No. 22 Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomas1996 | Feb 16, 2019
After ending their first two-game losing streak of the season with a 76-68 win over Georgia Tech, No. 22 Virginia Tech heads on the road looking to build on that momentum to face a struggling Pittsburgh team that has lost eight-straight games and fallen to the bottom of the ACC. Here is our breakdown of the three things to watch for Saturday's matchup at Pitt.

1. Experience vs. Youth

One of the biggest storylines in this game may be the experience vs. youth with Virginia Tech only having one freshman even in their regular rotation and Pittsburgh being a freshman-driven team with 3 of their top 4 scorers being freshman. Add on top of that the fact that two of those freshmen (Trey McGowens, Au'Diese Toney) were late reclassifications from the 2019 class and the gap in experience among both teams' star players becomes even clearer. That youth has shown for Pitt as their leading scorer (and freshman) Xavier Johnson has shot under 43% from the field in 5 of his past 6 games, McGowens has shot under 40% from the field in 8 of his past 10 games, and Toney has only shot better than 30% twice in ACC play this season. Of course, Virginia Tech has had their struggles without Justin Robinson on the offensive end to initiate their offense. However, the Hokies appeared to turn somewhat of a corner with 20 assists on 25 made field goals against Georgia Tech that should give them a confidence boost going on the road against a Pitt team desperate to end their eight-game losing streak. Even with this game in Pittsburgh, the Hokies' experience advantage could be significant especially as VT deals with the temptation of looking ahead two days to their big rivalry showdown with Virginia. Don't be surprised to see this experience gap have a major impact on this game especially in how both teams respond to runs and their play down the stretch.

2. What Will The Roles of Isaiah Wilkins, P.J. Horne Look Like?

Wednesday's win over Georgia Tech saw two notable stories emerge about playing time: the return of P.J. Horne and the large role for Isaiah Wilkins playing almost 30 minutes (with Wabissa Bede playing less than 20). The questions that remain is how soon will we see Horne playing more than single-digit minutes given VT's need for depth and whether Wilkins' larger role is here to stay for the time being. Horne's role will likely grow into the 15-20 minute range over the next couple of weeks, but it remains to be seen how significant his role will be in the short term. Against a Pitt team that doesn't have a lot of size, it wouldn't be surprising to see Horne give Blackshear a few minutes of rest especially right before media timeouts to give Blackshear a little extra time to rest without using a lot of gametime. Additionally, the Hokies have shown a willingness to go with a larger lineup that includes Blackshear and Horne before Horne's injury, and could do so again to give Pitt a different look. Meanwhile, Wilkins has shown flashes of potential, but had arguably his best game as a Hokie with 9 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists in 28 minutes against the Yellow Jackets. His performance drew some high praise from Buzz Williams after the game. https://twitter.com/RTD_MikeBarber/status/1095891071903690752 Wilkins has looked like a promising freshman throughout the season having plenty of great moments, but also the type of inconsistency that you can only expect from a player who was expecting to be playing at a prep school this season rather than in the ACC. However, Wilkins has shown improvement and it will be interesting to see if his role continues to grow or if Wabissa Bede will reclaim some of his minutes after a rough stretch with only 2 points in 3 games. The size of Wilkins' role today likely will give us a better indication of how much we may see him going forward while Robinson is out especially given that this game is on the road in a fairly hostile environment.

3. Feed Kerry Blackshear

This is almost an ideal matchup for Virginia Tech going against a Pittsburgh team that will mostly play four guards with an okay frontcourt duo of Terrell Brown and Kene Chukwuka. However, it's clear that the Panthers' weakness is in the post with the Hokies having a major advantage via Kerry Blackshear. Blackshear has stepped up his play in the absence of Justin Robinson averaging 16.8 points per game in the four games without Robinson while also fining other ways to make impacts whether that was his double-double against N.C. State, his 3 blocks and 8-9 free throw shooting against Louisville, or his career-high 8 assists plus 4 steals against Georgia Tech. In this game, the Hokies will need Blackshear to once again dominate in the post in a matchup that is more friendly to him than the one he had this past Wednesday against Georgia Tech. Of course, Blackshear will need to stay out of foul trouble but outside of fouling out against Clemson, Blackshear has had no more than 3 fouls in the other 3 games despite playing at least 32 minutes in all 3 of those games. This is a great matchup for Blackshear and if the Hokies' big man can take over, it'll be a long afternoon for the Panthers.

Prediction

The fascinating part of this matchup is the fact that Pittsburgh has shown the ability to play at a higher level beating Louisville and Florida State at home early in ACC play before their eight-game losing streak. Meanwhile, the Hokies have not looked like the same team on the offensive end without Robinson running the show until their 49-point second half against Georgia Tech. There's no doubt that Pittsburgh will come out desperate but there is a clear gap in talent and experience while the Hokies now having a seven-man rotation could prove valuable in preventing any one player from having to play a full 40 minutes. That experience gap may show most in the inevitable runs and the reactions of both teams to those runs. If there is one x-factor for the Hokies to watch, it's Pitt senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame who has been their best three-point shooter making 39.2% of his threes. Wilson-Frame has also shown that he can get hot from beyond the arc going 5-8 from deep in an overtime loss to Wake Forest and 4-5 in a close to N.C. State recently. VT has struggled defending the three and has almost dared teams to beat them from outside, making Wilson-Frame a potential difference maker. Regardless, the Hokies have found some rhythm on the offensive end and still are the more talented team. Kerry Blackshear seems poised for a big game given the frontcourt matchup while Nickeil Alexander-Walker seems just as poised to break out of his recent slump with four-straight games shooting under 45% from the field. Combine that with Ty Outlaw starting to make threes at a higher volume and the Hokies are starting to become more dangerous on offense once again. Pitt will make it interesting, but the Hokies will comfortably come out on top ahead of the major Big Monday showdown with Virginia.

Pick: #22 Virginia Tech 71, Pittsburgh 63

Photo Credit: Bobby Murray

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