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No. 4 men’s basketball vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech — a breakdown

The Cavaliers and Hokies meet in a highly anticipated ACC clash

Virginia will try to avenge its sole conference loss from last year by beating Virginia Tech on Tuesday.
Virginia will try to avenge its sole conference loss from last year by beating Virginia Tech on Tuesday.


The No. 4 Virginia men’s basketball team is set for a marquee ACC clash against in-state rival No. 9 Virginia Tech on Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers and Hokies are both red-hot. Virginia (15-0, 3-0 ACC) is one of two remaining undefeated teams in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball, and Virginia Tech (14-1, 3-0 ACC) has won nine games in a row, easing its way to a top-10 national ranking. Like Coach Tony Bennett turned around the Cavaliers’ basketball program since his 2009 hiring as head coach, Coach Buzz Williams has turned around the Hokies’ basketball program, from an 11-22 record in the 2014-2015 season to two-consecutive NCAA Tournament berths the past two years. This year has been the Hokies’ best, and they will seek to challenge for an ACC title. Virginia, winners of the ACC two of the past five years, is in the way.

The Hokies have a star-studded starting five, led by senior guard Justin Robinson, junior forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. and sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. All three are returners from the team that beat Virginia 61-60 at John Paul Jones Arena last year to hand the Cavaliers their first — and only — conference loss. Alexander-Walker has been especially outstanding, averaging 17.8 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting from three. The trio combined for 39 of Virginia Tech’s 61 points in the Cavaliers’ loss last year, and have only gotten better since. Senior guards Ty Outlaw and Ahmed Hill round out the experienced starting five. Both are shooting above 40 percent from three-point range. The Hokies were known for their great offense last year. This year they have added great defense to their prolific offense, and currently are fourth in the nation with 57.9 points allowed per game.

Despite this challenge, the Cavaliers come into the game clear favorites. They are undefeated this year, and their average margin of victory at John Paul Jones Arena is 29.3 points. Virginia returns arguably the most talented backcourt in the nation — junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy — and sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter, whose versatility on offense and defense has placed him in the 2019 John Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 Watch List. Senior center Jack Salt, whose grit allows Virginia’s mover-blocker offense to work and allows the Cavaliers to clamp down on the defensive end, is another key piece, in addition to junior forward Mamadi Diakite — who tied his career high of 18 points last Wednesday against Boston College. Junior transfer guard Braxton Key has also provided a great spark for Virginia off the bench, coming into his own in recent weeks. Virginia is a complete team with few weaknesses. Virginia Tech struggled offensively last week against Georgia Tech, putting up just 52 points, and will have to shoot the ball better to beat Virginia’s packline defense.

Key Matchup: Virginia junior guard Ty Jerome vs. Virginia Tech senior guard Justin Robinson

Tuesday night will be a guard’s basketball game, with just one forward in the Hokies’ starting five. It will be interesting to see if Bennett opts to play a small lineup to reflect matchups. Even the Hokies’ biggest player, Blackshear, can shoot the three ball, and might be a difficult matchup for Salt. Regardless, the game will be won by the guards. The matchup of Jerome against Robinson is at the core of this battle. Both point guards are skilled distributors and scorers, and must play well Tuesday night to ignite their team’s offenses. Last year, Robinson torched the Cavaliers for 20 points and seven assists, and Jerome had an off game, managing just 11 points on 1-10 shooting from three-point range. Robinson has been cold lately, scoring just 10 points on 30 percent shooting from the field in Virginia Tech’s last game against Georgia Tech. The Hokies’ lack of depth at the point guard position certainly presents a challenge for Robinson, who will be asked to play major minutes against the Cavaliers. Jerome, although he has slowed down his scoring clip from earlier in the year, continues to have a stellar year at the helm of Virginia’s offense. Against Robinson, a solid defender, Jerome must continue his patient approach, and attempt to use his size advantage to get to the basket.

Junior guard Ty Jerome leads the Cavaliers with 1.8 steals per game.

The X-Factor: Virginia freshman guard Kihei Clark

Kihei Clark is the X-factor for Virginia on Tuesday night. In a marquee matchup of some of the nation’s best guards — such as Robinson, Alexander-Walker, Jerome and Guy — Clark will have a big role to play coming off the bench. Throughout the season, he has been critical for his lockdown one-on-one defense and electric energy and hustle. Clark’s energy led to a 10-second backcourt violation in the VCU game, an effort that even made Bennett smile. In a game with many great perimeter scorers, Clark will be asked to shut down the Hokies’ scorers. His gritty defense could frustrate the likes of Justin Robinson, and give Jerome and Guy much needed relief from difficult assignments. Another way Clark can contribute is by attacking more from the perimeter, giving Hokies’ defenders another threat to cover. In an piece looking at what’s missing from the top teams in the nation, coaches consistently said Virginia could use another perimeter scorer. "Guy and Ty Jerome are great players,” one coach said. “But if they had one more guy on the perimeter that could get his own shot." While Clark doesn’t necessarily need to be filling up the stat sheet with points, by getting to the basket he can get to the foul line or free up space for other players to score. He did a great job of it against Boston College, finishing with four assists.

Freshman guard Kihei Clark is averaging over 26 minutes of play per game.

The pathway to victory: Get to the rim and contest three-point shooters

Virginia is in good position to win this rivalry game. Especially with Key emerging as an offensive talent, the Cavaliers can win without any specific player getting hot. Their attack is dynamic and versatile. Against Virginia Tech, it’s critical that Virginia stays aggressive on offense by getting to the rim rather than settling for jumpers. While the Cavaliers have great three-point shooters, they also have great finishers at the basket and great free-throw shooters. Hunter exemplifies the importance of getting to the rim. Hunter, who will likely have some mismatches in the game, must stay aggressive by attempting to drive to the basket. Last year against the Hokies, the Cavaliers’ offensive attack was too dependent on three-point shooting. 38 of the Cavaliers’ 61 attempted field goals were threes, and they shot just 28.9 percent. This year, Virginia has had a more balanced offense, and this must continue Tuesday night. On the defensive end, the Cavaliers must contest the Hokies’ three-point shooters. All of Virginia Tech’s starters can shoot the three ball, and Virginia must shut them down. The Cavaliers’ three-quarter court press could be a good way to slow down the smaller Hokies’ shooters.

Sophomore guard De'Andre Hunter is likely to be a first-round pick in this upcoming NBA Draft.

The Bottom Line: JPJ will be rocking

John Paul Jones Arena should be electric Tuesday night, with students back to witness Virginia play its biggest ACC game of the year yet. There is a little extra at stake in this rivalry game, particularly with the Cavaliers’ close overtime loss at the hands of Virginia Tech in football this year. Both teams will be up for this one. “They could not be ranked. We could not be ranked. We’re still going in there like, ‘We’ve got to have this game,’” Outlaw said. “People in Blacksburg tell us, ‘Even if you don’t win any games this season, beat them.’” Look for the Cavaliers to come out hungry, poised and dominant Tuesday night, avenging their sole conference loss last year.

John Paul Jones Arena will be raucous when Virginia takes on Virginia Tech.