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Virginia Tech (14-8, 5-3 ACC) at NC State (14-7, 3-4)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008, 7:00 p.m.


Special Preview Items:

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Game Preview: Halfway through their ACC schedule, the Hokies have played their way into NCAA tournament bubble consideration. They'll try to build up their resume even more when they travel to Raleigh to take on NC State on Tuesday night. Beating the Wolfpack on the road would be a huge step for Tech, who has yet to beat a team in the Top 50 of the RPI.

Virginia Tech and NC State are perfect examples of what ACC basketball is all about. Four of Virginia Tech's ACC games have been decided by one point or in overtime. Four of the Wolfpack's last five games have been decided by three points or less. These teams have a habit of playing close games. The Hokies are 4-0 in close ACC games, while NC State is 3-1.

In case you've forgotten, the Wolfpack beat the Hokies three times last year. They beat Tech 70-59 in Blacksburg, 81-56 in Raleigh and 72-64 in the ACC tournament. They had Tech's number.

This is a different Virginia Tech team however, and it's a different NC State team as well. Tech has six new players, and the Wolfpack no longer have point guard Engin Atsur. They were a completely different team when he was healthy last season, definitely NCAA tournament caliber, but they didn't win enough games early in the season when he was injured.

Other than losing Atsur, you'll recognize almost everybody else on NC State's roster. Here's a look at their starting lineup.

NC State Probable Starting Lineup
Pos Player Ht Wt Year PPG RPG Assists
G Marques Johnson 6-5 205 So. 1.8 2 15
G Courtney Fells 6-5 205 Jr. 10.8 3.2 21
F Gavin Grant 6-8 208 Sr. 14 4.4 60
F Brandon Costner 6-9 238 r-So. 9.4 5 44
C J.J. Hickson 6-9 242 Fr. 15 8.4 20

NC State has all of the pieces in place, except for point guard. Marques Johnson and Javier Gonzalez are splitting time at that position.

Johnson is a sophomore transfer from Tennessee who has played in just 11 games, becoming eligible at the end of the fall semester. Gonzalez is a true freshman who probably isn't quite ready to play at this level yet. Neither player has been an effective shooter this year. Let's take a look at their combined statistics.

NC State Point Guards
Player FGM FGA % 3FGM 3FGA % Assists Turnovers
Marques Johnson 7 21 33.30% 1 7 14.30% 15 17
Javier Gonzalez 17 61 27.90% 9 43 20.90% 33 32
Total 24 82 29.20% 10 50 20% 48 49

That's a very low shooting percentage for your primary point guards. Throw in the negative assist-to-turnover ratio, and that's just not good production at all. If Virginia Tech can play tight defense and not let NC State get into their sets, they can force these point guards to either take shots or make bad decisions.

Unfortunately for the Hokies, NC State is much better at the other positions on the court. They have two wings in Gavin Grant and Courtney Fells that gave Virginia Tech a lot of trouble last year. Both players are in the middle of hot streaks. Since ACC play began, Grant is shooting 55% from three-point range, while Fells is converting at a 50% clip from the outside.

What makes them dangerous is that you can play good defense, but they can still knock down the shots. Both are tall players with the ability to elevate high into their shots. They knocked down a lot of three-pointers against solid Tech defense last year.

Grant and Fells aren't just three-point shooters. They are slashers. NC State likes to use center Ben McCauley in the high post to initiate their offense, and he's very good at finding cutters to the basket. McCauley is perhaps the best passing big man in the ACC.

Speaking of McCauley, he's one of three talented inside players. He and Brandon Costner averaged double figures last season, but their numbers are down this year because of freshman J.J. Hickson. Hickson is leading the team in scoring (15 ppg), rebounding (8.4 rpg) and blocked shots (33 blocks). He is a very talented low post player who shoots at a very high percentage (60.4%).

Costner is a versatile player who was an All-ACC freshman last year. However, his numbers have dropped to 9.4 points and five rebounds this year, and in ACC games they've dropped even further to just 6.4 points and 2.3 rebounds. He doesn't have quite the number of minutes as last year, but he still gets 21.7 minutes per game. In ACC play, his production has been poor for a player of his talents.

