The #21 Hokies (12-1/1-0) travel to Raleigh on Wednesday night to take on the NC State Wolfpack (11-3/0-1). Virginia Tech won this matchup last year in their ACC opener in overtime, as the Hokies had to overcome a double digit deficit in the second half to get the win. The two teams had near opposite results last time they took the floor. NC State comes into this game after an 81-63 loss in Miami, while the Hokies 89-75 win over Duke has finally put them on the national radar.
NC State is similar to Virginia Tech in that they rely on the play of their guards and wings to get the job done on offense. The Wolfpack currently rank 29th in the country scoring 83.1 PPG. The top three scorers on the team are all guards, as they combine for nearly 50 per game.
The Wolfpack lost a huge piece in Cat Barber over the offseason to the NBA, but picked up outstanding freshman Dennis Smith Jr. in their 2016 recruiting class. Not only was he chosen as a preseason all-ACC freshman, Smith Jr. was also picked as a preseason all-ACC player in general. Scouts project him as a lottery pick this summer.
The five-star from Fayetteville has not disappointed so far. Smith has been a scoring machine through the first portion of the season, averaging 19.1 PPG with a 45.7/39.4/77.5 shooting split. Those are outstanding numbers for anyone, not just a freshman. Smith shows excellent vision as a playmaker, averaging 6.1 APG as well, including a game against Rider where he alone posted a whopping 16 assists. He is adept at drawing double teams and using his excellent vision to pick out the open man. This makes him a tough cover against zone defenses.
Smith is a Buzz Williams-type player. He has explosive handles that are rare to see for someone of his age. This makes Smith a defender’s nightmare on his way to the basket. And boy can he finish.
Smith’s sidekick in the backcourt, Terry Henderson, is second on the team in scoring with 15.8 PPG. He is one of the best shooters on the team, knocking down 40.9% of his three-point attempts. Henderson has the highest three-point attempt rate on the team, as just over 61% of his shot attempts are from downtown. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack’s third leading scorer, Torin Dorn (14.4 PPG), is statistically the best three-point shooter on the team as he makes 47.4% of his shots behind the arc. However, Dorn takes just 2.7 threes on average compared to Henderson’s 6.3. He prefers driving the ball over taking a jumper.
Virginia Tech will also need to be wary of another three-point threat in Maverick Rowan. In last year’s contest, Rowan was shut down, missing all four of his three-pointers. Rowan is shooting 34.5% from deep this year, and with all the other threats NC State has, it’s easy to forget he can hurt you as well.
While NC State does not possess bigs that can continually hurt the Hokies, they do have a few bodies that get the job done. Abdul-Malik Abu, a 6-8 junior from Boston, averages 11.6/7.3 per game and does an excellent job generating second chance opportunities on the offensive glass. The Hokies faced a similar player in Amile Jefferson against Duke and kept him off the glass for the most part but doing it on the road will be much more difficult. Crowds feed off of effort plays and Abu will look to provide them to make the environment that much more hostile for the Hokies. Another player to look out for is BeeJay Anya. The 6-9, 300-lb center is built more like an NFL lineman than a basketball player, but is a solid rim protector with a 9.4% Block Percentage.
Like the Hokies, NC State shoots the three ball very well. As a team, they hit on 38.8% of their long range attempts which ranks 55th in the NCAA. Interestingly, the Wolfpack have one of the lowest three-point attempt rates in the country as only 30.7% of their attempts are from deep. This is a team that does a good job getting into the paint and finishing at the rim. They also like to push the pace of play. I would not be surprised if Khadim Sy sees more minutes tonight to strengthen the defensive interior.
Defensively, the Wolfpack have not been good. Neither the raw nor the advanced statistics impress when it comes to that side of the ball. They currently give up 73.6 PPG, but that includes an outlier performance against Creighton where NC State gave up a whopping 112 points. Through thirteen games, Virginia Tech is averaging a hair over an excellent 84 PPG, albeit against a weak schedule. However, we saw what the Hokies did to a good defense against Duke – there will be ample opportunities to score against the Wolfpack as well.
Normally, Virginia Tech’s quickness advantage terrorizes defenses because they simply cannot stay in front of guys like Justin Robinson, Seth Allen, and Chris Clarke. NC State possesses better quickness than most teams, which presents a challenge. The Hokies have done a good job with both ball movement and player movement which should remain effective against this defense. Because of the athleticism of NC State, passes will have to be crisp and decisions will need to be made quicker.
The one thing that does scare me is the fact that Hokies shot the ball really well against Duke. Generally, shooting percentages go down below average the next game after a team shoots lights out against a big opponent. NC State’s mobility on the defensive end has helped on closeouts which is a major factor in only allowing teams to shoot 29.1% from downtown this season. Hill and Allen in particular have been superb shooters this year, and Justin Bibbs got out of his funk on Saturday, hitting four of his five three-point attempts.
Virginia Tech needs to take advantage of transition opportunities. Usually, whichever teams can generate the most “easy” opportunities for baskets wins the game, and on the road in a conference where winning is difficult as is, getting those easy basket chances will be rare. Chris Clarke has been unstoppable on the break at times this year, and a big performance by him would really set the Hokies up for success.
NC State has also struggled rebounding the ball. As of today, they are the 7th worst team in the NCAA in allowing offensive rebounds. Just as second chance opportunities for the Wolfpack can energize the crowd, second chance points for Virginia Tech can have the exact opposite effect. If Sy and LeDay can each battle on the glass for a few offensive boards, it can go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
It’s been over six years since the Hokies are playing a game as a ranked team, which is crazy to think about. But the journey isn’t close to over. NC State, even though they’ve disappointed over the last year and a half, will be a tough challenge for the Hokies. I actually think NC State matches up better defensively than Duke was able to against Virginia Tech. While the Wolfpack have been mediocre on defense, how the Hokies perform on defense will be the deciding factor. They have to keep Smith Jr. and company out of the paint. I see them doing that, although it will be a nail biter.