Back on Nov. 4, the Liberty Flames and the Virginia Tech Hokies met each other for a hurricane relief exhibition game. The Hokies would come away with the 86-70 victory. On Sunday, the Flames and Hokies will play for a spot in the Sweet 16 in the East Regional.
On Friday, 12th-seeded Liberty pulled off the 80-76 upset against No. 5 Mississippi State. Later that night, Virginia Tech manhandled 13th-seeded Saint Louis 66-52 as the Hokies received a boost from the return of senior point guard Justin Robinson.
East Region: No. 12 Liberty Flames (29-6) vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech Hokies (25-8)
Time: 7:10 p.m ET (Sunday)
Where: SAP Center at San Jose (San Jose, Calif)
Keys for Liberty
On Friday night, redshirt junior Caleb Homesley scored a career-high 30 points — 22 in the second half, 14 in the final seven minutes — to help the Flames pull off the four-point win over Mississippi State. Against a talented Virginia Tech team, Liberty will need Homesley and leading scorer Scottie James (12.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg) to have big games.
Against the Hokies in November, Homesley had just six points in the exhibition while James was tied for second with 13 points. Elijah Cuffee led the way with 15 points but he made just one of his five shots on Friday night against the Bulldogs.
One of the keys to the Flames' upset of Mississippi State was their long-range shooting. Half of Liberty's 24 made shots on Friday were from 3-point range, as the team went 12-for-25 from beyond the arc. For the season, the Flames are shooting 37 percent from 3-point range. Liberty will also continue to hit shots from three-point land. Liberty has shot 37.0 percent from 3-point range and averages nine made per game.
Keys for Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech doesn't have the same size as Mississippi State to give Liberty problems down low. But the Hokies do have 6-foot-10 Kerry Blackshear Jr., who can not only defend the paint but also score inside.
Blackshear entered the Tournament averaging 14.7 points per game. Against Saint Louis on Friday night, Blackshear poured in 15 in the victory. In the exhibition game against Liberty back in November, Blackshear scored 10 points as Justin Robinson led the team in scoring with 20 points and he also had nine assists. On Friday night, playing in his first game since late January because of a foot injury, Robinson scored nine points to go along with three rebounds, two assists, and two steals (with four turnovers) in 28 minutes off of the bench. His return will only add to the options at head coach Buzz Williams' disposal.
Virginia Tech also should be able to match Liberty in terms of long-range shooting. The teams have made the same number of 3-pointers this season (312 for Liberty vs. 311 for Tech in two fewer games) with the Hokies shooting it a little better (39.4 percent vs. 37.0). In fact, Virginia Tech ranks in the top 10 in the nation when it comes to 3-point accuracy.
Entering this year's NCA Tournament, Virginia Tech was one of the sleeper teams that many thought could make a run towards the Sweet 16 and beyond. Although Liberty has the talent to make this game close, the Hokies' experience and overall athleticism make them the favorite on Sunday. The first meeting may have been an exhibition, but Virginia Tech should be able to produce enough offense against the Flames to propel them to the East Regional in Washington, D.C.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 73, Liberty 64
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.