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The Matchup: Virginia Tech vs. #5 Duke

The Hokies open up conference play against the Blue Devils, who will be without Grayson Allen.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee State at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The Hokies’ impressive 11-1 record this season will be put to the test as they host the #5 Duke Blue Devils (12-1) on New Year’s Eve. Think of any cliché to describe a great team – well coached, talented, disciplined – and the Blue Devils exemplify it. That has not changed for seemingly forever, and it will not change as long as Krzyzewski is in charge.

Duke was picked by many pundits to make a run at not only the ACC Championship, but the National Championship. They certainly have not disappointed – their sole loss through thirteen games was to #3 Kansas as Frank Mason III hit a jumper with seconds remaining. However, Duke has dealt with multiple injuries which has stunted the growth of their young talent.

Speaking of Duke’s young talent, they have been superb this season when healthy. This includes a freshman haul that includes an unbelievable four five-star recruits, the most notable of whom, Harry Giles, has not been able to suit up much due to injury. Jayson Tatum and Jack White have also missed significant portions of the season, but Giles and Tatum both to seem to be getting healthy at the right time. The good news for Virginia Tech is the (righteous) suspension of junior Grayson Allen. In case you have not seen it, he intentionally tripped a player for like, the eleventy-billionth time in his career (or something like that):

Despite all the big names, the Blue Devils’ best player this season has been Luke Kennard. Kennard had a very good freshman season where he proved to be a knockdown shooter. He has become the primary scorer this season, leading the team with 20.4 PPG, while Allen has been more of a playmaker role. The sophomore has an excellent feel for the game as a scorer, and has a smooth, balanced jumpshot to match.

Kennard has looked to get to the rim a little more in 2016, which has worked well in tandem with his effective jumpshot. Because he makes 42.7% of his three pointers, defenders are going to overcommit on closeouts, leaving space to attack behind them. Virginia Tech will need to be ready to defend Kennard both inside and outside the three-point line. I would expect the Hokies to be in a zone defense 90-95% of Saturday’s contest.

The good news is Duke has not been lighting it up from downtown this season. The Blue Devils have made 35.5% of their three-point attempts this season. Losing another threat from deep in Grayson Allen hurts even more considering Duke is not loaded with shooters. Virginia Tech can focus on defending the interior and not allowing easy buckets inside, which in itself will be a difficult task due to the presence of Amile Jefferson.

Jefferson missed last year’s game due to injury, but looks to be a major factor this year. He has averaged a double-double (14 P/11 R) through thirteen games. He is a vacuum on the defensive glass, with a 26% Defensive Rebound Rate, which means second chance opportunities will be rare for the Hokies. Jefferson is a big that can run the floor as well, which makes him like a bigger Zach LeDay. It is going to be a dogfight under the glass all game for those two. Duke’s senior forward has a composed, patient post game too. If Duke is need of a basket, they will look to him to score.

Freshman Jayson Tatum returned five games ago from a foot sprain and has been an effective player, averaging 15.4 points in those games. He has been struggling to shoot the basketball, which is understandable because he is still getting his feet wet in college basketball. The talent is there, however. Tatum is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft. He has all the tools – he’s 6-8, he can drive the basketball, and he has great strength to compete down low. All of those skills are visible when he gets the ball in transition.

If I had to guess, LeDay/Sy will draw the Jefferson assignment while Chris Clarke will have to deal with Tatum. Virginia Tech is smaller in both matchups, but all players have similar skill sets to match up well enough with Duke’s weapons.

Senior Matt Jones has been the reliable presence that he has been throughout his career, especially as a defender. Frank Jackson is another talented freshman who has been healthy and productive. He’s averaging 12.3 PPG, but has statistically been the Blue Devils’ second best three-point threat, hitting 38.3% of his long-range attempts. He is another player likely to leave for the league this year, along with Tatum and Giles. The fourth one-and-done possibility on Duke’s roster, Marques Bolden, has also struggled to get on the court. At 6-11, he may see a little more time due to the size mismatch he would have against the Hokies, but it would be a long shot.

It is apparent that Duke has the offensive talent necessary to win ball games. They have always stellar on that side of the ball – however, they have been excellent on the defensive end this year as well. The Blue Devils possess an 87.1 Defensive Rating (10th) and are ranked 22nd points allowed per game. Last season, Duke struggled on defense which is why they did not go very far in the postseason (or at least as far as they’re used to going), but the mentality is different this year.

Virginia Tech will need to stay true to it’s identity to have success on offense against the Blue Devils. Like in 2015, the 2016 Hokies have been successful getting to the basket. The difference is that they are passing up good shots for great shots. Take this sequence against Michigan. Allen and Clarke could have easily taken layups, but they move the ball around until Bibbs has an open look for three.

As a result, the Hokies have been shooting an incredible 39.3% from downtown this season, ranking 46th in the NCAA. It will be a challenge shooting that well against Duke. The Blue Devils have allowed their opponents to shoot a meager 28.3% from behind the arc. Duke has excellent length all over the floor, which makes it easier to contest jumpshots. Tatum, Jefferson, and Jones are all good individual defenders as well on the perimeter.

Sometimes, coaches and players can overthink offense – all you have to do is feed the hot hand. For Virginia Tech, the hot hand is a trio of players: LeDay, Clarke, and Ahmed Hill. As the heart of the team, LeDay may be the most important one to get going early. He can energize both the crowd and the team with a few early buckets. Neutralizing Jefferson’s paint presence will be key if the Hokies want to be able to get to the basket with regularity.

Meanwhile, Clarke has been tremendous over the last two weeks. He has a triple double and two double doubles in his last three while averaging 17.3/11.7/4.7/2.7. Those are all-conference numbers. Clarke has been getting to the rim at will because of his athleticism, but that will not be as big of an advantage against ACC squads. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to perform at a high level now that competition has increased.

Lastly, Ahmed Hill has been the Hokies most consistent three-point threat, even with a high volume of attempts. We knew he was good his freshman season, but he has taken another step in his redshirt sophomore year. He and Seth Allen are both shooting over 44% from deep this season, and you can bet Coach K has a full scouting report on him detailing his shooting expertise. If Virginia Tech can get him going despite the extra attention he will be receiving, that would bode well for the Hokies’ chance to win this game. This would also be an ideal time to get Justin Bibbs out of his dry spell.

Virginia Tech has let too many passes get away from them which have resulted in turnovers. The Hokies average about twelve turnovers per game, but that number has increased over the past few. Justin Robinson specifically needs to calm down – he had a couple of passes end up in the stands on Wednesday. Forcing the issue against Duke will lead to live ball turnovers and momentum swings. Being smart with the basketball needs to be priority number one on offense, even if it does mean slowing the pace of play down just a bit. However, the turnover numbers are a bit more understandable once you realize how effective the Hokies are in transition vs. half-court sets.

Prediction:

The Hokies have a tough 18 games in front of them, and the first one will likely be one of the hardest. The last time Duke was in Cassell, Virginia Tech took them to the brink in one of the highlights of Buzz Williams’ inaugural season in Blacksburg. I think the Hokies actually match up decently against this group. The experience in the backcourt should be an advantage for the Hokies, especially with Grayson Allen out. If LeDay and Clarke can handle Jefferson and Tatum, the Hokies might have a chance. But I don’t see them stopping Luke Kennard. I think the outstanding sophomore has a nice day and leads the Blue Devils to the W.

78-70 Blue Devils.