Fresh off the first conference win of the season, Danny Manning will take this show on the road to Blacksburg tonight to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies. With the 77-74 win over N.C. State, the Deacs moved to 10-5 (1-2 ACC), but more importantly were able to secure a win at home over a team slated to finish around Wake in the ACC standings.
Sitting at 10-5 at the halfway point of the season, the Demon Deacons have put themselves squarely on the bubble with the bulk of conference play remaining. Although it is still early in the season, a road win tonight over the Hokies is an integral step for Wake to keep their NCAA postseason hopes alive.
Virginia Tech enters this game as one of the early surprises in conference play. After a sloppy loss in the opener to a terrible Alabama State team, Hokies head coach Buzz Williams has the team trending in the right direction. Despite a setback in the last outing in Cameron (but let's be honest, who doesn't suffer setbacks in Cameron?), Virginia Tech sits at 10-6 overall (2-1 ACC).
After holding serve in similar fashion against N.C. State in the conference opener at home, the Hokies stunned in-state rival Virginia 70-68 to move to 2-0 in conference play before the aforementioned loss to Duke. With a win tonight, the Hokies will likely be sitting in the top 5 in the conference through four games - likely something nobody saw coming when ACC play kicked off.
Virginia Tech is ranked 126th in KenPom (compared to Wake at 98th) and comes into this contest with a 2-5 record against top 100 teams (wins over N.C. State and Virginia). Wake on the other hand is seeking to snag its sixth win away from home this season, which includes three road wins over top 100 competition. The Deacs have not really played anyone similar to Virginia Tech in the rankings, with the closest to Virginia Tech's ranking (126) coming against 152nd Bucknell, a team Wake dispatched 90-82 behind a dominant second half in the second game of the season.
In order for Wake to win this game, they are going to need to work on getting the ball inside early and often and establish an interior presence. The Hokies love to pound the rock inside when they're in possession which leaves the Wake bigs susceptible to foul trouble. Deacon fans saw the value in getting opposing post players into early foul trouble in the last contest against the Wolfpack, where both Anya and Abu were saddled with fouls from the get go, and Wake will need to avoid a taste of their own medicine tonight to keep Devin, Dinos, and John Collins out on the floor for extended periods of play.
The Hokies shoot the 15th fewest threes in the nation relative to the number of total shots they take, shooting threes on only 26% of their shots. In contrast, Wake takes 7% more threes than the Hokies and are still well outside the top half of three-point shooting teams in the country (ranked 230th). The biggest inside threat Virginia Tech will throw at the Deacs will be Zach LeDay, a junior transfer from South Florida. LeDay averages 30 minutes a game and chips in 14.9 points per contest alongside 9.4 rebounds a game.
The LeDay-Thomas matchup will be an intriguing one as both guys are an important part of the offense. This game may be won or lost based on who can stay out of foul trouble between these two, and maybe even more importantly, who can initiate foul trouble with the other one. We know Devin is able to draw fouls based not only the last game against State, but the fact that he draws 8.4 fouls per 40 minutes, good enough for 5th in the nation. LeDay is not quite as good as Devin at drawing fouls, but still draws 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes and has a top 150 ranking in that statistic. This all adds up to a battle between these two inside where the biggest question may be who can avoid foul trouble and stay on the court.
Aside from LeDay, the rest of the Virginia Tech team is good as a whole at getting to the charity stripe. They rank 8th in the nation in free throws attempted per field goals attempted, and even with freshman Chris Clarke out indefinitely with a fractured foot suffered over the winter break, has averaged 22 free throws a game in conference play (in fact, in an odd situation, they've shot exactly 22 free throws in each of their three conference games).
Another guy to keep an eye on is Maryland transfer Seth Allen, who after sitting out last year has come to Blacksburg and brought an extremely high usage rate with him. Despite sitting at a 92.3 individual offensive rating, likely due primarily to a 27% mark from outside on 80 shots, Allen's usage rate is almost 30% which ranks 55th in the country. Allen will get a lot of touches and will likely put up a lot of shots as he averages almost 14 points a game.
Even though the Hokies don't shoot a lot of threes (and even when they do, they shoot them poorly at just above 33%), one guy Wake can't let stay open is sophomore Justin Bibbs who is shooting a torrid 57% from outside and ranks 4th in the nation in three point percentage. Wake will also need to win the battle of the boards, particularly making sure that they can limit second-chance points from Virginia Tech who is a very good offensive rebounding team. If Devin is able to dominate the interior from the outset and put some pressure on the Virginia Tech bigs, the Hokies may look to stretch the court a little bit more and settle into a game they are not comfortable with: shooting the three ball.
I believe that even though Wake has multiple ways that they could come out in this game, the most important is going to be for Devin to continue his hot start to conference play. He was essentially a superstar against Duke and State and although he had a couple issue against the Devils, was able to reign that in a bit and just take State to town. If he plays well and wins the matchup with LeDay, I really like Wake to win.
All that being said - and maybe I'm an eternal pessimist - this feels like the type of road game that Wake will be in control of for large portions with multiple chances to stretch the lead out to double digits, but will ultimately blow down the stretch. I hope I'm wrong, but this has the classic feel of a Wake Forest road letdown against a team they can (and need to) beat. I pick Virginia Tech 67-65 in a close one. KenPom somewhat agrees but thinks it will be higher scoring at 77-75 Virginia Tech (60% chance of winning).
The game tips off at 9 P.M. on regional networks and ESPN3 (outside the ACC viewing area). If you're in the Virginia area get over to Blacksburg and support our Deacs. This team is fun to watch and it's the first team that has been remotely near the NCAA bubble in five or six years. I hope the Deacs come out ready to play and dominate VPI to move back to 2-2 in ACC play. As always, go Deacs!