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No. 8 men’s basketball set to face in-state rival No. 20 Virginia Tech

After seven straight wins, the Cavaliers look to take down their second ranked opponent of season

<p>Junior guard Kihei Clark shoots the game-winning three-pointer to beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last season</p>

Junior guard Kihei Clark shoots the game-winning three-pointer to beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last season

After falling short of preseason expectations in the non-conference portion of its schedule, No. 8 Virginia men’s basketball has won seven straight games and remains undefeated in ACC play. The Cavaliers (11-2, 7-0 ACC) cruised past Syracuse on Monday night, and they will have four full days of rest before taking on in-state rival No. 20 Virginia Tech tonight.

Virginia has won four straight against the Hokies (12-3, 6-2 ACC) and 14 of the last 17 matchups — including 14 of the last 15 that have ended in regulation. Under the direction of Coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have faced off against a ranked Virginia Tech team only twice, winning both during the 2019 season.

However, the Hokies have had a knack for playing Virginia close — at least one of the teams’ two matchups for each of the past seven seasons has been decided by six points or less. 

Virginia Tech, with Coach Mike Young in his second year at the helm, has put together an impressive start to the season after being picked to finish 11th in the ACC. The Hokies have taken down No. 3 Villanova as well as two ranked ACC opponents, and they currently sit at third in the ACC standings. A win against the Cavaliers would keep Virginia Tech within one game of first place in the conference, and it would be another strong resume-building win for a team with tournament aspirations.

Key Storylines

How will Virginia Tech handle a top opponent without sophomore guard Tyrece Radford?

Earlier this week Radford was suspended indefinitely from all team activities for failing to meet “the high standards Virginia Tech has for its students and athletes,” according to school officials. Radford was arrested early Sunday morning on a DUI and concealed weapon charge, and he missed his first game of the season Wednesday as the Hokies took on Notre Dame.

The six-foot-two guard is second on the team in scoring at 11.1 points per game and is third on the team in both rebounds and assists. Notably, Radford leads Virginia Tech in minutes per game.

In the Hokies’ first game without Radford, sophomore guard Jalen Cone started his first game of the season, scoring three points in a Virginia Tech win over a struggling Fighting Irish team. However, it remains to be seen how exactly the absence of Radford will impact the Hokies against a higher level team, especially if lesser-used players are thrust into difficult matchups.

Can Virginia maintain distance from Florida State in the ACC standings?

Just like Virginia, No. 16 Florida State is undefeated in 2021. The Seminoles (10-2, 6-1) have ripped off five consecutive wins, winning by an average of over 18 points a game. Combined with a Florida State win against Georgia Tech Saturday, a loss by the Cavaliers would draw the two teams even atop the ACC standings.

Maintaining a one-game cushion over the red-hot Seminoles will be crucial for Virginia as the two teams move towards their Feb. 15 matchup in Tallahassee, Fla., where Florida State has strung together 22 consecutive conference wins. If the Cavaliers can continue their current level of play and enter that highly anticipated game still undefeated in conference play, they will have an opportunity to solidify their chances of being crowned the ACC regular season champions. Certainly, Bennett and his team will take a one-game-at-a-time approach, but a win this weekend against a ranked Virginia Tech team will go a long way towards winning the ACC.

Players to Watch

Virginia senior forward Jay Huff

Huff has been hot in ACC play, reaching double-figure scoring in all seven games and scoring at least 18 in four of the team’s last five games. Furthermore, he’s logged multiple blocks in four of the last five, and in his last outing against Syracuse, Huff recorded career-highs in points with 21 and rebounds with 12. 

Despite handling an increased volume this year, Huff has remained efficient, connecting on 63.4 of his shots — good for second in the ACC — and 45.7 of his three-point attempts, which is a remarkable feat for a seven-footer. In fact, Huff ranks second in the nation in PER — a measure of a player’s overall efficiency — behind only Iowa senior center Luka Garza.

Huff struggled to make an offensive impact last year against Virginia Tech, scoring only four combined points in the two games. He will look to break through this year, as he has a chance to put together a strong outing against an undersized Hokie team. Virginia Tech’s tallest player in its rotation is six-foot-nine junior forward Keve Aluma. That gives Huff a four-inch advantage, giving him an opportunity to produce both a dominant offensive output and a high block total on defense. 

Virginia Tech sophomore guard Hunter Cattoor

Not including Radford, the Hokies still have three players averaging double-figure scoring. Cattoor, averaging 8.3 points per game, is not one of them, but he may be the key to an upset win over Virginia.

Although Bennett’s teams regularly boast one of the best three-point defenses in the nation, it is well-known that the best way to beat the pack-line defense is to make outside shots. An opponent knocking down three-pointers at a high rate is often when the Cavaliers have struggled the most to win during Bennett’s tenure. The most three-pointers an opponent has made this year was San Francisco’s 13, and not coincidentally, Virginia lost that game. 

Cattoor has drained 25 three-pointers this year at an impressive clip of 47.2 percent, and in Virginia Tech’s first game without Radford, Cattoor stepped up and hit four three-pointers on seven attempts. Coming off the bench, he has logged 20 minutes per game, and if he is able to continue knocking down shots, expect that number to climb in Radford’s absence. 

While the Hokies will count on their leading scorers in Aluma, Cone and sophomore guard Nahiem Alleyne to power the offense, a hot-shooting night from Cattoor could be the difference-maker if Virginia Tech can pull off the upset.

Tip-off for the top-20 matchup is set for 6 p.m. tonight, and the game will be televised on the ACC Network.

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