Virginia Tech hits the road during finals week for their first meeting with Kentucky since 1996. The Wildcats enter the game at No. 8 in the AP Poll and look to jump up in the rankings, while Virginia Tech is looking for their first appearance in the AP Poll since this past January.
Over the last few seasons, the Hokies have played very few tough opponents in their non-conference portion of the schedule which hurt them on Selection Sunday. The result of Saturday’s showdown could provide a boost to their tournament hopes and prove that the Saint Louis loss was nothing more than a fluke.
We talked with Jason Marcum of A Sea of Blue to preview this game from an insider’s perspective.
Gobbler Country: Looking over Kentucky’s leading scorers per game this year is, in one word, ridiculous. All six of the Wildcats' top scorers are freshmen. The next four are sophomores. In general, how has the freshman class for Kentucky fared this year, and how does it compare to those over the past decade?
Jason Mercam: It's definitely not the star-studded class we've seen nearly every year under John Calipari. There is no Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox, Brandon Knight, John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns on this team, but there are also no reexperienced either. Guys like Isaiah Briscoe, Tyler Ulis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Darius Miller and Patrick Patterson, a talented veteran who helped keep freshmen from taking on too big of a workload
Kentucky doesn't have that, so that's why you're seeing so many freshmen make big contributions right away. Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have a world of talent and are becoming stars, but they're not quite there yet. I do think they'll both be there by March, but right now, they're going through enough growing pains to think this team will suffer through some unexpected bumps along the way.
GC: Overall, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this Kentucky team?
JM: The strength is length and athleticism. They use that to pound teams in the paint and basically play volleyball at the rim. They lead the nation in two-point rate but rank dead last in three-point rate. Almost all of Kentucky's points come from two-point shots because they've been able to bully just about every team they've faced, even if they are playing a zone defense.
But therein lies their weakness. They rarely get much production from deep, so it's going to be interesting to see how they hold up against teams like Virginia Tech, who have more size and athleticism than most of the cupcakes Kentucky has beaten.
GC: It has not been a secret that Virginia Tech’s weakness has been on the glass, where they struggle on both ends due to fielding smaller, quicker lineups than the opposition. Do you expect Kentucky to be able to take advantage of this weakness?
JM: Absolutely. In fact, I think Tech may just play this like an NBA game: Take their shots and get back on defense without making much of an effort to rebound. The Hokies want this game to turn into a shootout, because again, Kentucky may not be consistent enough from three-point range to keep up one of the highest-scoring offenses in college basketball.
GC: Who do you consider to be the Wildcat’s “go-to” player? What is one way Virginia Tech can game plan for him?
JM: Kevin Knox for sure, but the interesting thing about him is he's coming off his worst game of the season (1-of-9 shooting vs Monmouth), but other guys like PJ Washington and Hamidou Diallo stepped up enough that they really didn't need Knox. It remains to be seen if they can keep that up, but having that kind of balance would prevent teams from being able to gameplan on stopping just one guy like Knox, who's easily their most consistent player right now.
GC: Offensively, the Hokies have been on fire from behind the arc all season, shooting a combined 46.8% on their perimeter attempts. Obviously, that’s an absurd efficiency rate and it probably won’t be sustainable against a quality opponent on the road. Will Virginia Tech shoot above or below 37% (just throwing a random number out there) from three-point range in this game?
JM: Above. Harvard at one point had hit 7-of-14 from deep against Kentucky. This just isn't a good perimeter defense right now. They get killed on ball switches and have way too many breakdowns to keep a team like the Hokies from not getting a ton of points from deep.
The question will be can the Hokies keep it up for 40 minutes. Kentucky has managed to wear teams down and lower their shooting percentages in the second halves of games, so I think the key for Virginia Tech is having a big first half and getting a nice lead going into halftime to get the win.
GC: Virginia Tech loves to run the fast break, as KenPom ranks them 45th in Adjusted Tempo, whereas Kentucky ranks 160th in that category. How will Kentucky deal with a team that likes to increase the pace of play?
JM: Kentucky wants to play uptempo, but they just haven't had as many chances to thus far. Opponents know Kentucky struggles in the halfcourt, so they make it a point to get back on defense and prevent fast-break opportunities. If Tech wants to run, Kentucky will absolutely run with them.
GC: And finally, it’s prediction time. Who wins, and why?
JM: I really think this game really just comes down to are shots going down for the Hokies? Great jump-shooting teams can beat great teams if they're hot, but they can have some pretty awful losses if they're cold (i.e. Florida).
If the Hokies find their rhythm and get hot, it will be hard for Kentucky to keep up, but since this game is in Rupp and the Hokies haven't faced a team like this year, I give the home team the slight edge, 81-80.
We want to thank Jason for stopping by and answering our questions about what looks to be an exciting game. Feel free to follow him on Twitter if you have any more questions about the game.