Virginia-Virginia Tech: Do or Die in the Old Dominion

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 9, 2009

If I were Virginia head coach Dave Leitao, I think I would take this picture and post the following:


Maybe whoever robbed the senior swingman of his game will return it by Saturday, for it is the only way Virginia has a chance of taking down the Hokies tomorrow afternoon at Cassell Coliseum.

These two teams entered the season with very different mindsets.

Virginia knew it was going to be bad and was hoping the freshmen combination of Sylven Landesberg and Sammy Zeglinski could save them from humiliation in the ACC, as they were universally picked to finish in the cellar.

Well, Landesberg and Zeglinski have exceeded expectations.  What Virginia did not know was just how little their supporting cast would help out these two future phenoms.

I already mentioned Mamadi Diane—the man has made 118 three-pointers in his career and did not make one in the first two months of the season.

Diane appeared comatose until he showed some spasms in a home beatdown by Xavier, where he scored seven points in 10 minutes.  Then, against Brown, he got his first start since the opener and started off with seven quick points before cooling off yet again.

Still, the Musketeers had already packed it in, and Brown is...well, Brown.  The senior captain (scary thought) is seventh on the team in scoring at less than five points per game.  Can Virginia really rely on Diane tomorrow?

How about Calvin Baker, for that matter?  The junior guard is clearly talented—he hit the game-winner at Georgia Tech for the second straight year with a tough lay-in.  He is fourth on the team in scoring.

Still, Baker is sometimes manic with the ball.  His ball handling is far from crisp, and he has made some very bad decisions, particularly on the fast break.  Baker's minutes have started to slip away as Mustapha Farrakhan has begun to emerge as a candidate for the two-guard role. 

Farrakhan, the seldom-used shooter from Illinois, had his first double-digit scoring performance against Hampton and backed it up with a 12-point outburst at Georgia Tech to help Virginia win its road ACC opening game in 14 years.  Still, he too has been inconsistent, as has Jeff Jones.

Until Virginia can find a solid option at the two spot, problems will persist.

The Hokies, on the other hand, must not have been anticipating these problems.

Virginia Tech felt robbed last season of an NCAA tournament berth after a great ACC season.  This year, their goal was simple: Avoid the early season letdown that has cost them in the past.

Well, mission not exactly accomplished.  While Virginia Tech avoided some of the more inexplicable losses they have had in the past, they were clearly damaged.

Xavier's half-court miracle and Wisconsin's last second shot took away two potentially marquee victories and have left the Hokies at 9-5.

Certainly the Hokies can turn their fortune around in conference play, but they cannot afford to stumble against the Cavaliers.  A win may not do more than fuel the flames of discontent in Charlottesville, but a loss might cost the Hokies greatly come March.

So, what will be the keys to the game?

1. Who is going to win the battle for turnovers?

Seth Greenberg has built his Virginia Tech team as a ball-hawking defense, which springboards into their offense.  Virginia boasts a freshman point guard who has tremendous potential but turns the ball over too much. That is what we call a mismatch.

However, the Hokies have had their own trouble holding on to the ball.  In fact, the Hokies are 11th in the conference when it comes to assist/turnover ratio.  Still, Virginia has proven in their losses that they are vulnerable to big runs with wasted possessions.

When you hold either of these teams to a half-court game, they are vulnerable.  Just look at Virginia Tech's 13-point second half performance against Duke.

Virginia has not fared much better; they are 11th in field goal shooting and 12th in field goal shooting defense.  Not exactly a winning combination.

If Virginia turns the ball, over the rout could be on, but if the Hokies cough it up, Mike Scott and Landesberg have the athleticism to make them pay on the other end.

2. Who can get to the line?

While both of these teams have some severe flaws, they both share a similar strength in free throw accuracy. 

Virginia's Landesberg is a very physical player who can knife through defenses and get to the line.  His jumping ability at this point is not exactly something to write home about, but he has a strong upper body, and Leitao will certainly be looking for him to get to the charity stripe early and often to slow the game down and keep the Hokies in the half-court.

For the Hokies, Malcolm Delaney has made a living at the free throw line, going 86 for 96.  Expect him to get his opportunities alongside the big man Jeff Allen.  With Virginia's biggest weakness inside, expect Cavalier freshman Assane Sene to be using his five fouls to full advantage against Allen.

Allen, however, is only shooting around 66 percent at the line so far this season.  While that number is pretty good for a big man, this game could very well be close, and every shot will be critical down the stretch.

When these teams get to the line, they win.  Considering that neither one of these offenses are necessarily explosive, unnecessary fouls must be avoided.

3. Will Virginia Tech give their fans something to cheer about?

Although Virginia swept the Hokies in 2006, Virginia Tech has won three out of the last four contests and both of their home games.

The last time the Cavaliers won at Cassell, it was by the offensively-challenged score of 54-49.  In order to do that again, Virginia has got to keep the crowd out of it, and that means keep it ugly.

If the Hokies can get on a roll, things can turn quickly.  Students are returning from their winter break, they are playing their archrival, and it is a make or break game because an 0-2 hole in the ACC will put any chances of dancing in major jeopardy.

In other words, they will be doing all they can to will their team to victory at a place where the Hokies are 17-3 in the last two years.

Still, Virginia Tech has been known to fall asleep at the switch sometimes and play some sloppy basketball.  That will neutralize any edge they have and help keep the Cavaliers in the game.

Also remember that Virginia has already won an ACC road game at Georgia Tech, and even though the Yellow Jackets are not NCAA tournament bound, a win in the "Thrillerdome" is always impressive. 


I think that both teams have problems that will have to be ironed out as the season goes along.  Virginia will keep it close and compete the entire time, but I think they are just too accident prone to win it.  The Cavaliers will need a big day from Scott, both offensively and defensively.  I think he can do it, but it will not be enough.

Virginia Tech 63, Virginia 57


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