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Virginia Tech at Clemson Basketball Preview: Tigers Eye Resume Win vs. #11 Hokies

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NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When: 12:00 pm
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum - Clemson, SC
TV: ESPN2

The Tigers have rallied from 1-5 to win three straight ACC games. Sure, those three wins were against teams in the bottom six of the ACC standings, but we’re not too high and mighty to applaud a 23-point road win in Atlanta. At 4-5, the Tigers are now 8th in the ACC - ahead of NCSU who have lost three straight after their miracle win over Clemson. Despite that, the resume still looks a little bare. Close losses to Mississippi State, at FSU, and at NCSU leave the Tigers without many true quality wins. Their best is likely their recent road win at GT. Besides that, a win over now 19-4 Lipscomb may be the most impressive win on their resume. That’s why this home game against Virginia Tech is so huge.

We said in our initial season preview that this would be one of the biggest games of the year. We figured these two teams would be battling for 5th/6th/7th/8th in the conference and it would be huge for seeding. VT is 5th, but they’re three games up on Clemson so it’s not really critical for seeding, however the #11 Hokies are one of the Tigers last few remaining chances at a true marquee win - something they badly need on their resume. Besides VT, Louisville, FSU, and UNC are the only ranked opponents the Tigers have left. Louisville is on the road and UNC is red hot. Saturday’s game on ESPN2 is a phenomenal opportunity for the Tigers to reach .500 (5-5), earn a ranked win, and get into bracketology conversations. The season starts becoming pretty fun with a win here. Here’s what that challenge looks like.

The Hokies have the #9 ranked offense according to KenPom. Like Clemson, they play a slow tempo, but unlike Clemson, they rely (successfully) on hitting three-pointers. They’re shooting 42% from three on the season and 39% in ACC play. The Tigers have really struggled defending the three-point shot, which would make this seem like a huge issue; however, they’ve been getting better. Clemson’s ugly 36% 3P% allowed drops to a more reasonable 33% when looking only at ACC games, and in their recent three-game winning streak, it hasn’t been an issue. Of course, those three teams (Pitt, WFU, GT) all rank outside the top 230 in 3P%. We’ll quickly find out if it is a corrected issue or simply one that the schedule has temporarily hidden.

The Hokies have four players with over 30 made three-pointers (the Tigers have zero), but VT be without one of them on Saturday. Senior PG Justin Robinson was injured against Miami and is unlikely to play. He’s a 41% three-point shooter with more attempts (90) than anyone on Clemson except Shelton Mitchell. Bigger than losing the shooting is missing his ability to create offense for his teammates. He’s 54th nationally in assist rate, averages 5.5 APG, and is the Hokies’ career assist leader.

Without Robinson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has shifted from off the ball to running the point. He’s a great three-point shooter (42% on 99 attempts) and still managed to find his shots from three while running the point, going 4-8 from three with 7 assists in the two games without Robinson. Alexander-Walker is a potential top 10 NBA draft pick. He leads the team in point per game at 17.5 and while shooting 60% from two and 42% from three. He also leads the team in steals per game. He’s similar to Marquise Reed, but with more height and a better FG% (47% vs. 53%). At 6’5”, we may see David Skara guard him even though he is running the point. If so, that’ll be a great matchup of elite offensive player versus elite on-ball defender.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Where the Justin Robinson injury really hurts them is in their depth. With Alexander-Walker shifting to PG and Wabissa Bede being thrust into the starting lineup at SG, their guards are playing crazy minutes. In their last two games, their starters at PG, SG, and SF have combined for 3 minutes of bench time. The Hokies have only used two bench players in each of the two contests without Robinson. They play a lot of zone defense and run low tempo offense so this is less problematic, but the Tigers may consider playing at a bit quicker tempo than usual to take advantage.

Two other names to remember are Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw. Hill leads the team with 50 made three-pointers and is averaging over 13 ppg. Outlaw is a pure three-point sharpshooter. Coach Brownell will need to stick someone on him who can fight through screens and avoid helping off defensively. Outlaw shoots just 39% from two, but a ridiculous 49% from three and has made 49 from three. The Hokies have so many threats from three, it’ll be hard to take any of them completely out of the game.

As mentioned, the Hokies play a lot of zone defense. Louisville exposed it by knocking down three-pointers. VT allows more three-point attempts as a proportion of total field goals attempted than all but two teams in the country. Like Clemson, they are much tougher defensively guarding inside the arc:

The Tigers will need to knock down three-pointers to score, as is often the case against heavy zone defenses. Fortunately, Shelton Mitchell has started heating up from three-point territory. Marquise Reed, who is 0 for his last 6 after a 4-7 three-point performance against Pitt, may need to get hot from three for the Tigers to pull out this win.

KenPom gives the Tigers a 42% chance to win, however with Justin Robinson out, that may be too pessimistic. I think it’s nearly 50-50. Not to over-hype this game, but if Clemson wins, they’ll likely end up being a tournament team. If not, I wouldn’t bet on it.

This is a huge game for the Tigers and it should be a fun one, as watching teams run their offense against zone defenses is particularly entertaining. With the mid-day Saturday timing, it’s an ideal one to attend so consider making the trip to Littlejohn for this pivotal ACC showdown!