Just 19 hours before the Hokies’ monumental ACC clash at home against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Saturday, Buzz Williams and company will open up the Hokies’ men’s basketball season at home. With that in mind, it’s time to preview Virginia Tech’s opponents.
Nov. 11th vs. Maine
Nov. 15th vs. High Point
Nov. 19th vs. VMI
Nov. 24th vs. New Mexico (Wooden Legacy Tournament)
Nov. 25th vs. Texas A&M/Cal State – Northridge (Wooden Legacy Tournament)
Nov. 27th vs. TBD (Wooden Legacy Tournament)
Nov. 30th @Michigan (ACC/B10 Challenge)
Dec. 7th vs. Maryland Eastern-Shore
Dec. 11th vs. Mississippi
Dec. 17th vs. The Citadel
Dec. 20th vs. Charleston Southern
Dec. 28th vs. UMBC
At first glance, the Hokies’ pre-conference portion of the schedule in 2016 looks much less daunting than in 2015. They do not play any ranked opponents, while Virginia Tech had to face both Iowa State and West Virginia last year, both of them blowout losses. However, the Hokies need not be reminded of the disastrous first performance against Alabama State last year, which really hurt their chances of making the NCAA tournament.
The notable matchup in this portion of the schedule is the November 30th game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, part of the ACC/BIG10 Challenge. While the Wolverines were not ranked in the preseason AP Poll, they are a good team but maybe not quite as good as they were last season. To get into the NCAA Tournament, Michigan had to beat Tulsa in a play-in game (which they did), but took a prompt exit in the first round at the hands of Notre Dame.
Virginia Tech will also be featured in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Fullerton, CA. The New Mexico Lobos will be the first team on the road for the Hokies, which is a very winnable game. UNM went 17-15 last year with an okay offense and mediocre defense. Should the Hokies beat the Lobos, they will likely face Texas A&M. The Aggies are another team that went to the NCAA tournament. Unlike Michigan, Texas A&M made a bit of a run in March, making it to the West Regional Semifinal before falling to Buddy Hield’s Oklahoma Sooners. Although they lost seniors Danuel House, Alex Caruso, and Jalen Jones, the Aggies welcome a solid recruiting class consisting of three four-star recruits. I give the Hokies the early edge in this matchup, but we will have to wait and see how the new kids on the block look for A&M.
Earlier this offseason, the Hokies agreed to play a home-and-home series with Ole Miss. That matchup will come on December 11th. The Rebels posted a 20-12 record last year, and relied on the scoring presence of senior Stefan Moody on offense. They failed to add blue-chip talent this offseason as well. Virginia Tech is primed to take the first part of the home-and-home at Cassell in 2016.
#1 Duke (Dec. 31st)
Right out of the gate, the Hokies will face the preseason consensus #1 team in the nation. The Blue Devils lost top-3 pick Brandon Ingram to the NBA, but welcomed four five-star commits in Harry Giles (#2 recruit in the nation per 24/7), Jayson Tatum (#4), Frank Jackson (#13), and Marques Bolden (#15). And that does not even include Grayson Allen, who averaged 21.6 points per game in 2015. That is just unfair.
Schedule makers did not do Virginia Tech any favors by having this game on New Year’s Eve during winter break. The student section probably won’t be full because of that, which could mute the Hokies’ home court advantage (VT went 6-2 at home during conference play). Even with that advantage, it would be a bold prediction to pick the Hokies to win this game. If Virginia Tech can hold their own during the non-conference portion of the schedule, this could easily be one of the more watched games in the early conference season.
North Carolina State (Jan. 4th @NCST)
The Hokies came back and beat NC State in overtime for their first conference win last year. The Wolfpack were dismal during conference play, finishing 5-13 in the ACC. However, like Duke, the Wolfpack brought in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation with the blue-chip duo of Dennis Smith and Omer Yurtseven leading the way. They also added Markell Johnson who reclassified into 2016 class and was thought to be a heavy Hokies’ lean. However, NC State did lose a playmaker in “Cat” Barber who carried their team on the offensive end.
