Virginia Tech (9-1) heads to historic Rupp Arena for a big matchup with No. 8 Kentucky (8-1) on Saturday afternoon at 2 pm. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN2, and Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale will handle play-by-play and color commentator duties.
As usual, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has a team stocked full of future NBA players. As usual, many of them are freshmen, and they have yet to gel as a team. They will be extremely dangerous in February and March, but as of now the sum of the team is less than its parts.
Here’s a look at Kentucky’s schedule and results thus far…
Utah Valley (home): 73-63 win
Belmont (home): 73-69 win
Kansas (neutral): 65-61 loss
East Tennessee State (home): 78-61 win
Troy (home): 70-62 win
Fort Wayne (home): 86-67 win
Illinois-Chicago (home): 107-73 win
Harvard (home): 79-70 win
Monmouth (neutral): 93-76 win
The Wildcats haven’t dominated, even against teams such as Harvard, Troy and Belmont. They haven’t been quite as good offensively as you might expect, though their defensive performances have by and large been good, especially for a team that features so many young players. Here’s a look at some of their advanced stats…
Offensive Efficiency: No. 65
Effective FG%: No. 63
Offensive Rebound %: No. 6
Defensive Rebound %: No. 177
Total Rebound %: No. 24
Turnovers per Possession: No. 280
Defensive Efficiency: No. 41
Defensive Effective FG%: No. 27
Opponent Turnovers per Possession: No. 204
Turnovers have directly impacted Kentucky’s efficiency on the offensive end, though dominant offensive rebounding has offset that to a certain extent. Here’s how the Hokies rank in those same categories…
Offensive Efficiency: No. 1
Effective FG%: No. 1
Offensive Rebound %: No. 174
Defensive Rebound %: No. 116
Total Rebound %: No. 53
Turnovers per Possession: No. 66
Defensive Efficiency: No. 43
Defensive Effective FG%: No. 35
Opponent Turnovers per Possession: No. 202
No team in the country is as efficient as the Hokies on the offensive end of the court through the first month of the season, and Tech is shooting the lights out. Statistically, VT has been better than most give them credit for on the defensive end, and on the whole they have done a good job of protecting the basketball.
However, Kentucky has played a more difficult schedule than the Hokies, and it’s not even close. Per RPIForecast.com, Tech’s strength of schedule ranks 289th nationally, while Kentucky’s ranks 120th. The Wildcats also have a huge size advantage on the Hokies, which is certain to show up in rebounding numbers, and Kentucky’s length is sure to provide a much greater challenge to scoring than the opponents Tech has played thus far.
Only six different players have started games for Kentucky this year, and they’ve used the same starting lineup in eight of nine games.
Guard Quade Green (6-feet, 180 pounds, Fr.): 10.3 ppg, 3.6 apg. No. 26 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
Guard Hamidou Diallo (6-foot-5, 198, r-Fr.): 14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg. No. 10 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
Forward Kevin Knox (6-foot-9, 215 pounds, Fr.): 15.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg. No. 11 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
Forward PJ Washington (6-foot-7, 236 pounds, Fr.): 9.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg. No. 15 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
Forward Nick Richards (6-foot-11, 240 pounds, Fr.: 8.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg. No. 18 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
As a redshirt freshman, Hamidou Diallo is the elder statesman of this group. John Calipari is currently using an 8-man rotation, with three impressive players coming off the bench.
Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6-foot-6, 180 pounds, Fr.): Averaging 10.1 ppg and has a team-high 40 assists. No. 31 overall by 247Sports Composite. Gilgeous-Alexander is the cousin and good friend of Tech freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker. They are both from Canada and played for Hamilton Heights in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Forward Wenyen Gabriel (6-foot-9, 205, So.): Averaging 6 ppg and 5.2 rpg. No. 15 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
Forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (6-foot-10, 221 pounds, So.): Averaging 4.9 ppg and 4.4 rpg. No. 23 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite.
Each and every one of those players was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school by the 247Sports Composite, with the exception of Gilgeous-Alexander, who is actually second on the team in minutes thus far. Tai Wynyard (6-foot-10, 250 pounds, r-So.) is a New Zealander who was “only” ranked No. 89 nationally, and he has been Calipari’s ninth player in the rotation thus far, though he’s only played five minutes per game in seven games.
To further show the talent level that Kentucky possesses, here are the early projections for the next two NBA Drafts…
2018 No. 9 overall: Kevin Knox
2018 No. 19 overall: Jarred Vanderbilt (highly touted freshman who has been out due to injury)
2018 No. 30 overall: Hamidou Diallo
2019 No. 9 overall: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
2019 No. 17 overall: Nick Richards
2019 No. 34 overall: PJ Washington
2019 No. 35 overall: Sacha Killeya-Jones
Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker is currently projected to be the No. 8 pick in the 2019 draft. That’s only one site’s opinion, but you get the idea. The Wildcats are loaded with talent.
The fact that Kentucky’s youth is only playing its 10th game together means that the Hokies do have a chance to win this game. The Hokies don’t have as much talent as Kentucky, but they are still gifted and have plenty of experience. While Kentucky will challenge Tech defensively in a way they haven’t been challenged before, it’s also true that the Hokies will challenge the Wildcats offensively more than any team thus far.
Here are two keys for the Hokies…
- Continue to make shots at a high rate. If Virginia Tech has an off night from a shooting standpoint, which hasn’t happened often this year, then that will make it very difficult to win.
- Defensive rebounding. Kentucky has been very good on the offensive glass. The Hokies have to be solid on the defensive boards not only to prevent second chance points, but to start their own transition game.
Likewise, the key for Kentucky is to rebound on the offensive end, score second chance points, and prevent the Hokies from scoring in transition.
From an injury standpoint, the Hokies come into this game healthy, provided they didn’t suffer an injury in practice this week that has gone unreported. If anything, Tech is getting even healthier as Chris Clarke continues to put his ACL injury in the rear-view mirror.
Kentucky will be without Jarred Vanderbilt, who is recovering from a foot injury. Starting point guard Quade Green and backup center Sacha Killeya-Jones should play despite injuries. Green injured his eye last week against Monmouth, while Killeya-Jones missed the Monmouth game with an ankle injury. When asked if they would play against Virginia Tech, John Calipari said, “I believe so.”
Quotes from Kentucky on Virginia Tech
John Calipari on Virginia Tech: “They drive the ball and they space out. They have three or four guys that can absolutely make 3s. They’re looking for layups and kicking it out for threes, and they’re getting to the line because of it. They have veteran guys. They have one freshman, but this is a veteran team that has done this in the ACC. They’re not afraid.”
More Calipari: “They are not going to come in here with all this respect and go back and play a zone or sag. They are going to press us. They are playing fast. Now we have been in these kind of games and two teams playing fast and it’s pretty fun to watch. They want to stretch the court. We aren’t walking it up, ‘here we come’ and that’s how they’ll play.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: “We went through scouting report a little bit. They’re really high-scoring and they’re really intense defensively. This should be a good match for us. It’s a really good game for us to be on our toes and ready to play. I think this will be a good one and we’ll get to see.”