ACC foes meet for the second time this season with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line
A month ago, the Virginia Tech Hokies pulled off a 77-72 upset of the Duke Blue Devils. A lot has changed since the two teams met on Feb. 26 as they will play one another in the NCAA Tournament East Region semifinals on Friday night at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.
Of course, Duke fans will be quick to mention freshman forward Zion Williamson, the ACC"s Freshman and Player of the Year, did not play in that loss in Blacksburg. However, Virginia Tech senior guard Justin Robinson also missed the game. Both Williamson and Robinson are expected to play on Friday.
The Blue Devils (31-5), who are the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, barely escaped their second-round matchup against UCF 77-76. Williamson scored 32 points and collected a game-high 11 rebounds in the victory.
The Hokies (26-8), are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1962 and just the second time in program history. On Sunday, No. 4 seed Virginia Tech defeated No. 12 Liberty 67-58 out in San Jose, California, to advance to the regional semifinals. Robinson had 13 points in the victory, one of four Hokies in double figures, as Virginia Tech outscored the Flames by 12 in the second half to overcome a three-point halftime deficit.
East Region: No. 4 Virginia Tech Hokies (26-8) vs. No. 1 Duke Blue Devils (31-5)
Time: Approximately 9:39 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Capital One Arena (Washington D.C.)
Keys for Virginia Tech
In the upset win over the Blue Devils in February, the Hokies were able to force 12 turnovers while only committing six of their own. Virginia Tech also made the most of their trips to the free throw line, going 23-for-29 and outscored Duke in the paint by two points (28-26).
While getting Justin Robinson back is enormous, the Hokies will need another big game from Kerry Blackshear Jr., who had a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds in the first meeting. Six rebounds were the most by any Blue Devil (two tied) in that game. Ahmed Hill had 17 points (on 5-for-10 shooting) while Nickeil Alexander-Walker chipped in 13 points, along with six assists and four steals.
It will take a collective effort to defeat a team as talented as Duke, especially with Williamson out there this time. Virginia Tech will need huge contributions from Blackshear, Robinson, Hill, and Alexander-Walker. Senior guard Ty Outlaw, who is second on the team in rebounding (5.4 per game) and is coming off of a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) against Liberty, is expected to play even though he has been charged with possession of marijuana, according to published reports. Outlaw took a drug test before the team let for Washington, D.C., and passed, according to an ESPN.com article. With the negative result, head coach Buzz Williams and athletic director Whit Babcock have cleared Outlaw and deemed him eligible to play Friday night.
Keys for Duke
Obviously, getting Zion Williamson back for this matchup is huge, but the Blue Devils aren't a one-man team. Against UCF on Sunday, Duke made 10 3-pointers, shot 45 percent from the field and outrebounded the Knights 36-34. Williamson scored nearly half of his team's points (32 of 77) but the Blue Devils' other star freshman came through when it counted.
Down three points with 45 seconds remaining, Williamson missed a 3-pointer but Duke got the rebound and he scored on a layup and was fouled. Williamson missed the free throw, but RJ Barrett corralled the rebound and stuck in a putback for what turned out to be the game-winning basket. Barrett finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, as he and Willamson combined to hit less than half of their shots (18-for-39), although they did go a collective 5-for-10 from 3-point range.
Fellow freshman Ty Jones went 5-for-15 (just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc) while the other four Blue Devils that played combined to shoot 7-for-13, including a tidy 4-for-7 from long range. Duke goes as Williamson and Barrett go typically, but the Blue Devils can't afford to put everything on the freshman duo's shoulders, as talented as they are.
Virginia Tech won the first game but in many ways, it will be as if the two teams haven't played each other. The Hokies do get Robinson back, but Duke having Williamson this time around clearly tilts the advantage in the Blue Devils' favor. Even without Williamson in the February meeting, Duke outrebounded Virginia Tech 29-26. Williamson averages nine boards per game and had 11 in the second round win over UCF even though he was matched up against 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall for most of the game.
The Knights had the length and size to give the Blue Devils problems in the paint. The Hokies don't have the same luxury, and that will likely be the difference on Friday.
Prediction: Duke 74, Virginia Tech 66
— 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.