By one reckoning, Virginia Tech really should be favored Saturday night over Duke: no one has played better in Brooklyn than the Hokies. Just look:
- Clemson was playing championship-level basketball. Virginia Tech was better and confident enough to pull Keve Aluma on the final play which essentially announced they were going to live or die on a three. That took huge balls - and confidence.
- The Hokies just dismantled Notre Dame early and held on to beat the Irish who are an equally adept offensive team.
- Then UNC swaggered into Brooklyn, certain they had arrived. Well, no one told Virginia Tech because they broke that game open late in the first half and just picked UNC apart for the rest of the game.
It’s hard to overstate how impressive Virginia Tech was against the Tar Heels. Part of us were rooting them on; the other part was thinking oh crap, this team has really gotten good and now they're a nightmare.
They did this in spite of Armando Bacot hitting 9-10 for 19 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
But Bacot hit nine of UNC’s 22 baskets. Brady Manek hit 4-10 and whiffed on all five threes. RJ Davis shot 2-10. Caleb Love chucked up 17 and hit just three. He was also 2-10 on threes and UNC, as a whole, was 3-26.
That’s 11.5 percent and 36 .7 percent overall.
Take Bacot out of it and UNC shot 13-50.
That’s not a coincidence. The truth is that while the Hokies shot well and hit nearly 50 percent on threes, they strangled UNC as surely as Hercules strangled Hera’s serpents in his crib.
This is a team that struggled early but has played very well since recovering from a Covid pause in late December and early January, finishing the regular season 9-2 and 3-0 in Brooklyn.
And while Duke is more talented, Virginia Tech is peaking and playing well enough to make a legitimate run to the Elite Eight or conceivably beyond.
We have seen brilliant effort and passion from Boston College, Clemson, Syracuse and Virginia Tech in Brooklyn. They have honored the game and the ACC.
But Virginia Tech is the best of those and there is no question that the ACC will have its two best teams in the finals, even if the conference (and ESPN) would have preferred Duke-UNC again.
So what does it mean for the Blue Devils?
Well the Hokies could potentially neutralize Mark Williams for starters. In the first game, he played 19 minutes, had three rebounds, two blocks and no points. Virginia Tech makes it very difficult to defend the inside because doing so often means giving up the outside, and that team is very dangerous from outside.
And as we saw Friday night, Virginia Tech has become a very capable defensive team. Duke shot 53.7 percent in Cameron and had to pull away to win.
Just not all that far away.
Virginia Tech a team that is groping towards greatness. Duke is going to have to match that passion if they want to win.
The Blue Devils do have one possibly significant advantage: Virginia Tech will have to play four games in four days. That’s a very difficult thing to do. At some point you have to rest to let your body recuperate.
Hunter Cattoor, for one, has pulled heavy minutes. He shot 2-6 against Clemson, 3-6 against Notre Dame and 1-5 against UNC. Keve Aluma declined from 7-15 and 8-12 to 6-14. Storm Murphy has gone from 5-9 to 5-7 to 3-8.
And you may have noticed that while Virginia Tech hit 9-20 on threes, they also hit six shots inside the lane’s half-circle, four more in the lane and two just outside of it. We were really surprised at how easily they got inside of UNC’s defense especially late. It’s worth noting that against Clemson the Hokies attempted around 15 shots around the basket, hitting 10. Against Notre Dame they attempted 10 around the basket, hitting eight with another eight attempts in the lane, hitting seven of those.
If Williams is not neutralized, those shots won’t be as available. And after three games in four days, the threes may not be as easy either. At a certain point, you just get tired. Amino acids have to be rebuilt. You can’t get around things like that.
And keep this in mind: Virginia Tech’s starters against UNC were 6-9, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-0. Duke’s starters run 7-0, 6-10, 6-7, 6-6 and 6-4. Duke’s small, quick team that we sometimes see is 6-10, 6-7, 6-6, 6-4 and 6-1.
All that is potentially important but we would tell you this too and point to the earlier rounds as undeniable truth: basketball is a game fueled by passion and pride. Virginia Tech has shown huge amounts of both. They’ve played well enough in Brooklyn to be sure of making the tournament. They are going to give Duke everything they have because they are playing like champions.
We say again, if Duke wins, it won’t simply be because of talent. It’ll be because Duke plays with as much heart as the Hokies have shown all week. Nothing less is going to beat that team now.
Draft Kings has Duke at -6. Either way, it should be close.