Three Things to Watch for #9 Virginia Tech Against Wake Forest

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomas1996 | Jan 19, 2019
After suffering a disappointing 22-point loss at #4 Virginia, the #9 Virginia Tech Hokies return home to take on a Wake Forest coming off their best win of the season via an upset victory over a NC State team that was without starting point guard Markell Johnson. Despite that, the Hokies are rightfully heavy favorites playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd against a young Wake team that is 0-4 in true road games with all four losses coming by double digits. Virginia Tech's shooting struggles have been a problem in ACC play, but the Hokies showed signs of life in the second half against UVA shooting 50% from the field including just under 42% from three-point range. This game should be a great opportunity for the Hokies to build on that in search of finding a consistently successful offensive rhythm for a full 40 minutes ahead of the trip to North Carolina in two days. However, the Demon Deacons reminded us against NC State that there is no such thing as a team that can be overlooked in the ACC. With that said, here's our three things to watch for today's game.

1. Can Justin Robinson End His Offensive Slump?

Though Virginia Tech has started ACC play 3-1, it hasn't been because of what Justin Robinson has done on the offensive end of the floor. Robinson has struggled averaging only 9.5 points and 4.5 assists in 32.5 minutes per game during the first 4 games of ACC play. In addition, Robinson's has been inefficient shooting 33.3% from the field including 4-16 from three-point range. While Robinson has been solid defensively drawing his fair share of offensive fouls and averaging just over a steal per game in ACC play, Robinson's offensive performance has been subpar and hurting the Hokies. After VT's win over Boston College where Robinson started 0-3, he said that he was having issues "overthinking" and wasn't "letting everything else come to me." While Robinson was able to do that and go 4-7 for the rest of the game against BC, that strong performance clearly didn't help Robinson break this rut. When watching Robinson play, it's clear that he isn't 100% comfortable and not playing his natural game. Part of that may be adjusting to the fact that Nickeil Alexander-Walker has taken over as the lead scorer causing his role to look a little different offensively though given the amount of games this has been the case, this shouldn't be an issue now. Whatever the issue may be, the Hokies need Robinson to break out of the rut. If he can, the Hokies can start to get back to their peak offensive potential that not only makes them a more than solid top 15 team, but also makes them a worthy Final Four sleeper.

2. Defensive Composure in Rotation

Part of why Virginia Tech has improved significantly on defense is not only their defensive intensity, but also there aggressiveness on rotation. There is some risk to that game at times but when the Hokies are composed and positioning themselves properly, it can give their opponent plenty of issues. However, Tuesday night showed us what happens when that's not the case. Time and time again, the Hokies were caught in desperate sprints to get even a hand in the face of an open shooter rather than positioning well in passing lanes. Additionally, the Hokies didn't stay home defensively at times when that made more sense then an extra rotation that led to defensive confusion and an open shooter. While Wake Forest isn't nearly as good of an offensive team as Virginia, it is still important for the Hokies to show some more composure on the defensive end of the floor as they've done for most of ACC play. Virginia Tech's defensive hustle can't be questioned as the Hokies were able to close out some shooters purely via hustle and not because of smart defense. Going forward, the Hokies need to have more defensive composure rather than forcing rotations that lead to confusion and open shooters. The Hokies did have some quality defensive moments with 6 steals against UVA, but VT has to have more consistency beyond a reliance on trying to force a turnover every possession. If they can be smart in their positioning and avoid forcing defensive rotations that lead to confusion and play into their opponent's hands, this defense can remain among the top scoring defenses in college basketball. If not, the Hokies may start to take a slide against tougher competition in coming weeks.

3. Will Virginia Tech Be Able to Get Younger Backups Extra Experience?

Depth is a concern for Virginia Tech with the best way for those players to develop being quite simple, playing basketball. Yeah, definitely not a surprising concept, but one that Virginia Tech needs to get their young guys more of especially in different roles that could help make this year's team more well-rounded. Wabissa Bede has developed into a very talented defensive player with 6 steals in the past 3 games including 3 against the fourth-ranked Cavaliers. However, Bede needs more time in larger offensive roles to become a more trusted scorer and showrunner at the point with Bede showing hesitance in moments where he needs to be decisive. The best way to develop those skills are to put that person in opportunities where they have to step in that role like Bede did with Nickeil Alexander-Walker out against UMES. In that game, Bede was pushed into a larger offensive role and stepped up with 14 points and 6 assists in his best offensive game as a Hokie. While Bede hasn't been able to build much on that, this game could present an opportunity for Buzz Williams to turn the offense over to Bede if VT plays as they are expected to. Meanwhile, Isaiah Wilkins has seen him minutes decrease significantly not breaking the 10-minute once in ACC play. Wilkins showed flashes in non-conference play against weaker competition, but has struggled mightily in significant stretches of his limited ACC minutes. For the Hokies, they could use an eighth man who can give 10 quality minutes a night and this game could present an opportunity to get Wilkins playing time in a low-pressure scenario. PJ Horne has shown improvement this season and seems to be more comfortable not only on the dribble, but also with his offensive movement without the ball in his hands. Any experience Horne can gain in the center positions will be valuable especially given the foul trouble issues that Kerry Blackshear has had in the past. For Virginia Tech, this game should present an opportunity to give some of their younger backups the type of valuable experience that can pay dividends later in the season if they do what they're expected to do.

Prediction

Wake Forest may be coming off a big win against NC State, but Virginia Tech is still the significantly better team, and it will show quickly. While the Hokies have been close at halftime in all three of their ACC wins, expect the Hokies to get off to a strong start and then open it up coming out of the second half. If there's one player who seems to be in rhythm offensively, it's Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Hokies' breakout sophomore led Virginia Tech with 19 points on 6-10 shooting against UVA, an impressive performance against arguably the nation's best defensive team. The one player who could give VT problems is Wake Forest freshman Jaylen Hoard who has found his rhythm and is averaging 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in ACC play. What makes Hoard a potential problem is the fact that he's used at the four for Wake with the Demon Deacons having a pair of true centers, creating a size mismatch for whoever's guarding the 6'8'' freshman forward. This is going to be a game where a combination of smart rotations and double teams, and good off-ball defense will be critical to prevent Wake for sneaking up on the Hokies. Don't be surprised if VT tries to use a mix of Ty Outlaw and PJ Horne to try to put more physical, frontcourt defenders on him with it being realistic for VT to play Horne and Kerry Blackshear for significant stretches of this game. While Wake may have a mismatch with Hoard,the Hokies have the vast talent advantage and it will show. Expect VT to force lots of turnovers against a young Wake team that will likely be quite uncomfortable in a raucous Cassell atmosphere. The Demon Deacons have had issues on the road with an 0-4 record in true road games including a loss at a down Richmond team. In addition, all four of those losses have come by double digits, something that has to concern Danny Manning going forward with plenty of hostile environments to face in the ACC. Offensively, Alexander-Walker and the Hokies will build off their second half shooting improvement at Charlottesville and start to look like the efficient offense they've been known for before heading to Chapel Hill. The big question is can Justin Robinson break out of his major slump against a Wake Forest team that is solid at pint guard via leading scorer Brandon Childress. Wake Forest's road struggles will continue as Virginia Tech will remind us why they are a worthy top 15 team with a dominant showing in Cassell Coliseum.

Pick: #9 Virginia Tech 78, Wake Forest 60

Photo Credit: Harley Taylor

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