For the third straight season, Virginia Tech booked their ticket to the big dance. If the third time is truly the charm, this tournament will be different than in the previous two years.
The best weekend of sports is upon us as the No. 4-seeded Hokies travel to San Jose to face their first round opponent in the East Region, the No. 13-seeded Saint Louis Billikens. The history of this matchup is sparse with eight games total between the two programs, and just one contest since 1982. However, that one game was a recent one, as the Billikens upset the Hokies 77-71 in the Atlantic City classic in 2017-18. Needless to say, Saint Louis will be looking for a similar result Friday night.
Virginia Tech heads to California with their highest tournament seed in program history. The Hokies went 24-8 (12-6 in the ACC) this year amidst injuries, NCAA “violations”, and suspensions to important pieces of the team. This has been one of Buzz Williams’ most remarkable coaching jobs, and frankly one of the best showings a coach has put on in the country this season.
Under head coach Travis Ford, the Billikens finished the regular season with a 23-12 overall record, with a 10-8 mark in A10 conference play. Despite being only two games over .500 in conference play and finishing sixth in a mid-major conference, Saint Louis won four straight games in the A10 tournament to qualify for an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament.
While that run earned the Billikens a tournament berth, many of their numbers point to them being a team ranked outside the top 68. Saint Louis could easily be labeled a mediocre offense, generating an opponent-adjusted 1.02 points per possession, ranking 199thin the NCAA per T-Rank and 205thper KenPom. With the Hokies improved defense this season, they should not have much trouble containing the Billikens’ offense, as they have had success shutting down much more efficient teams this season.
The two factors contributing to Saint Louis’ success was their defense and their offensive rebounding, which results in a slower pace of play. Generally, the Billikens do well when possessions are limited, so this game will be on the low scoring side (Vegas set the over/under at 126). During Saint Louis’ conference tournament, there were a total of 118 possessions on average. For reference, the Hokies only had two games this season where the possession count was that low. Buzz Williams will likely urge his team to push the pace of the game to take Saint Louis out of their comfort zone, as he has done throughout his tenure.
The Billikens have an adjusted defensive efficiency of 96.4, but they excel at making teams take inefficient or contested shots. Virginia Tech has become one of the most efficient offenses in the NCAA, finishing ninth in the country with an effective field goal percentage of 56.4 percent. Saint Louis’ defense has held teams to a 46.9 percent effective field goal percentage, ranking twenty-sixth in the country. In a battle of analytics, it would be a fair bet to say that whichever team comes closer to hitting their average with their respective offense or defense will have a better chance to win the game.
When the Hokies fell to the Billikens in 2017, two of Tech’s biggest issues were defensive rebounding and allowing Saint Louis to continuously attack the paint. Luckily for the Hokies, they have shored up both areas of the defense because Saint Louis remains strong in both areas. The Billikens rebound an impressive 36.1 percent of their missed shots (ranks 13th), while only allowing opponents to rebound 25.1 percent of their misses (48th). Virginia Tech still struggles at times keeping their opponents off the glass, ranking just 146thin defensive rebound percentage. Saint Louis will crash the glass early to deter the Hokies from getting into their lethal fast break offense and slow the game down.
Stylistically, the Billikens would prefer to attack the paint instead of the perimeter. A contrasting style from their opponent, only 32.6 percent of Saint Louis’ shot attempts come from behind the arc, which ranks near the bottom in the NCAA. Typically, you will see teams that don’t let it fly from three be more selective with their shots and therefore have a higher three-point percentage on lower volume. That is not the case with Saint Louis, who is simply a bad shooting team. They have only made 30.8 percent of their three’s this season, an abysmal number. In a tournament that favors shot making and guard play, Virginia Tech has a sizable edge in this area.
Virginia Tech, barring an unforeseen change in philosophy, will certainly have more three-point attempts than the Billikens. Saint Louis trades off those three-point attempts for free throw attempts, as they rank 28thin free throw rate. But remember, Saint Louis is a bad shooting team, and that applies to their prowess at the charity stripe as well. The Billikens shot 59.8 percent from the free throw line this year. Only two of their players shoot over 70 percent from the stripe and none shoot over 80 percent. Essentially, the Hokies basically send a Ben Simmons-level free throw shooter to the line every time they foul Saint Louis.
The Hokies have one of the best defenses at forcing turnovers in the country and they will have a great opportunity to continue doing so on Friday. Saint Louis has been below average at taking care of the rock, giving it away on 19 percent of their possessions, ranking 211thin the NCAA. While Tech may not reach their season average of forcing a turnover on 21.7 percent of possessions, they will be able to create transition baskets and disrupt the Billikens’ rhythm often enough to take control of the game.
