We're Not in Blacksburg Anymore
Virginia Tech drew Florida in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament with the selection committee favoring the Gainesville-based Gators in ranking, awarding them with seventh seed in the East region compared to the Hokies' tenth seed.
For fans of VT, this seed seems surprisingly low given the Hokies' 4-0 record against the top 25 this season: however, a few degrading losses to non-tournament teams Penn State, Louisville and Pittsburgh lowered the sentiments for Head Coach Mike Young's bunch.
Another limiting factor for Virginia Tech was their late-season inconsistency, missing five of their final eight games due to COVID pauses and dropping two of the three games they did play against ACC Champions Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
Putting the pessimism of the NCAA aside, the #10 slot is a blessing in disguise for the Hokies. The 8/9 line in the East region features UNC and Wisconsin and forecasts a date with #1 Baylor and their 22-2 record in the following round. Although Virginia Tech would likely square off against #2 Ohio State in the round of 32 should they win their first matchup and the field of 64's opening action of the tournament, it is still marginally better than dancing with one the championship favorites.
The Hokies' Friday opponents have had a tumultuous year, starting with losing star forward Keyontae Johnson for the season after undiagnosed heart inflammation resulted in a terrifying on-court collapse back in December. Johnson's condition has stabilized since, though he remains out of action.
The Gators started their season with a respectable 10-4 record that featured wins over #6 Tennessee and #11 West Virginia but have seen their form oscillate since the start of February, dropping five of their past nine contests including four losses to unranked opponents.
Florida's leaders in minutes played are four guards ranging from 6'1-6'5 in height, largely leaving 6'11 forward Colin Castleton with the responsibility of patrolling the painted area. Castelton does produce an impactful 2.2 blocks per game in just 24.9 average minutes of action but has been limited to 5.9 rebounds per game, leaving UF vulnerable on the glass.
The Gators will not beat themselves from the free throw line as the team's top five scorers shoot at or better than a 76% clip from the charity stripe and the team evens out at a 75.7% standard. With that being said, they are prone to making mistakes with the ball in the open court, turning the ball over more times (337) than they forced turnovers (335) this season. They also averaged 3.1 more turnovers per game than the Hokies this season, leaving room in Mike Young's game plan to forge an attack on the defensive end.
Florida often finds their intensity in the attack of their guards, led by Tre Mann (16 ppg, 3.4 apg), presenting the opportunity for Wabissa Bede and Tyrece Radford to use their physicality defensively to shut down the engine of this Florida team.
The key players to watch in this matchup for the Hokies are the usual front court duo of Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts. Aluma has feasted upon less physical big men over the course of the campaign and seems to be in line for a heavy workload this Friday. The junior forward has racked up season-highs in points of 30, 29, 26 and 23 (two times) thus far.
Meanwhile, Justyn Mutts will be a particularly intriguing cover for the Gators: Mutts has averaged 16.2 points and 6.6 rebounds over the past five games and was the clear catalyst against UNC, using his intimidating explosiveness and deftly quickness off the dribble to locate the bottom of the bucket with ease. UF is not physically overwhelming down low despite recording the fourth-most blocks per game in the NCAA this season, and Mutts could be the benefactor.
Florida is likely to deploy the taller Colin Castleton against Aluma which leaves the Gators with an interesting predicament for Mutts: enlist your usual starter in Anthony Duruji (5.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) who poses little-to-no threat skill-wise offensively and was benched last time out, or opt for size with 6'10 Omar Payne (3.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and face the threat of quicker wings exploiting his larger stature (note: Payne was ejected for a flagrant foul in his last game and is in jeopardy of being held out of the action). Even Mutts could drag Payne out to deep water, nailing 50% of his three-point attempts since the start of February, if not relying on the Atlantic Coast Conference's leader in deep-ball shooting in Hunter Cattoor (45.0% 3PT) or the quick-firing Nahiem Alleyne (40.9% 3PT).
The Gators are not a team to disrespect: ESPN's Basketball Power Index gives UF a 54.5% chance to defeat VT while the betting line has the Hokies as a one-point underdog. However, loyal fans of the maroon and orange have seen their team pop through the television screen on numerous occasions and will feel confident in this draw.
Here are some of the thoughts from the scribes on the 12:15 p.m. face-off in Indianapolis, Indiana this Friday.
In all honesty, I fully believe Tech can make a deep run in this year’s tournament. A first-round matchup against a talented but inconsistent Florida should be manageable. The front court tandem of Mutts and Aluma should be poised for a good game, especially with the improvement of Mutts down the stretch of the season. If Bede can hold Tre Mann to under 20 points, Tech should come out of that game with a win. Looking past that game, a matchup with the #2 seed Ohio State would likely be on the docket. If Tech were to win that game, a matchup with Arkansas or Texas Tech would be the most likely outcome. Baylor could be waiting in the Elite 8 if they get that far. Advancing through the region would be a challenge but doable as long as the Hokies play up to their potential.
This is a nice draw for the Hokies. Colin Castleton is a solid big man for the Gators but he isn't nearly as athletic as Keve Aluma. Given Aluma's ability to shoot threes and stretch the floor, that presents a tough defensive match up. Florida's other primary big man, Omar Payne, may not play after landing an aggressive flagrant foul which earned him an ejection in their last outing. That leaves Florida to rely on their solid group of guards. If Tech can avoid careless turnovers against an active defense, they should have more than enough firepower to move on. This was such an unexpectedly good season I'd argue anything beyond earning a tournament bid is West End gravy. This particular tournament is going to be the most wild and wide open in history given the circumstances however, and that may suit the underdog Gobblers.
I am of the unbiased biased belief that Virginia Tech will make light work of the Gators. Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma should be able to take advantage of a less physical front court the Gators roll out while Hunter Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne should be able to find their shot coming off of decoy actions involving Mutts and Aluma. The Hokies have played well against rosters constructed similarly to Florida this season and although they lost their most recent contest, they played a tremendous game against a much larger and physical Tar Heel squad. The COVID layoff likely spelled the downfall of the game in the final 10 minutes, though those concerns will be out of sight and out of mind heading into Indianapolis. The Hokies play the very first game in the round of 64 and will be able to play freely, which bodes well for their chances. A potential second-round date with the Buckeyes will likely be the squad's toughest bout this season, though the individual matchups and styles will not waiver the Hokies' confidence.
Earlier this month we saw former Hokie and All-Pro NFL lineman Wyatt Teller carrying a dead Gator over his shoulders: if you are superstitious, look now.