Costner can play with his back to the basket, but he's also a very good three-point sniper for a man his size. You might remember his turnaround, 22-foot three-pointer with a man in his face as the shot clock expired against the Hokies in Raleigh last year. While Grant and Fells are probably due to have an off game, Costner is probably due for a big game.

McCauley is a back to the basket player who can hurt you with a variety of post moves. However, like Costner, his numbers are way down this year. He is averaging six points and four rebounds per game, and 6.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in ACC play.

NC State doesn't have great bench depth. They will bring in either McCauley or Costner, whoever doesn't start, as well as point guard Javier Gonzalez. Small forward Dennis Horner will also play. He's an effective outside shooter. On the whole, the Hokies have the depth advantage. The Wolfpack only use eight players in their rotation for the most part.

Now let's take a look and see how the teams compare in the stats.

VT vs. NC State (ACC Games Only)


VT NC State

Stat ACC Rank Stat ACC Rank
FG% 40.90% 11 44.20% 7 NCSU
3-Pt.% 27.20% 12 40.70% 1 NCSU
FG% Defense 42.40% 2 47% 11 VT
3-Pt.% Defense 36.80% 8 40.00% 10 VT
FT% 68.60% 8 68.10% 9 VT
Rebounding Margin +6.4 2 -4.1 10 VT
Turnover Margin -2.0 9 -3.71 11 VT
Assist/TO Ratio 0.64 12 0.86 8 NCSU
Scoring Offense 73.5 8 68.1 12 VT
Scoring Defense 74 2 77.1 7 VT
Average -- 7.4 -- 8.6 VT

This is the biggest statistical mismatch of the ACC season for the Hokies, so far at least. Tech is out in front in everything but shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio.

A few things stand out when looking at these stats. First, how can NC State be so bad at rebounding the basketball? They have three talented big guys who play a lot, and they start two wings that are 6-5 and 6-8. Even point guard Marques Johnson is 6-5. They are capable of rebounding well, but they don't.

Another thing is their defensive field goal percentage. In ACC games, opponents are shooting a whopping 47% from the field and 40% from three-point range against the Wolfpack. Again, they are too good of a team and have too many athletes to let that happen. Their athletic depth off the bench isn't very good, but still, those numbers are way too high.

NC State is also the lowest scoring offense in the ACC. They are averaging fewer than 70 points per game in conference play. Tonight they will meet the ACC's #2 scoring defense in Virginia Tech. It's impressive that Tech is still #2 in scoring defense, despite the fact that they've played three overtime games.

NC State's struggles on offense have led to frustration on the defensive end. Bad offense often leads to bad defense, although that hasn't been the case with Virginia Tech.

Finally, here are a couple of trends to keep your eye on. Virginia Tech hasn't been very good in turnover margin this year, but those stats have been on the upswing lately. They broke even at BC, were +5 against Florida State and +3 against Virginia. All three games were wins. NC State is #11 in ACC games with a turnover margin of -3.71. If Tech wins the turnover battle, they have a better chance of winning.

Second, while the Hokies might be better at most things than NC State, the Wolfpack do have a big advantage from the outside. Tech isn't great at defending the outside because they collapse their defense so much. NC State could potentially win this one from the outside.

NC State's 3-pt. defense is worse than Tech's. Opponents are shooting 40% from the outside against the Wolfpack. However, the Hokies are dead last in ACC games from three-point range, at just 27.2%.

Judging from the stats, it's possible that Tech could have a good outside night against NC State, but A.D. Vassallo must be on. Vassallo is just 7-of-27 from three-point range in ACC road games, while shooting 12-of-23 at home. He has not made a three-pointer in Tech's last two road outings. However, that's probably more of a fluke than anything. He was 5-of-11 at UVA earlier in the year.

If Virginia Tech can win this game, it will put them at 15-8 overall, 6-3 in the ACC, and give them a win over a possible Top 50 RPI team (NC State is currently in the Top 50, and could very well end the season there). With four of the last seven games at home, you'd have to like Tech's chances of making a run at an NCAA tournament berth at that point.

Judging by what has happened to each team lately, this game stands a good shot to go down to the wire.