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Syracuse vs. Virginia Tech basketball preview: Q&A with Gobbler Country

Hokie dokie.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (10-6, 2-1) have won two straight at home and will take on Virginia Tech in Blacksburg tonight. Last year Syracuse came from behind in the final moments to force overtime against the Hokies, eventually winning 68-60 in OT. So what can we expect this year other than Buzz Williams sweating through his shirt? We caught up with Jawhar Ali over at our sister site

TNIAAM: Virginia Tech has dropped two straight since beating Duke. What happened?

Jawhar Ali: Three things have happened.

The primary reason for this two game skid is injuries. Even before the Duke game, Virginia Tech had lost two big men in Johnny Hamilton and Kerry Blackshear for the year. Freshman Khadim Sy rolled his ankle in shoot around minutes before the Hokies tipped off against NC State. During the game against the Wolfpack, the Hokies lost Seth Allen to a concussion and it appears he will not be ready for the Syracuse game. Sy should be a go but he may be on a minutes restriction. So the seventh man in the rotation went from sixth leading scorer Seth Allen to walk-on Matt Galloway who has just a single made field goal this season. Against Florida State, the Hokies played eight men total while the 'Noles had eight guys play off their bench alone. In the most talented basketball league in the country, if your depth is a weakness, you are going to be exploited.

The second thing that happened was simply going on the road. Virginia Tech has been abysmal away from Blacksburg under Buzz Williams, with a 3-17 road record in ACC play since his arrival. But even looking at the ACC as a whole this season, it's nearly impossible to play well and win on the road. Home teams are 17-6 in conference play this year. In those 17 wins, the average margin of victory is 17.4 points. That is absurd. Look at the Orange's last game as an example. Syracuse was in complete control over Pittsburgh, who had taken down UVA just days before. It is highly improbable UNC is 51 points better than NC State, although that is the exact margin of victory from Sunday's game. You are more likely to be blown out on another teams floor no matter who they are, never mind an NC State team loaded with talent or #9 Florida State. It's not an excuse, but playing on the road while shorthanded really has exposed the flaws of this team.

The most tangible aspect the Hokies have control over and can correct are turnovers. It's not just good defense that is forcing them. The Hokies have reckless and careless with the basketball. In their two conference losses, the Hokies turned it over 36 times (22.5% TOV%). No team is going to win turning it over once every four possessions, especially on the road. Virginia Tech was getting away with this early in the year when they played teams like Charleston Southern, but there's no hiding from this issue in the ACC. With Allen injured, the Hokies are devoid of ball handlers, down to just one healthy point guard in Justin Robinson. Syracuse has been good on the defensive end this year and Boeheim undoubtedly is looking at that stat and telling his players to go after the basketball.

So yeah - injuries on the road while turning the basketball over is not exactly a combination I would recommend.

TNIAAM: You guys have a well-rounded team. How can it be stopped?

JA: Buzz Williams loves players with guard abilities (shoot, dribble, pass). The problem is players with guard capabilities are often guard-sized. This team is skilled but they can be bullied in the paint and on the glass, especially if Khadim Sy is restricted. If you are playing the Hokies, you need to feed your bigs as much as possible to try and get them going. NC State did that marvelously. Their bigs didn't miss a shot - literally - going a combined 13-13 from the field, mostly on dunks. The Hokies really lack rim protection which has been and is going to be their Achilles' Heel on defense.

Virginia Tech thrives when they get defensive stops and turn them into transition opportunities. Scoring consistently and getting five behind the ball on defense will prevent that. Duke did neither and got blown out of the building. If you look at the Hokies' losses, offensive rebounding is another key statistic. Opponents have posted a 34.3% offensive rebound percentage in those games, which forces the Hokies to crash the boards as a team instead of leaking out in transition.

As I touched on previously, turnovers will be something to keep your eye on as well.

TNIAAM: Everyone knows about Zach LeDay but Chris Clarke has me concerned. Do you think he’ll take advantage of rebounding, particularly against the zone in this game?

JA: If you polled the Hokies, I think most would vote Chris Clarke as the team MVP through fifteen games. During the last month, he has been outstanding in all facets, averaging 16.3/8.3/3.8 over the last seven games, including a triple double. He was the only one to really show up against Florida State. When the Hokies win, it is usually because they rebound the basketball well enough and Clarke is an integral piece of that puzzle. He often gets matched up against bigger players on defense, but still probably remains the best rebounder on the team (besides LeDay) due to his outstanding vertical explosiveness. While LeDay may be the best rebounder on the team, Clarke is probably the most dangerous because of his vision and ability to go coast-to-coast. As soon as he gets the ball, his eyes are on alert for any open teammates streaking the other way and he has the passing ability to hit them in stride. The Hokies have scored more than a few buckets this way.

Statistics show Syracuse is an average rebounding team, but better than average on the offensive end. Clarke will surely do his part in cleaning up the glass, especially if the Orange are aggressive going after their own misses.

One more thing to note about Clarke's rebounding: he is sneaky good at getting tip-ins on the offensive side of the ball. He has one of the quickest second jumps I have seen from any athlete in the sport. Like LeDay, Clarke shows excellent effort and hustle going after loose ball making him a nuisance for other teams to deal with while rebounding.

TNIAAM: Virginia Tech wins if...

JA: Virginia Tech wins this game if they get back to playing defense. As of today, the Hokies rank last in points allowed in conference play, giving up over 90 PPG, allowing opponents to shoot 51.5% from the field. They have not given up under 44 points in a half for five straight halves. I could go on and on. It is near impossible to win games like that. Luckily for the Hokies, Syracuse does not like to push the pace of play, which has worn out the Hokies by the end of games due to their current lack of depth. That should allow them to get set behind the ball which they have failed to accomplish recently. Once they get those stops, transition opportunities should follow and the offense will improve as a result. And when the Hokies get in the open court, they blitz the other team in waves. But it all starts with getting stops and generating turnovers.

The three key players to watch are Zach LeDay, Chris Clarke, and Justin Robinson. Virginia Tech will win 99% of the time those guys play well.

TNIAAM: Syracuse wins if...

JA: Syracuse wins this ball game if they win the battle in the paint. That not only means rebounding the ball consistently on both ends of the court, but driving the ball to the rim. Syracuse has one of the higher three-point attempt rates in the country and it's not hard to see why because they have been shooting the ball from downtown at a 40% clip (same as VT). The Hokies defense has been very good at closing out on shooters, so loosening the defense up with some drives to the rim would be beneficial. Additionally, Syracuse has the length to get their shots up and going downhill would allow Lydon and Thompson to attack the glass. That will result in limiting the Hokies in transition and will more than likely earn them a win.

TNIAAM: Ultimate prediction time. Who wins this game?

JA: The Hokies have struggled on the road, but the good news for them is they get three straight home games, starting with Syracuse. With a 1-2 mark in conference play so far, this is as close as it gets to a must-win game for Virginia Tech who began the year with NCAA tournament aspirations. Every team in the ACC has some type of home court advantage, especially this season, but the Hokies play extremely well in Cassell Coliseum, as they have not lost a home game in 348 days. Virginia Tech simply shoots better and takes better care of the ball in Blacksburg. I think that alone propels Buzz Williams to beat Syracuse for the first time as a Hokie. This team feeds off of energy and emotion, and there will be plenty of that to go around at home.

Hokies 79-72, although I can see the spread being a little wider if Seth Allen suits up.


Thanks, Jawhar! Be sure to head over to Gobbler Country and give Jawhar a follow on twitter. Cheers.