Monday, February 04, 2008

VA Tech BB Preview: NC State & Miami

With two big, big wins in the past week, the Hokies are right on track for an NCAA tournament bid. Currently, Tech sits third in the ACC pyramid. The league will likely land at 7 teams in the dance, so if the Hokies can stay in the conference’s top 5, they’ll be in the dance: period.

Did you see this coming? I didn’t. Can it last? Let’s see:

at NC State (14-7, 3-4 ACC)

The ‘Pack is a team with eerily similar stats to VA Tech this year. Tech’s scoring 69.2 points a game; NC State scores 67.6. Tech gives up 63.3 a night; the Wolfpack give up 66.6. Both teams are 2-4 on the road; Tech is 9-1 at home, NC State is 9-2.

So, why in teams that fill a box score so similarly (at least right now), has one squad dominated the other so much? NC State has won the last five meetings in the series, dating back to a January 19, 2005 one point Tech win. The run got particularly rough last year as the Wolfpack swept three meetings by an average of 14.7 points an outing.

Last year, NC State exerted dominance in the paint, abusing Tech’s undersized squad with an abundance of height. Senior Gavin Grant is back for another swing through the league; the 6-foot-7 old reliable from the Bronx is having a year that mirrors his 2007 ACC campaign. Grant is averaging 14 points and 4.4 boards a year, numbers that are slightly down in correlation with an average of five less minutes a night from last year. As you see so often in players’ senior years, Grant has finally begun to value the basketball, dropping his turnover numbers from 4.2 last year to 2.2 this year. That’s two extra possessions he’s keeping in the Wolfpack’s hands this year. That’s good stuff.

Grant’s been around; J.J. Hickson is the new sheriff in town. NC State’s leading scorer is a young buck, a 6-foot-9 freshman from Marietta, Georgia. By the time Hickson is done in Raleigh, I’m predicting he’s one of those players that seems like he’s been around forever. Most of the ACC is already sick of his 15.0/8.4 average. Hickson is a consistent scorer, with 7 of his last 8 games in the 10-16 point range, and he’s come on strong lately off the glass, snaring 4 straight double-doubles. One thing he obviously hasn’t learned to do yet is take care of the ball as well as Grant. Hickson turns the ball over almost 3 times a game. Tech will be forced to double him in the post early and often. Yep, the Hokies will be committing a lot of their defensive resources to double downs on Hickson. So who’s the real difference maker in the game?

My money’s on Courtney Fells, NC State’s third-leading scorer and most frequent three point threat. With Tech devoting bodies to Hickson, there are going to be kick outs. Fells will be the recipient of his share of dishes, and if he gets hot, it’s probably game over for the Hokies. When Fells runs cold, as he did against Duke (0-for-5 FG), and Michigan State (0-for-7 FG), the Wolfpack get bombed. When he’s hot, as he has been in making 50% of his threes in five of the last six games, this is a dangerous NC State team.

Prediction: It’s really hard for me to pick against a team that has owned the Hokies since 2005. The ‘Pack still has big bodies, and Fells has been red hot lately. Too much Fells; the streak runs to 6. NC State by 8.

Miami (15-6, 2-5 ACC)

Consider yourself warned: this team has moxie. The Hurricanes battled Duke like few teams have this year, trading punch for metaphorical punch, and doling out more than a few real ones as well before succumbing late down the stretch, 88-73.

Junior Jack McClinton is the rock ‘em-sock ‘em heart and soul of this Canes squad. McClinton is a feisty one; he can score in bunches, make great passes, commit egregious turnovers, and all the rest. He’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get – except heart, and a lot of it.

Sophomore James Dews is a relative newbie in the McClinton mode who’s earned his keep this year, along with a bunch more playing time, by being a solid three-point option. Dews has raised his percentage beyond the arc from 27.6% to 41.7% - a dramatic and necessary improvement. Dews mailed in 20 against Georgia Tech and 17 at Providence – two of the ‘Canes biggest wins of the season.

Fifth year senior Anthony King is the inside threat most likely to bust the Hokies’ chops. In his fifth year in a ‘Canes outfit, King is about as steady as big men get. For four straight years, King has been a rock, averaging between 6 and 9 points a game and 7 and 9 boards. This year – he’s improved in a couple corollary categories. Never before has King boasted an assist:turnover ratio higher than .68; this year, it’s 1.24. To make the problem worse, you can’t just hammer away on King if he’s going off. His 73% FT percentage is great by big man standards; if one player on the ‘Canes is likely to have a break out game and break the Hokies’ back, it’s this guy.

Prediction: I don’t see Tech losing this game at home. Miami’s success has been come on its home court in south Florida, and they haven’t much north of Interstate 4. There’s too much at stake as Tech tries to hold serve this weekend; Vassallo goes for 18, and it’s Hokies by 11.

Monday, January 21, 2008

VA Tech BB Preview: Duke & Boston College

As Tech’s trip toward postseason play marches on, it’s back to Cassell on Thursday for the annual anticipated throwdown with ACC bully, Duke. Just 45 hours later, the Hokies will be in Chestnut Hill tipping off against Boston College. What’s in store for January’s fourth week? Let’s check it out.