The key to this game will be rebounding. The Wolfpack have a lot of big bodies on the interior and the wing. Chris Clarke, LeDay, and Blackshear (if he returns) will have their hands full dealing with NC State on the interior. Regardless, the Hokies open up their ACC schedule with two tough games that will certainly test this team. If they want to compete in the ACC, it is imperative they pick up a win in at least one of these game.
Florida State (Jan. 7th @ FSU)
The Hokies’ win over FSU last season ignited a five-game win streak to close out the regular season for Virginia Tech, and their second win over their Seminoles vaulted them into the second round of the ACC tournament. But the theme of improved teams continues. Florida State retained guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon, while adding two great talents in Johnathan Isaac and Trent Forrest.
Despite all the offensive firepower the Seminoles possess, the reason that many FSU fans felt like they underachieved was their defense. Last season they gave up 74 PPG, which ranked 235th in the country. It remains to be seen if Head Coach Leonard Hamilton can get his talent to perform to their potential. If he can, then Florida State has the talent to compete in the second tier of the ACC.
#19 Syracuse (Jan. 10th)
After an improbable run to the Final Four, including an incredible comeback win against UVA, Syracuse is primed to improve upon their 9-9 conference record from 2015. They lost leading scorers Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, and Trevor Cooney which certainly hurts the Orange’s chemistry. They picked up two lengthy wings in Tyus Battle and Matthew Moyer to replace them. But Jim Boeheim always finds a way to keep his team competitive, which is why Syracuse is a dangerous team come March.
In the last two meetings, the Hokies have come close to defeating the Orange. In 2014, Virginia Tech fell 72-70 as Jalen Hudson failed to convert on a last-second attempt. In 2015, the Hokies led by 7 with just a minute left but failed to close and Syracuse won 67-60 in OT. The difference is Syracuse has to travel to Blacksburg for this matchup. This might be the most winnable game for Virginia Tech in the first quarter of their ACC schedule, so a win here is crucial.
Notre Dame (Jan. 14th)
Notre Dame was another heartbreaking loss for the Hokies last year, as they were simply outmatched down the stretch and Seth Allen missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer. The Fighting Irish have had very talented and successful teams over the last few seasons. They retain VJ Beachem, Bonzie Colson, and Steve Vasturia who were productive players for the in 2015.
However, the losses of Zach Auguste and Demtrius Jackson cannot go understated. They were critical pieces of a squad that made it to the Elite Eight last March. Despite their talent level, it is likely the Fighting Irish won’t be as good this season. This is another winnable home game for the Hokies which they have to take advantage of.
Georgia Tech (Jan. 17th)
In the final contest of the three game home-stand, the Hokies host Georgia Tech for their only meeting in 2016. The Yellow Jackets lost to the Hokies in a close game in Atlanta last season, and the Hokies will have a great chance to repeat that result this year. GT lost it’s best player in Marcus Georges-Hunt who scored 27 against Virginia Tech last season. Unlike other ACC teams, the Yellow Jackets failed to compensate for their lost talent through recruiting. The Hokies have the chance to establish a home-court advantage, over this three game stretch. Doing so would put them in the thick of the race in the ACC. This might be one of the easier conference foes for Virginia Tech in 2016.
Clemson (Jan. 22nd @CLEM, Feb. 21st)
Clemson is still Jaron Blossomgame’s team. That has not changed since last year. The all-ACC first teamer averaged 18.7/6.7/1.5 in 2015 and enters his senior season as the player to watch on the Tigers. The Hokies escaped Cassell with a 60-57 win last year against the Tigers – but one of these contests will be in South Carolina. The strength of the Tigers last year was on the defensive end, where only surrendered 64.5 PPG and had a 100.5 Defensive Rating. That was partly due to their slow pace of play as their per game averages on offense were not very good.
