The Hokies (5-1) will face their first true test of the season as they host Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Last season, Virginia Tech got a big non-conference win against Michigan in this competition which surely helped their NCAA tournament case. This year’s challenge provides another opportunity to replicate that result. The Hawkeyes travel to Blacksburg with a 4-2 record, with losses to South Dakota State and Louisiana-Lafayette - so losing to inferior opponents is something they have in common with the Hokies this season.
Iowa’s strength thus far has been scoring the basketball. Averaging 85 PPG, the Hawkeyes are scoring at a 50.9% clip, including 42.7% from behind the arc – good for 22nd in the country. They have shot at least 50% from the field in four of their six games this year, and are coming off a 60% shooting night against UAB.
The Hawkeyes have endured a bit of a youth movement over the last 18 months, as the top leading scorers on Iowa are either freshmen or sophomores. Isaiah Moss, a 6’5” guard, leads the team in scoring with 15.8 PPG. Paired with Moss in the backcourt is fellow sophomore Jordan Bohannon, who scores 14.5 per but is the primary playmaker for Iowa, leading the team with 5.2 assists per game. He has also produced 89 points total for Iowa, which also ranks first on the Hawkeyes.
However, the one player to watch out for is Tyler Cook. A 6’9” forward, Cook has the size and skill to pose plenty of problems for the Hokies on the interior. The sophomore is an emphatic finisher around the rim, unafraid of contact, while possessing the speed and dribbling ability to beat his man from the perimeter. Cook is averaging 6.2 rebounds per game in addition to 13.8 points per game, so he will be tough to contain on the glass as well. When the Hokies try to match up with Iowa, I suspect Chris Clarke will have a major part in trying to slow Cook down.
Luka Garza, a 6’11” four-star freshman, is Iowa’s top paint presence. He not only rebounds the ball at a high clip (Garza owns a 20.2% rebound rate), but can make life difficult inside for slashers. Garza is averaging 2.0 blocks per game so Kerry Blackshear and the rest of the Hokies must be wary of him when attacking the basket. Virginia Tech’s spacing could help neutralize Garza’s effect in the paint.
Jack Nunge, another 6’11” freshman, rounds out the starting five for Iowa, chipping in with a hair over 9 PPG. Despite his height, Nunge has the ability to space the floor, shooting 50% from three on 2.3 attempts per game.
Virginia Tech has not been great on the defensive end this season. You can pick any game to find miscues, miscommunications, and a lack of effort. Last Saturday’s game against Morehead State was a step in the right direction, but Iowa presents a much more difficult challenge. The Hokies cannot allow Jordan Bohannon to get easy penetration and find open players like Cook and Moss for uncontested shots as a result.
However, Iowa resembles the Hokies with a defense that has been just about average this season. Ranked 121st in KenPom’s Defensive Efficiency, the Hawkeyes have had trouble slowing teams down, especially in the last three games where their opponents have scored at least 80 points. Virginia Tech flirts with scoring 100 points seemingly every game, currently the only team in the country averaging triple-digits per game.
The primary reason for these high scoring outputs, aside from the level of competition, is that the Hokies are getting three points instead of two on many possessions. Virginia Tech is shooting the three ball at an otherworldly 49.6% clip – first in the nation. There are eight players shooting at least 40% from downtown. Buzz has loaded up the roster with shooters, and the Hokies have made (subpar) opponents pay from deep, even without Ty Outlaw. The Hokies should continue to share the ball to get the ball to open three-point shooters and drive into the paint off of that. This formula has worked so far, and has resulted in 22.2 team assists per game, the highest figure in the NCAA.
While the Hokies’ hot shooting has propelled them to an explosive start on the offensive end, Kerry Blackshear could be a key option down low if they need a bucket. The Hokies have fed the redshirt sophomore in the high post many times this season, and tried to get a shooter open with off-movement. Blackshear has the ability to be a scorer as well as a playmaker at that spot on the floor. I would not be surprised if the Hokies try to isolate a smaller defender on Blackshear and have him either score or create out of that situation if he sees a double.
One thing the Hokies have to improve upon is their turnover rate. Tech averages 15 turnovers per game, which is not excessive but it is enough to let a team get one too many opportunities to win the game. Taking care of the ball will also help their defensive efficiency, by forcing Iowa to grind the shot clock every possession.
Virginia Tech has run the fast break incredibly well under Buzz Williams and that trend has continued into 2017. Their pace of play can be overwhelming for opponents at times due to the Hokies’ team speed, playmaking ability, and athleticism. Iowa plays at an above average pace but have not been able to stick with some of the faster teams they have played. If the Hokies can play the game at their pace, it only increases their odds of winning. Iowa will try to slow the pace of play, however, to avoid giving the Hokies the opportunity to run the floor after a change of possession.
Virginia Tech, in my non-homer opinion, should win this game. They have the better offense, and have looked consistent on that side of the ball aside from the Saint Louis game. As long as the Hokies can get their shooters going, I see the Hokies feeding off the crowd’s energy to make momentum shots and stops on defense. Iowa will likely limit the amount of possessions each team has, but I’ll take the Hokies in a close, slightly less high-scoring game.