The bulk of ACC play kicks off for Virginia Tech on the road in Charlottesville against No. 19 Virginia. The Hokies have been one of the ACC's biggest surprises entering the spring on the bubble while the Cavaliers, despite their high ranking, are sliding towards the bubble especially after a loss to South Carolina.
For both of these teams, this is a gutcheck game where Virginia Tech has a chance to show that their NCAA Tournament hopes are for real and more than just a win over Michigan State. Meanwhile, UVA has a chance to pick up a quality win to prove that their drop-off from last season isn't as much as it currently looks like it may be.
With that said, here's our three things to watch and pick for the rivalry showdown between Tech and UVA.
1. Create Transition Opportunities
Against the nation's best defense according to KenPom, Virginia Tech will need to find ways to get Virginia out in space and create transition scoring opportunities.
The Cavaliers may not be the same offensive team but defensively, the Cavaliers are as good as ever and for now, their defensive rating according to KenPom is an improvement from last season. Their dominant defense is the reason why the Cavaliers remain a top 25 team that should be able to comfortably make the NCAA Tournament.
For the Hokies, they've been an up-tempo team in the past but not this year ranking 325th in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. That's the main reason why the Hokies, in general, are scoring fewer points per game, not a marginal drop in shooting efficiencies.
While the Hokies haven't been creating lots of transition opportunities or even pushing the tempo a lot this season, Tech will need to find ways to create those transition opportunities. If they can't, the Hokies will have a much tougher challenge against the best case scenario for a tough UVA defense.
2. Containing Mamadi Diakite
Mamadi Diakite has been the star and most effective offensive player for Virginia this season averaging 13.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game. More importantly, Diakite has been efficient shooting 46.5% from the field, 44% from three-point range, and 74.5% from the free-throw line this season, as efficient as you could imagine for a versatile big man.
The Hokies will not only need P.J. Horne, but also need freshman John Ojiako along with some long forwards like Landers Nolley to step up defensively, especially with UVA likely to pair Diakite and Jay Huff at times on the floor.
Diakite's versatility will force Tech to get creative with how they defend him while also trying to avoid having rotations that create undersized mismatches in favor of the senior big man. This is where we can expect to see Nolley and Horne used a lot and the Hokies possibily go with Horne and Ojiako on the floor together at times when Nolley isn't on it, just so Ojiako can be in the post and Horne can guard the versatile Diakite.
If Tech wants to limit an already below-average UVA offense, it has to start with containing Diakite. Expect two of Tech's best players, Landers Nolley and P.J. Horne, to lead the charge there.
3. Protect The Basketball
One advantage that the Hokies have surprisingly had all season is the fact that they do an excellent job of protecting the basketball. So far, the Hokies are only averaging 9.5 turnovers per game which leads the nation and makes Tech one of 3 teams averaging fewer than 10 turnovers per game (Notre Dame, Saint Mary's).
Tech faces a UVA team that hasn't forced a lot of turnovers averaging only 5.8 steals per game, but given how Virginia ranks last in the country in adjusted tempo according to KenPom, having that quantity of steals is much more significant and valuable.
Tech's veterans like Wabissa Bede have done well protecting the basketball with Bede averaging only 1.5 turnovers per game. However, Landers Nolley has shown his youth at times forcing the play way too much leading to turnovers as we saw against Duke when Nolley had a turnover nightmare especially early in the second half.
If the Hokies are going to pull off the upset, they have to protect the basketball well and not force plays that simply aren't there against an elite UVA defense. If they can't do that, it will be a long afternoon for the Hokies in Charlottesville.
While Virginia Tech has been relatively efficient offensively, they also haven't pushed the tempo at all ranking 325th in the nation in adjusted tempo by KenPom. While UVA is a whole different level of slow tempo, the Hokies won't be making a major adjustment as they have had to in the past to adapt to UVA's unique style of play.
The Hokies have only faced one other defense ranked in the top 10 or 25 by KenPom this season, Duke, and didn't do to bad, but facing UVA and all that it entails will be a challenge for a team that lacks experience. Expect Tech to rely on veteran guys like Wabissa Bede and P.J. Horne to lead the charge and step up alongside star freshman Landers Nolley who may be the best player on the floor.
Overall, Virginia Tech has the three-point shooting to outscore a UVA team that has major offensive issues, but UVA's defense is another test. Virginia Tech also hasn't been in the type of tough road environment that they'll face at Virginia. While the Hokies have the offense to pull off the upset, Virginia is the better team and will do just enough as home to survive.