After an eight-day break, the Hokies need to refocus their energy and put the UVA nightmare of last week behind them. On Wednesday, they travel to #11 Miami to take on the 20-4 Hurricanes. Miami was a team picked by many analysts as a surprise team to contend for the ACC crown during preseason, and they've lived up to that so far as they currently rank 2nd in the ACC with a 9-3 conference record. Virginia Tech was 0-3 against Miami last season, and were unable to score more than 61 points in all three of those meetings. Miami's defense might be even better this year unfortunately, which makes this an even tougher matchup.
Since losing back-to-back games against UVA and Clemson in mid-January, the Hurricanes have been on a roll, going 7-1 in their last eight. It hasn't been as pretty for Virginia Tech, who are 1-6 in the last seven. Momentum is clearly on the Hurricanes' side, and add in the fact that this game is in Miami, the Hokies will need a lot of things to go their way if they want to get their second ACC road win this season.
One of the things that has to go right will be frustrating Sheldon McClellan. The senior has been tremendous this season, leading Miami in scoring with 16.3 PPG and over 17 PPG during conference play. McClellan is one of the more versatile players in the ACC. There isn't much he can't do and he's a threat to score from nearly anywhere on the floor. He's very good at drawing defenders' eyes towards him and finding a cutting teammate who gets an easy bucket. He can hurt teams from deep, evidenced by his 39.6% from behind the arc. But he's effective at driving into the lane, blowing by defenders and getting to the free throw line with an above average .514 Free Throw Attempt Rate. And not only does he get to the line, McClellan makes teams pay, knocking down 87% of his free throws.
Aside from the raw numbers, McClellan has the athleticism to wreak havoc on a defense. At 6-5 , he has the length, explosiveness, and strength to finish at the rim without being bothered by surrounding defenders. He's shooting 60.3% from 2-point range so he usually finishes layups, even though they may be from tough angles like this one.
The return of Chris Clarke will certainly be a boost to the Hokies' defense, and I imagine Buzz will give the freshman the opportunity to test his defensive skills against the talented McClellan. Although the primary focus should be McClellan, the Hokies will need to have eyes on guards Ja'Quan Newton and Angel Rodriguez. Newton is probably more of a point-guard than McClellan, and averages 4.5 APG. Newton is second on the team in scoring as well and loves to drive into the lane and finish at the rim. Angel Rodriguez is probably the most true-point guard on the team, however. Rodriguez has always been talented, but just hasn't seemed to pull his potential together, especially with his injury history. Over half of Rodriguez's shot attempts are three-pointers, so the Hokies will need to defend him at the arc first, even though he's only shooting 29% from three. But he's the best passer on the team, with 28.9% of his team's buckets coming off of his assists while he's on the floor. However, his Turnover Percentage of 17.1% shows that he can be prone to bad decisions at times. But his lightning quickness is something the Hokies will need to be mindful of.
Tonye Jekiri will make life tough on the Hokies because of his ability to rebound the ball. At 7-0, he stands much taller than anyone on the Hokies' roster (that actually get significant minutes), and can simply outmuscle anyone who gets in his way. Given the Hokies' horrific rebounding over this last stretch of games, it's a good bet Jekiri will be a problem down low. He will also likely be on the receiving ends of lobs, another aspect the Hokies have struggled defending this season.
The Hurricanes will be the fourth straight team the Hokies play that don't push the pace of play too often. Miami ranks 279th in Possessions/40 minutes. But they are a very efficient team. Miami boasts the 20th best Offensive Rating in the NCAA, and their TS% of 57.9% ranks 28th. They've made strides since previous years in taking more efficient shots and it shows in the win column. Hopefully the break the Hokies had over the last week gives them a lot of energy, because they'll need it to guard every threat the Hurricanes have.
Miami has improved offensively, but they still win games defensively. They're allowing just under 66 PPG during conference play and their Defensive Rating is 74th in the country. On top of that, only one team has scored more than 80 points against them (NC State). The Hokies were dreadful against UVA, having more turnovers than Field Goals Made at halftime. Miami might be even more athletic than Virginia which means that Virginia Tech needs to be extra careful with the basketball, because Sheldon McClellan or Rodriguez could easily intercept errant passes. And with their speed, it could turn into two points the other way before Buzz can take off his jacket and start yelling at his players.
In Miami's four losses, the one thing their opponents did very well is shoot the ball, combining to shoot 49% from the field, including 46% from three. Because of their speed, the Hurricanes can play aggressive defense, which leaves holes for good teams to exploit. Virginia Tech has to know when one side of the floor is overplayed and also know how and when to switch the point of attack without committing egregious turnovers. That way they can generate open looks and stay in the game, if they make their shots.
Teams don't tend to shoot a lot of threes against Hurricanes. Opponents have a .299 three-point attempt rate against Miami, which ranks 331st in the country. One reason is because they close out hard, seldom giving shooters space to get an uncontested look at the basket. Another reason is because Miami's defense often allows teams to get good looks from midrange. Teams shoot 47.5% from 2-point range on the Hurricanes. The Hokies need to be able to attack pockets of space in front of Jekiri and hit some floaters or midrange jumpers, which admittedly, hasn't been a strength.
Because free throws are how the Hokies seemingly score half their points these days, it's important to note that Miami doesn't foul all that much. Opponents have had a .284 Free Throw Rate against the Hurricanes. Meanwhile the Hokies' Free Throw Rate has declined from .507 (led the NCAA) to .490 (4th). If I were Buzz, I would give Chris Clarke the green light to attack the basket like his life depends on it. Prior to his injury, he was getting to the basket with ease, albeit against lesser competition. Against UVA, however, he was able to be aggressive and had multiple dunks and tacked on three made free throws. It's hard to put that much on a player's plate who's coming off an injury like that, but Buzz might have to do it.
Before doing this preview, I didn't think Miami was as impressive as their record showed. Maybe that's just me being biased about the Hurricanes having bad basketball teams as of late. But I will admit, they have been outstanding this year and deserve every bit of that #11 ranking. They're on a hot streak, and the Hokies have gone ice cold. For the simple reason of how both teams have played recently, I'm going with a Miami win. Hopefully Buzz drew something new up on his clipboard in the last week.
Miami 76-62 VT.