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NIT: VT vs Princeton Preview

Virginia Tech hosts Princeton in their first postseason basketball game in five years.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After being placed as the three seed, the Hokies will open their NIT schedule at home against Princeton. The winner of this game will likely travel to Utah to take on BYU, but that's not the Hokies' concern right now. Princeton, albeit an Ivy league team, posted a respectable 22-6 record this year including a 12-2 conference play record. Virginia Tech can't afford to come out flat.  Tournament games are always crazy and competitive, and falling asleep early could dig the Hokies a hole too deep to climb out of.

One of the reasons a good start is imperative is due to Princeton's offensive efficiency. The Tigers average 79 PPG and their 112.9 Offensive Rating ranks 29th in the entire NCAA. Granted, their strength of schedule wasn't very high. According to KenPom.com, Princeton's SoS was ranked 179th and the strength of their opponents' defenses was ranked 181st, which are right around average. The Hokies certainly are capable of slowing the Tigers' offense down.

Princeton's offensive philosophy is based on the three-point line. Over 44% of the Tigers shot attempts are from beyond the arc, which ranks 39th in the country. Because of this, the Hokies will need to ensure that they keep their eyes on the perimeter at all times and close out hard on shooters to keep them off rhythm. That's easier said than done when you look at the shooting percentages from downtown for each of Princeton's starters (or guys who get major minutes).

Player

3P%

PPG

Devin Canady

47.8%

11.6

Henry Caruso

46.8%

15.3

Spencer Weisz

39.3%

10.7

Steven Cook

37.1%

11.4

Amir Bell

35.9%

9.1

As you can see, Princeton is loaded with shooters. Virginia Tech struggled to defend the arc in the tournament against Miami, allowing the Hurricanes to knock down 44.4% of their outside attempts. It happened due to a multitude of reasons. Players made the wrong or late rotations, turnovers led to open court opportunities where perimeter players were left open, and there were a lot of tired legs from playing Florida State the night before. Not to mention McClellan and Rodriguez were hitting bombs, many of them contested. The Hokies actually limited conference opponents to shooting 30% from downtown which ranked 2nd in the ACC, showing that they can play good perimeter defense. They will need to get back to that form in order to effectively slow down the Tiger offense.

I like the Hokies' matchup in this one. They have played their basketball when Buzz inserts a small(er) lineup, allowing the Hokies to use their speed and quickness to get to the rim. Consequently, that meant it was tough to dominate the glass. While the Tigers do have an above average 51.9% Rebound Percentage, their players don't have great size or height. I think the Hokies could enjoy success on the boards, which is always a crucial element to winning. Guards Seth Allen and Justin Bibbs have been improved on the glass over the course of the last month, which not only has helped keep teams off the offensive glass but initiated early and successful offense in the open court. Look for Buzz to keep emphasizing that during this tournament, no matter how many games to Hokies get to play.

Because the Tigers like to attack teams with perimeter shooting they don't place an emphasis on getting to the rim. Princeton's Free Throw Attempt Rate is on the opposite spectrum of the Hokies. Princeton ranks 244th in that category. The Hokies have played tough interior defense as of late. Combining that with the fact that Princeton hasn't excelled inside the paint means that the Hokies' defense shouldn't have trouble silencing the Tigers' offense on the interior.

How the Hokies perform defensively might the primary factor in determining whether or not they get to go on to the next round. In each of Princeton's losses this season, they haven't shot above 46%.  Additionally, they were held in check from three-point range. Of course, it's March Madness and anything could happen.  If the Hokies play the kind of defense they are capable of, that should earn them the W.

Usually when you see a 3-point shooting team from a non-major conference, they aren't very strong on defense. However, Princeton has been solid defensively throughout the season. They are giving up 68 PPG and have a 97.1 Defensive Rating. Again, there remains the question of how much of that is due to level of competition and how much of that is a result of the quality of the team itself. Teams are shooting 44% against the Tigers, which ranked 2nd in the Ivy League, and is a solid number (for comparison, the Hokies allow teams to shoot 43.3% on them).

It's no secret what the Hokies' offensive philosophy will be in this match up. Their attacking style of play has been very good to them over the last seven. Against Princeton, that strategy should prove to be successful once again. The Tigers' opponents have been able to attack the interior effectively, making 47% of their 2-point shot attempts. It's not terrible, but it is an area to attack. Justin Robinson, who has been instrumental to the Hokies' run, has shown his handles and ability to get to the rim.  I anticipate a solid outing from him. Seth Allen has been outstanding when attacking the rim and was deadly from the free throw line during the ACC tournament (17-18 against Miami). If he can replicate that, then the Hokies can have success playing downhill basketball.

Ironically, Princeton's defense struggles when defending the three ball. Teams have been able to convert 35.2% of their long range attempts against the Tigers, which is well above average. That number jumped up to 36.6% during conference play. However, just because Princeton struggles defending the three-point line doesn't mean that the Hokies should be looking for open shots from the perimeter. The Hokies will find enough looks from deep by driving and moving the ball and giving clean catch-and-shoot opportunities to Bibbs and company.

The stat that has probably provided the best correlation between wins and losses for the Hokies has been turnovers. Princeton has been one of the better teams with taking care of the rock.  They have a 14.3% Turnover Percentage, which ranks 60th in the nation. Since the Tigers don't like to drive relatively often, the Hokies will need to jump passing lanes more often to create those turnovers. Chris Clarke, Seth Allen, Justin Robinson, and Jalen Hudson all have the quickness and the hands to disrupt passes, but jumping passing lanes is a risky strategy. The Hokies have proved to be a tough defense to play at home, and I expect the Cassell crowd to have a huge effect in the team's energy on the defensive end.

Prediction:

I've already explained what I think will happen in my initial reaction, and after writing this preview my opinion hasn't changed. I think the Hokies reward the home crowd and get to the next round of the tournament mainly because the Hokies have been more "battled tested" due to the level of competition difference between the two sides.

Hokies move on, 76-66.