Most eyes will be on Purdue after its lost season stemming from Robbie Hummel’s season ending injury mere weeks before the Big Dance. The Boilermakers were set to make a deep tournament run when Hummel went down, so the 2010-2011 season storyline for Purdue is, well, redemption. Johnson, Moore, a healthy Robbie Hummel, and a dash of good fortune are the recipe for a Final Four appearance. And the Gene Keady comb over is once again en vogue.
For the Virginia Tech Hokies, if the 2011 season isn’t about redemption, it’s about revenge. It was a significant slight when the NCAA Selection Committe didn't ask them to the prom after going 25-9 overall and 10-6 in the ACC. Luckily for Seth Greenberg, his collection of experienced talent should be one of the belles of the ball in the ACC, returning all seven of the players that logged double digit minutes per game last season, including ACC Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Delaney.
What To Watch For
For Purdue, you’re obviously watching out for their Big Three.
With the return of E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson and a healthy Robbie Hummel, there isn’t a team in America as talented at all three levels (guard/wing/post) as Coach Matt Painter’s troika.
Plus, Hummel’s injury wasn’t all bad news considering DJ Byrd, Kelsey Barlow, and Lewis Jackson were able to get valuable big game experience in the tournament. One or more of these role players will be asked to pick up the slack after the departure of glue man du jour Chris Kramer, and they got their feet wet when Hummel went down.
Tactically, a guy like Byrd gives Coach Painter much more flexibility than Kramer. Not only does Byrd have the requisite size and length to affect the game defensively and on the backboards, but he’s a much better shooter and scorer.
Defensively, opponents made a living helping off of Kramer to the detriment of Johnson, Moore, and Hummel, but Byrd’s ability to extend the defense makes Purdue a much more dynamic offensive team than they were a season ago. If Byrd takes to this role, the Boilermakers may make a championship run.
For Virginia Tech it’s only a matter of continuing to do what they do—they just need to do it better and more efficiently. The Hokies return their entire rotation from last season, which is a collection of big guards and athletic forwards. The size and shape of their club is reminiscent to Illinois’ Marcus Liberty, Steve Bardo, and Nick Anderson Illinois Illini squads of similarly sized athletes.
With all of the athleticism and length Seth Greenberg deploys 1 through 5, the Hokies will always be tough on defense and competitive on the glass. But Tech has to get better—read, more efficient—scoring the basketball.
It all starts with superstar guard Malcolm Delaney. He’s the unquestioned number one option for the Hokies, but at times last season he took that role to heart a bit too much. He had a miserable season from the field in 2010, and much of that was a function of poor shot selection and an unwillingness to trust his teammates. Frankly, he has to get better at creating shots for talented wings Jeff Allen and Dorenzo Hudson, because they’re capable scorers when they’re allowed to take advantage of the opportunities Delaney creates.
In the paint, Victor Davila has to give the Hokies some semblance of a post game to keep opposing bigs honest and less focused on taking away driving angles for Delaney. It would also be nice if a surprise post player makes some contributions for Greenberg’s club because really it’s Davila and a collection of wings doing the dirty work on the interior.
But the key is Delaney, who must show some maturity and step up as a leader, not a lead scorer. I’m convinced he can and will after making the mature decision to return to Blacksburg for his senior season.
Surprisingly, the Hokie vs. Boilermaker matchup sets up to be much tougher than most of the national pundits think. Sure, Purdue is the more talented squad, but they don’t come into this game without significant question marks.
Is Hummel going to be fully recovered from a devastating knee injury? Can they find a replacement for all the little things Chris Kramer brought to the party? Are all of the moving parts going to mesh adequately so early in the season to beat a talented and experienced team out for blood because of last season’s tournament snub? Can they do it in a hostile environment on Tech’s home floor? A team looking for a quality non-conference win for their tournament resume?
From an X’s and O’s standpoint, Virginia Tech has a lot of answers defensively for Purdue’s personnel and what Purdue likes to do offensively.
Let’s start with Purdue’s talented wing Robbie Hummel. Hummel usually gives defenders fits because he’s a hybrid 4 that floats around on the perimeter against bigger defenders and bullies smaller ones in the paint. Hummel’s usually the definition of mismatch (think Kyle Singler).
Enter one of the nation’s great wing defenders, Jeff Allen. At 6'7", 230 pounds and athletic, Allen is fully capable of tagging Hummel on the perimeter or withstanding Hummel’s size inside. To sum it up, Hummel won’t find any easy money based on mismatches he’s grown accustomed to against most clubs.
As for Purdue’s other star options, Davila is physical enough to root JaJuan Johnson out of his comfort zone, and the Hokies have a bevy of 6'4" athletes to throw at Etwaun Moore, including the athletic Malcolm Delaney. Purdue certainly isn’t going to get anything easy.
On the other end, Coach Painter’s clubs always defend, and that doesn’t bode well for a team like Virginia Tech who isn’t efficient on offense to begin with. Again, the key is Delaney and his willingness to embrace the role of playmaker, not shot taker. He can break down his defender but he needs to trust and find open teammates. This component of his game is especially important against a disciplined defensive team like Purdue.
If Delaney repeats the 5-19, three assist, two turnover game he had against a similar opponent in Duke last season, the Hokies will certainly lose to the Boilermakers. Instead, Delaney needs a 7-15, eight assist, three turnover type game for the Hokies to upset Purdue. I’m not sure he has it in him against this caliber of opponent this early in the season.
Based on that alone, call it 67-63 Purdue, squaring the Conference Challenge at one game apiece. But remember, Virginia Tech is certainly capable of pulling the upset and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC.
Up next: Ohio State at Florida State.