6’3” G - Jordan Goodwin
6’1” G - Tramaine Isabell
6’6” G - Javon Bess
6’8” F - DJ Foreman
6’7” F - Hasahn French
6’1” G – Justin Robinson
6’5” G – Ahmed Hill
6’5” G – Nickeil Alexander-Walker
6’6” F – Ty Outlaw
6’10” F – Kerry Blackshear
|8||Fred Thatch Jr||35||2||19.6||1.5||4.0||.364||0.9||2.1||.440||0.5||1.9||.277||0.9||1.5||.611||1.2||1.5||2.7||0.8||0.8||0.3||0.8||2.3||4.4|
Overall, Saint Louis has size across the board but not great top-end height. Tech plays with an equally small starting lineup, aside from the 6’10” Kerry Blackshear. Because the Hokies are used to being the smaller team in most matchups, they should be prepared to handle the Billikens on the glass and in the paint. Another similarity between the two rosters is how deep each coach typically goes into their bench – both Travis Ford and Buzz play about seven to eight players per game.
The Billikens’ leading scorer is 6’6” senior Javon Bess who averages 15 points per game, but does so rather inefficiently, converting only 39.6 percent of his shot attempts. In conference play, that number dropped to just 36.4 percent. The Hokies will live with him taking outside jumpers, but must be wary of him getting into the paint where he excels at getting to the free throw line and finishing through contact. Bess is Saint Louis’ best free throw shooter, hitting on 78 percent of his charity stripe attempts. The senior is also instrumental to the Billikens’ rebounding, as he rebounds 17 percent of opponents’ missed shots, a significant number for a guard.
Saint Louis’ best playmaker by the numbers is another senior, Tramaine Isabell. Isabell possesses the highest usage rate on the team at 25.3 percent, and teammates are often dependent on him to get them open looks. However, he can be careless with the ball at times and is the main culprit when Saint Louis catches the turnover bug. He is second on the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game and leads the team with 3.7 assists per game.
When the Hokies are in their matchup zone, look for Justin Robinson to guard Isabell and Ahmed Hill to take on the challenge of guarding Javon Bess. And speaking of Justin Robinson…
The return of Justin Robinson cannot be overstated, but it may be a little optimistic to expect him to be back to pre-injury form in his first game back. The Hokies have been somewhat successful over the last three weeks initiating their offense through a combination of Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear, but Robinson adds a dynamic playmaker to the team and provides another scoring threat.
With Robinson out, Virginia Tech only shot above their season average three out of twelve games. Some nights, no one could shoot the ball, such as the loss at home to Virginia where the Hokies went 3-of-28 from three. Robinson will help add a bit of consistency to the Hokies’ shooting, particularly from behind the arc.
Running the offense through Blackshear has been successful as the junior big man has garnered national recognition for his excellent play. Buzz should not abandon those sets now that Robinson is back, as those players could be deadlier with Robinson back in the fold. For example, running the high post split with Nickeil and Robinson either cutting or respacing on the perimeter can be a headache for the defense to guard. Blackshear has proven himself to be a capable passer and decision maker in those situations as well.
Jordan Goodwin is the final backcourt player in the starting lineup for Saint Louis, but he doesn’t exactly add much offensive firepower. He is third on the team in usage, scoring 10.6 points per game and has some value as a playmaker. However, he is second on the team in Defensive Win Shares and will probably be given the task to guard Justin Robinson or Nickeil Alexander-Walker, depending on who Travis Ford wants Javon Bess to defend.
Hasahn French and DJ Foreman start in the front court for the Billikens, and both will have to guard Kerry Blackshear at some point, which tips in Blackshear’s favor. French averages 9.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, all while living in the paint or the dunker’s spot. He has not attempted a three and very few long two’s. If he is in a position to score, the Hokies may be better off committing a foul and sending French to the free throw line where he shoots 34.6 percent.
DJ Foreman offers more of the same with slightly less volume, chipping in with 5.9 points and 4.4 boards per game. However, French and Foreman are both players that Buzz Williams would love to have on his team due to their motor, intensity, and energy. They show plenty of grit and fight, and when you get to March, sometimes that is half the battle to pulling off an upset.
Keys to the Game:
1. Keep Kerry Blackshear out of foul trouble, as always.
2. Keep the Billikens’ offensive rebound percentage under 20 percent.
3. Dare Saint Louis to beat you with the three.
4. Given the talent disparity, I imagine that Saint Louis will sit in a zone and pack the paint on at least 70 percent of possessions. Tech will have to make some open threes early to open them up.
5. Don’t overthink it. Give the rock to Robinson, Blackshear, or Nickeil and let them create offense if need be.
Virginia Tech has not gotten this favorable of a matchup in program history due to their seed. The Hokies match up quite well with the Billikens, as Tech’s greatest strengths coincide with Saint Louis’ weakness. The Hokies can hold their own in the paint and have been quite good defensively this season.
For you gamblers out there, that’s VT -10.5 and Over 126.