Clemson finished just one spot behind the Hokies in the ACC standings in 2015, posting the same 10-8 conference record. Like the Hokies, they are hoping that this is the year it finally comes together so Clemson can make a run in March, something they have not done since 2011. This is a team that was strong in the front court already, but boosted the talent in the backcourt with transfers Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell. You get the feel that in the ACC, everybody – well, besides Boston College – is fighting for dominance in that second tier behind Duke, UVA, Louisville, and UNC. The Hokies and the Tigers are in the midst of that battle.
#6 North Carolina (Jan. 26th @UNC)
The Tar Heels are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the NCAA Final last year where they lost on a buzzer beater. With studs Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson playing professionally in 2016, the brunt of the burden falls upon the cast of Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Joel Berry who were all key contributors last season. They also picked up a five-star recruit in Tony Bradley, a 6-10 Center, who will be a crucial part of filling the shoes of Brice Johnson.
UNC posted the 5th highest Offensive Rating last season, and do not expect them to slow down. With a steadfast Roy Williams at the helm, the Tar Heels offense will remain one of the most productive units in the ACC and the NCAA. The Hokies almost pulled off what would have been one of the biggest upsets last season against UNC, but a late run solidified a 75-70 win for the Tar Heels. Virginia Tech will no doubt be ready for this game. They will need to show some fight on the road to get the win.
Boston College (Jan. 29th, Feb. 25th @BC)
You got to give the Eagles props – they were the only team last season to go winless in the ACC in both football and basketball. Needless to say, Boston College is not a good team. According to KenPom, BC is the worst Power 5 team in the country. On offense, they relied solely on Eli Carter who has since graduated. And they did not bring in any top-tier recruits to bolster their stagnant attack. Jim Christian has a hell of a challenge in front of him, as it is plausible that the Eagles could once again end up in the cellar of the ACC. The Hokies get to play them twice, and it would be a major disappointment if both of those games are not blowout wins.
#9 Virginia (Feb. 1st @UVA, Feb. 12th)
Ah, good ol’ UVA. What once was a one-sided rivalry has now become a much more competitive series over the last two seasons. The Hokies finally got over the hump and beat the Cavaliers in January for the first time in 1,442 days. However, they were then shellacked in Charlottesville in the grudge match.
Virginia is another team that suffered key losses, with both Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill leaving. But like the other elite ACC programs, the Cavaliers had one of the top recruiting classes in the country, signing three top-60 players. London Perrantes is primed for a big senior year as well, and he was deadly in the first meeting against the Hokies’ beyond the arc last year. They have the talent, and Head Coach Tony Bennett has been a mastermind at maximizing his players’ talent in his system.
This is another game where Virginia has to make sure they rebound well. Virginia likes to slow the game down, and they excel at getting offensive rebounds to extend their possessions. That tires out the defense and directly contributes to their own defensive fortitude. Chris Clarke in particular will need to play well, because when he gets rebounds the Hokies generally get the opportunity to run in transition. Easy buckets will be critical when facing the Cavaliers’ defense. Like last year, I expect a split series between the two archrivals.
Miami (Feb. 8th @MIA, Feb. 27th)
The Hurricanes have had the Hokies’ number as of late, as Virginia Tech as only beaten Miami once in their past six tries, including two ACC tournament losses. That trend looks to shift the other way in 2016. Seniors Sheldon McLellan, Angel Rodriguez, and Tonye Jekiri exhausted their eligibility in their run to the Sweet Sixteen in March.
Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton are both a year older and know that this is their team now. Reed in particular had three good games against the Hokies last year, so Virginia Tech must be wary of him. The Hurricanes added a pair of four star recruits in Dewan Huell and Bruce Brown. Huell is a 6-10 forward who has some of the size, athleticism that Jekiri possessed. Brown is a lengthy and versatile guard who can score in bunches. Jim Larranaga is coming off an ACC Coach of the Year campaign, but the Hokies can and should win both of these games.
