The time has finally come. Weeks after every other ACC team has done so, Wake Forest will open its conference schedule on Dec. 30, with Virginia Tech making the trip down to the Joel to kick things off. With that, let’s preview this one.
Teams: Wake Forest (8-3, 0-0 ACC), Virginia Tech (9-3, 1-0 ACC)
Date: Dec. 30
Time: 2pm ET
Location: LJVM Coliseum; Winston-Salem, NC
The 2020-21 season, Steve Forbes’ first at Wake Forest, saw two losses come at the hands of the Hokies, and neither were relatively close. The Deacs fell 64-40 and 84-46. Since then, though, Wake Forest has beaten Virginia Tech in back-to-back seasons. That includes an 80-61 away drubbing in 2021-22, the year VT went on to win the ACC Tournament.
Virginia Tech sits above Wake Forest on just about every ranking site available, but not by a wide margin. KenPom and NET both have the Hokies hovering around No. 49 at the time of publication. BPI, ESPN’s ranking metric, interestingly has Wake Forest ranked much higher than others at No. 39. They place Virginia Tech nearby at 37.
According to KenPom, one of the Hokies’ greatest strengths is their balance on both sides of the court. The team’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings rank within the top 65 — defense is the stronger of the two at No. 53. Virginia Tech is an exceptional free-throw shooting team at No. 7 in the nation, but not as strong shooting from the field. Neither two-point or three-point percentage crack the top 95, with shots from behind the arc lagging at No. 165.
As for the ACC, Virginia Tech is 12th in scoring (74.4 ppg), 3rd in defense (64.4 opp ppg), 12th in three-point shooting (33.7%) and 11th in field goal percentage (44.9%).
In other statistics, Wake Forest and the Hokies prove to be rather comparable. The two squads are neck-and-neck for total rebounding and offensive boards at 13th and 14th in the conference respectively. They’re also 9th and 10th in defensive rebounding, and 8th and 9th in three-point percentage.
Virginia Tech is an impressive squad on defense, holding opponents under 70 in seven of 12 contests. In a solid win over Vermont, the Catamounts scored just two points in the first 13 minutes of the game, allowing the Hokies to jump to a 26-4 lead and ride that wave home.
The issue is when Virginia Tech doesn’t score points. Two of its three losses have come when the team didn’t reach 60.
Best Win: 71-62 over Iowa State (Neutral, Nov. 24)
Troubling Loss: None, but if forced to give; 79-77 defeat to South Carolina (Neutral, Nov. 10)
Unlike Wake Forest, Virginia Tech has had a rather fluid starting lineup over its first 12 games. The Hokies are a team that is still trying to figure things out with personnel, but recently, it seems like they’ve found what they’re looking for.
Despite losing stars Justyn Mutts and Grant Basile to graduation, along with Rodney Rice leaving the team in October, this is still a squad with significant talent.
G Sean Pedulla
Pedulla is the machine for Virginia Tech as the main ball-handling guard. He boasts the highest usage on the team at just over 28% of possessions per KenPom, while averaging 13 points per game, 38% from the field and 4.2 assists. He’s been dealing with an injury as of late, and was forced to miss VT’s most recent game against American. Reports say that him not playing was a precautionary measure, but it remains something to keep an eye on as Dec. 30 nears.
G Hunter Cattoor
Cattoor is the other key guard of the leading Hokie duo. While Pedulla leads the team in possession usage, Cattoor sits at the top for minutes per game with 31.4. He’s started every contest for Virginia Tech, averaging 14 points-per-game, a 34% field-goal rate and is a sharpshooter from deep, knocking down 38.3% of his attempts. Cattoor leads the team in threes by a large margin.
G Tyler Nickel
The final starting guard for VT is a name many ACC folks will recognize despite this being his first year with the Hokies — Nickell transferred from North Carolina this past offseason. He averages 25 minutes per game and is proving to be a secondary three-point threat. After coming off the bench in his first six games, Nickel has started the past five for VT, perhaps now finding his role in a new lineup.
F Mekhi Long
Long, a 6’7” transfer from Old Dominion, will be the starting forward to likely matchup with Andrew Carr, presenting an intriguing height disparity. Though the starter, Long is averaging just 20 minutes per game, adding four points and five rebounds. Like Nickel, Long is a recent starter, joining the first five on the court for the last three games. In those games though, his minutes usage has decreased from previous appearances.