DUKE (15-1, 3-0 ACC)

Biggest Win: Marquette, 77-73

Worst Loss: vs. Pitt, 65-64

The Devils are good. Anyone surprised by this information probably hasn’t watched a college basketball game in my lifetime, and certainly hasn’t been following the ACC, which Duke has dominated the last 15 years, earning numerous ACC titles and final four appearances.

This year’s edition of team Krzyzewski is a classic Durham outfit, scoring points in bunches (85.0 ppg, 9th nationally), preventing other teams from scoring (3rd nationally in victory margin, and just generally blowing everyone out that gets in their way (8 wins by 22 points or more).

DeMarcus Nelson leads the Devils in scoring (14.3), completing a career that’s steadily developed from a 6.2 ppg/4.5 rpg season as a freshman in 2004. The biggest change in Nelson’s numbers this year is a 50% jump in his assist-to-turnover ratio. Assists are up from 2.0 to 2.9, turnovers are down from 2.5 to 2.3. It’s hard to say exactly how to stop Nelson, since his greatest strength is his consistency. In 10 battles this year, Nelson’s been right between 9 and 16 points. In 12 games this season, he’s been between 5 and 8 rebounds. Nelson is hard to stop, and despite logging 32 minutes a game, he keeps himself in the game by not fouling much. However, despite being Duke’s leading scorer, he’s not a stone cold killer in the mold of JJ Redick or some of Coach K’s other great gunslingers. Keep him right around his average of 14, and Tech can win.

In what some suggested would be a rebuilding year for the Devils, the rebuilding might be starting with Kyle Singler. Singler is a long, 6-foot-8 freshman out of the great northwest that’s roaring out of the gates with a 13 point, 6 rebound a game average. Most impressive in these early stages of his career, Singler has already shown a proclivity for showing up in big games. The frosh dropped in 25 points against Marquette, 13 on just 7 shots against Wisconsin, and 17 against Pitt and Clemson. That’s an 18-per game average in what have probably been Duke’s biggest four games of the year. If he blows up, the Hokies have no chance to win. It’s that simple.

Duke’s other weapons are mostly young, too. Jon Scheyer, a sophomore from Chicago’s north shore, has come on strong lately, raising his average to 11 points a game with 8 double-figure outings in his last 10 games. Sophie Gerald Henderson has doubled his output to 13 a night off last year’s average of 6.8. Junior Greg Paulus has seen minutes, points, boards and assists all drop this year; is he being rested for the stretch drive? Time will tell.

Prediction: I know, I know: we’ve heard it all before – VA Tech can’t hang with Duke, they’re outmatched physically. The Hokies have battled Duke as well as anyone the last couple years, but I think they’re facing too high a mountain this time. Without Jeff Allen to match up on some of the Devils’ bigger bodies, VA Tech faces an even tougher battle. Duke by 13.


Biggest Win: Miami (Fl.), 76-66

Worst Loss: Robert Morris, 57-51

The BC Eagles have 12 wins in 17 games, but have benefited from one of the coziest early season schedules in the country. BC hasn’t had to leave Chestnut Hill for 5 games, and only three of those have been true road battles. BC’s list of early season victims isn’t impressive, save Maryland, the tally includes New Hampshire, Fl. Atlantic, Mercer, Rhode Island, Northeastern, Sacred Heart and Longwood. This is not a battle-tested 12-win team, and the seams are going to start to show during the ACC stretch drive.

Gone is Jared Dudley, but Tyrese Rice has picked up a big of his slack, logging 19.5 points and a clutch 5.3 assists an outing so far this season. Rice is quick, with fast hands (1.6 steals/game) and an ability to flat go off from the free throw line (11 straight FTs made in two games this year). You can’t foul him; he’s hard to guard. The absence of Allen in the middle will make his dribble drive penetration even more problematic.

The man literally filling Dudley’s spot has been Shamari Spears, a sophomore who’s burst in to the starting lineup by showing an aggressiveness and hunger for the basketball. Spears averages over 7 boards a night. Spears has a tendency to disappear in BC losses. Spears only contributed 6 against Kansas, 8 against Robert Morris and 8 against UMASS. When he’s not scoring and getting some putbacks, or worse, taking himself out of the game via foul trouble, the Eagles really struggle. I truly believe that the key to winning tough basketball games is stopping an opponent’s second and third options, not their first.

In that spirit, freshman Corey Raji can’t be allowed to go off either. Raji has been inconsistent as they come, pouring in 24 and 17 against Providence and Maryland but contributing less than 5 points several times. Looking down the BC roster, you see its full of two things: young players, and wide, stout bodies. Rakim Sanders, a 6-foot-5 freshman scores 12.3 points a game. Biko Paris is another freshman, but his specialty is dishing the ball, earning 2.5 assists a game in limited minutes. Sophomore Tyler Roche scores 5 points a game, and could do some damage this weekend.

Prediction: If this game were at Cassell, I’d be picking the Hokies. I don’t think the Eagles have road legs, but the scheduling committee has given VA Tech an extremely stout test. Less than two days after playing Duke, the Hokies have to take a fairly long road trip against a team that basically sleeps at their home arena. Blame the schedule makers. BC by 9.