Pittsburgh (Feb. 14th @PITT)
One of Virginia Tech’s worst performances last season was a 19-point loss in Pittsburgh (seriously, what is it with that place?). To their credit, the Hokies were able to bounce back in their second game against the Panthers and won a tight defensive battle at Cassell. But somehow, despite finishing three spots below Virginia Tech in the ACC standings, the Panthers were invited to the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round to Wisconsin.
Pittsburgh lost James Robinson but retained stalwart forward Michael Young, who averaged 15.7/6.9/2.3 in 2015. Like Virginia Tech, a good amount of the Panthers’ roster will return. Seniors Jamel Artis and Sheldon Jeter, who each performed well against the Hokies in the first meeting, are impressive role players. Replacing backcourt production might be a tougher question for the Panthers. Sophomore Cameron Johnson showed some potential last season, and he is a dangerous offensive weapon at his 6-7 frame.
The Hokies’ small ball attack could prove to be an effective counter to the Panthers’ bigger line up. For that reason, I think the Hokies win this game, especially due to the backcourt depth and talent that Buzz Williams has in his arsenal.
#13 Louisville (Feb. 18th @UL)
Louisville missed out on it’s postseason chances last year due to allegations against Pitino that I won’t get into, but the Cardinals’ roster looks loaded this year. They finished 2015 4th in the ACC on the back of the 6th best defense in the country, only allowing 61.1 PPG. Undoubtedly, losing leaders Damion Lee and Trey Lewis hurts as they averaged 15.9 and 11.3 PPG respectively. Another key loss is on the interior. Chinuna Onuaku, aka “Mr. Underhand Free Throw”, was a 7-0 athlete who controlled the boards and allowed Louisville to finish strong defensive possessions.
The Cardinals have plenty of young talent, however. Sophomore Donovan Mitchell and junior Quentin Snider are had good seasons last year but will be called upon to increase their level of play in 2016. Louisville also picked up five-star recruit VJ King, a 6-6 forward. But the challenge for the Hokies will likely be on the offensive end. Although Louisville scored a whopping 91 on Virginia Tech’s defense last season, a lot of that was due to Damion Lee and the rest of the Cardinals simply not missing from beyond the arc. Louisville’s defense is elite and they have the personnel to slow the Hokies down on offense. Beating a great team on the road is never easy and I don’t see the gobblers doing so here.
Wake Forest (Mar. 4th)
The Demon Deacons were near the bottom of the table in the ACC last season, and it does not look like they have the talent necessary to improve in a tough conference. They were one of the worst defensive teams in the country with a 109.0 Defensive Rating, which Virginia Tech exploited as they scored 93 and 81 points in their two meetings last year. The key loss for Wake Forest is forward Devin Thomas, who was a technician in the post and dominated the boards. The youngsters coach Danny Manning will rely on will likely be Bryant Crawford, Konstantinos Mitoglou, and Cornelius Hudson. We will have to see if Wake Forest has improved to really gauge if they will be able to compete with a Hokies side that should just be hitting their stride in March, but all early indications point to this being a win for Virginia Tech.
As insane as it might sound, the ACC might have 10 or so teams that will have a legitimate argument to go dancing in the NCAA tournament. The Hokies have the right blend of talent and experience to be one of those teams. They have a strong chance to finish the pre-conference portion of their schedule with just one or two losses. Obviously, conference games are going to be much tougher.
One of the reasons Virginia Tech performed so well during conference play was their fast start, going 3-1 in the first four games. It is difficult to see them opening up with a win against Duke. However, if the Hokies can effectively play with that underdog mentality they had at the end of last season, anything is possible.
Last season, the Hokies went 10-8 in conference play – matching that total this year would be more than impressive and would likely get them into the NCAA tournament.
My official prediction: Hokies win a grand total of 22 games in the regular season. Barring any major injuries, I think that’s an achievable total. One thing to watch: the Hokies are so used to playing as underdogs, but some of those types of teams don’t do as well once they garner the respect of opponents. Buzz Williams’s presence makes that less likely in my opinion because he has the ability to keep his team grounded no matter what the scoreboard says. It will be interesting to see the psyche of the team, especially if they start to struggle midseason.