C Lynn Kidd
Like Pedulla, Kidd is a premier player for Virginia Tech, and perhaps the most impactful player that will hit the court for the Hokies on the 30th. He has started all 12 games, averaging 24 minutes, 71% on field goals, 16.5 points-per-game and eight rebounds. At 6’10”, he is relative in height — but slightly smaller — than Carr and Wake Forest center Efton Reid, but that matchup will prove to be critical in the paint. Kidd boasts the second-highest true-scoring-percentage in the country per KenPom, highlighting his incredible scoring ability as a big, athletic post player with a variety of moves.
The Depth Pieces
G MJ Collins
Collins averages 21.6 minutes per game, so he is certainly a player the Deacs must prepare for. But, he’s not a big-time scorer, averaging roughly five points per game.
F Robbie Beran
Beran, a Northwestern transfer, is the complement to Long at the four, averaging 19 minutes per game. He started the first 9 for the Hokies, before giving way to Long over the last three.
G Brandon Rechsteiner
Despite being a freshman, Rechsteiner has played in all 12 games for the Hokies, and started two. He is averaging 13 minutes per game, and might be the player to step to the plate in the starting five if Pedulla is unable to go.
F Mylyjael Poteat
Poteat is the final notable bench player for Virginia Tech, averaging 13 minutes per game while playing in all 12. He also brings 5.6 points per contest to the table.
Essex’s Take, Keys to the Game
This is a critical game for Wake Forest to win. Getting started on the right note in conference play would mean a lot for the Demon Deacons, especially considering the road ahead. Potentially being 4-0 in conference play before a home date with Virginia in the second week of January is not out of the question. More importantly, a win like this — including some of the “metrics” glory that would likely accompany it — has the makings of a statement to the conference and the country, a message that this team is not to be taken lightly.
In order for the Deacs to start 1-0 in conference play, though, some possible “Keys to the Game” must be taken into account.
Avoid the slow starts
In its past three wins over Quad 4 teams, Wake Forest has gotten off on the wrong foot, turning games that should be blowouts into close contests at halftime. Though the Deacs were soon able to turn those games into comfortable victories, the type of play that saw Delaware State lead by six a quarter in will not fly. Virginia Tech has proven what it can do with early advantages. Even a six-to-eight point WF lead early on might be enough to stunt a Virginia Tech blitz in the first half.
Win the battle at the five
For Wake Forest to defeat Virginia Tech, one would think Efton Reid handling Lynn Kidd would play a key part in it. It is going to be a physical challenge in the middle; VT is a team that loves to feed the ball inside to Kidd and get a large amount of high-percentage shots through him. Reid standing tall and playing hard defense to nullify him would be a huge boon for the Deacons.
Additionally, Reid’s size is critical to Wake Forest’s success on the boards. The Deacs have, at times, struggled rebounding the ball on both the defensive and offensive end, but the addition of Reid to the lineup has done much to fix it. If he can earn Wake some extra possessions on offense, while eliminating them on the other end for Virginia Tech, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Defend the three-point line
Virginia Tech is not a fantastic three-point shooting team, but it has guys who can get hot from behind the line and make Wake Forest’s day far less enjoyable on defense. The Deacs also have a tendency to be heavy-handed with help on defense, which can sometimes leave other players open for shots. With this in mind, keeping open shots to a minimum and defending up to the three-point line can mitigate some of that Virginia Tech scoring potential from deep.
Commit to defense and rebounding
This came up a bit in the Efton Reid key, but Wake Forest can sometimes be a touch behind on defense and rebounding. At other times though, the Deacs have shown what a complete threat they can be, especially with aggressive defense.
There is no doubting the threat of the Wake Forest offense, but when combined with adept rebounding and grittiness on defense, that is a Deacons team that is very hard to beat. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll surely say it again, but when Wake Forest puts those three things together for consistent stretches, it turns into a basketball team that can put an opponent on its backside in the flip of a switch.
As mentioned before, Virginia Tech has an advantage in this being its second ACC game, whereas it is the conference opener for Wake Forest. With that in mind, I do expect things to start off at a slower pace and be more back-and-forth at the jump. Perhaps, the Deacs might enter halftime with a slim lead or deficit.
But, what Wake Forest has proven recently is the importance of a trip to the locker room. In several games, the Deacs come back from halftime with new life, and promptly snatch the game away. I envision a similar reality on Saturday. While the game may be close at times, the Deacs are the type of team to put together a back-breaking late run and secure the victory.
Wake Forest wins 72-63