After claiming bronze in the Wooden Legacy Tournament over Thanksgiving weekend, the Hokies must quickly turn their attention to Michigan. The Wolverines boast an identical 5-1 record and as of this week, just dropped out of the AP Top 25. This is another great opportunity for Virginia Tech to post a win against a quality team, especially after a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M.
Speaking of the Aggies, they were not a good matchup for Virginia Tech at all. They had phenomenal size and length – four of their top five players were listed at 6-8 and above, which is taller than everyone in the Hokies’ most effective small ball lineup with Zach LeDay at center. That will not be the case in Ann Arbor. While the Wolverines have plenty of experience on their roster, they do not possess size across the board like A&M does.
Michigan is led by a core backcourt of seniors. Derrick Walton is the best three-point threat on the team, knocking down 42.9% of his long range attempts and averages a team leading 13.8 PPG. Zak Irvin, a 6-6 guard, has excellent size and is also a dangerous jump shooter, although he prefers to work the midrange and get to the rim. Irvin is also a big shot maker as well – he will knock down timely, heavily-contested shots that most players would not even dare to take. However, this is a team that loves to take deep attempts as 47% of Michigan’s shots are three-pointers. The Hokies must be wary of Irvin’s ability to drive but also be cognizant of his and Walton’s ability to pull up 24 feet from the basket.
Another key player is Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The 6-4 guard is doing his part to carry the scoring load, averaging 9.5 PPG on a 39.6/23.1/81.3 shooting split. Yes, that three point success rate is low, but he has the talent to eventually get out of his funk and start nailing those shots.
In the front court, the Wolverines rely on a few players that get the job done. The one player to really watch out for is DJ Wilson, primarily due to his effectiveness as a rebounder. Wilson is averaging 8.2 rebounds per game and his 18% Total Rebound Rate is outstanding. He also blocks 6.4% of shot attempts while he is on the floor. LeDay struggled against Tyler Davis’ size in the post and on the boards, as the Hokies were forced to send double teams over to his side. Whoever can win this matchup has an unquestionable competitive advantage in deciding this game.
While Wilson does the dirty work on the boards, Mark Donnal leads the front court in scoring. The 6-10 senior is Michigan’s sixth man, and averages an efficient 10 PPG in 21 minutes per contest. He gets most of his shots near the rim, the chief reason he hits on 63.3% of his attempts. Donnal is another player Buzz Williams will have to find an answer for – Sy might be a better matchup against him due to his size, but he is still a young player that offers less on the offensive end than a few other guys. Regardless, Virginia Tech must ensure they collapse the paint as a team to force turnovers like they have been doing and get defensive rebounds to complete possessions.
The Wolverines are team where the stats don’t tell the whole story. When you look at their defensive numbers, it’s hard to not come away impressed. Michigan is allowing 57.7 points per game (8th in NCAA) and boasts a 90.3 Defensive Rating (46th). However, they do not like to push the pace of play. According to KenPom’s Adjusted Tempo Rankings, Michigan possesses the ball just 63.5 times per 40 minutes, which ranks 344th in the country. For comparison, the Hokies are slightly above average with 70.3 possessions/40 minutes. This presents an ideal opportunity for Virginia Tech, who have shown their efficiency when pushing the ball up the court as quickly as possible. Putting Michigan in the open court will be extremely helpful in disrupting their game while simultaneously boosting the Hokies’.
In 2016, the Hokies have been leagues better in their half-court sets than they were in 2015. The ball movement has been snappy and has led to one uncontested shot after another. This is the reason the Hokies as a team have been lighting it up from downtown, hitting an insane 40% of their three-point attempts. Right now, Bibbs, Outlaw, Allen, and Hill are hitting more than 44% of their long range efforts. That alone has changed close games to blowouts, like the opening game against New Mexico.
On the other side, the Wolverines’ perimeter defense has been right around average. Their opponents are shooting 33.7% from deep, so this should not deter the Hokies from playing inside out and shooting in rhythm which has worked for them through six games.
The principal concern for Virginia Tech is their turnover numbers. Like any team, when the Hokies are making careless mistakes they look completely out-of-sync. If you need any evidence, just look at the last seven minutes of the Texas A&M game and the Nebraska slopfest. While Virginia Tech turned it over once in that last frame against A&M, there were many questionable decisions resulting in bad shots, which led to easy offense for the Aggies. And against Nebraska, the Hokies turned it over 17 times total, with many of those coming in the first half. If the Hokies were not able to lockdown Nebraska’s offense, there’s a very strong possibility the Hokies would be riding a two game losing streak.
On the whole, the Hokies match up very well with the Wolverines. Both sides have stronger backcourts than frontcourts, although I think the Hokies backcourt is better than the Michigan backcourt, while Michigan’s frontcourt is stronger than the Hokies’ frontcourt.
The Hokies have shown that they are a legitimately good team. They can compete with teams 10-351 in the NCAA, and probably beat most of them handily. But the next step for this group is winning a close game on the road against a quality opponent. Texas A&M was opportunity number one, and Michigan is opportunity number two. The key player for the Hokies will once again be Zach LeDay. If he posts a double-double and continues to do yeoman’s work on the glass, the Hokies should win this one, strengthening their push to be in that glorious Top 25.
Date: Wednesday, Nov. 30th
Time: Tonight @ 7:15