Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
There isn't an early season college basketball tournament more well-known than the Maui Invitational and for the first time since 1985, Virginia Tech will take part in it.
While the tournament organizers have shown great hospitality to the Hokies off the court, that hasn't extended to their on-court opener against preseason No. 1 and current No. 3 Michigan State with Mike Young sharing those same thoughts.
“It’s incredible. I wish the organizing committee would have given us a different first-round opponent than [Michigan State] Coach [Tom] Izzo’s team, though (laughing). But it’s a tremendous tournament and a great opportunity for our program. We’re excited to be here," Young said.
However, there's no doubt that Virginia Tech will be ready to fight against a Michigan State team that VT came quite close to facing after MSU reached the Elite 8 and VT fell just short against Duke.
The Hokies are heavy underdogs, but crazier things have happened already this college basketball season. With that said, here's our key matchup, keys to the game, and prediction for today's game.
Key Matchup: Xavier Tillman vs. PJ Horne
There's no doubt that PJ Horne is undersized for a center but fortunately, his size won't be as much of a concern against the 6'8'' Tillman. However, Tillman has been Michigan State's rebounding machine 9.5 rebounds along with 12.0 points per game with the Spartans looking to Tillman as their top secondary option after Cassius Winston.
Now there's no doubt that the Hokies' rebounding success has been largely due to the hustle and work ethic of Virginia Tech's smaller players to help out Horne, but VT will need their junior big man to step up in this matchup.
Horne has been solid this season averaging 9.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game with his best game coming at Clemson where he had 8 points and 7 rebounds. However, the Hokies will need Horne to take his game and productivity to the next level in this matchup especially with Mike Young not likely to play John Ojiako as much given his youth and inexperience especially against an opponent like this.
Horne will have a major challenge facing Tillman with the Hokies needing him to step up and win the battle in the paint. If he can, the Hokies' hopes of pulling off an upset grow significantly.
Keys to the Game
1. Live and Die By The Three
Michigan State is clearly the better basketball team but if there's one area where the Hokies could make this game very interesting, it's their three-point shooting. The Hokies have been pretty good overall from three-point range shooting 42.2% as a team while the Spartans have struggled shooting 29.5% from deep.
So far, VT's quality three-point shooting hasn't been centralized on a couple players with Landers Nolley, Nahiem Alleyne, PJ Horne, and Jalen Cone all shooting over 44% from three with a minimum of average of three 3-point attempts per game this season. Hunter Cattoor has also shown promise shooting 37.5% from 3 while Wabissa Bede is only shooting 30% from 3, but has shown lots of three-point shooting ability in the past.
If the Hokies want to have a serious chance at pulling off the upset, they have to get it going from three-point range. If so, it should create space for quick guards like Bede and Cone, and crafty scorers like Nolley more room to attack the rim and keep the Michigan State defense on their heels.
2. More Than Just Landers Nolley
Landers Nolley has been impressive to start this season averaging 20.2 points per game while shooting 50% from the field including 45.9% from three-point range. However, Michigan State knows this and will definitely prioritize guarding Nolley on the defensive end, forcing other VT players to step up to give Nolley some help.
Nahiem Alleyne is one of those guys who could as a secondary option averaging 12.6 points per game while showing great range in his offensive game. Additionally, VT will need their older players like Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne to step up on the offensive end. While Bede has been a great ball distributor, he hasn't been a great scorer averaging only 5.2 points per game while shooting 40% from the field.
Nolley definitely has the talent to put up on a strong offensive performance even with the extra attention, but the Hokies need their secondary options to step up to have a chance against the Spartans. If not, this should be a pretty easy win for Michigan State.
The Hokies have the talent to keep this game interesting going into halftime especially with their three-point shooting that could very easily make a big difference. However, the Hokies haven't faced a player close to the level of Cassius Winston or a team anywhere near as good as the Spartans and that will show as this game goes along.
While Wabissa Bede may be able to slow down Winston at times, MSU's point guard is a preseason favorite to be the national player of the year for a reason while the Spartans also have some quality secondary options including Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman to help carry the load.
Virginia Tech will put up a valiant effort, but this was always a bad matchup for the Hokies as Michigan State will pull away for a comfortable victory.