Date: Thursday, March 11
One year ago, just one day before the sports world screeched to a halt, Virginia Tech began and ended its ACC Tournament with a 22-point blowout loss to North Carolina.
On Thursday night, the No. 22 Hokies (15-5, 9-4) will have an opportunity to avenge that loss and advance to its first ACC semifinals since 2011 when third-seeded Tech takes on the sixth-seeded Tar Heels.
North Carolina (17-9, 10-6) began its 2021 ACC Tournament in a similar fashion on Wednesday night with its most dominant performance of the season against Notre Dame. Already up 12 with 15 minutes remaining, UNC exploded for a 42-4 run, breaking 100 points and extending the lead to 50 at one point.
The Irish had absolutely no answers for North Carolina’s size in the paint, despite the Tar Heels’ not having star forward Garrison Brooks in the lineup. Armando Bacot paired with freshmen Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler combined for 50 points and 35 rebounds, each of them recording a double-double. UNC won the game 101-59.
Similar to the Hokies’ matchup with the Tar Heels in last year’s tournament, UNC was unstoppable on the boards. Last year, Carolina won the rebounding battle by 15 against Tech. On Wednesday, it was even more lopsided with the Heels having 23 more rebounds than the Irish, including 25 on the offensive glass.
Tech will have to shake off the rust quickly, as the Hokies come out of their second pause due to COVID-19 in the last month. The Hokies last saw the floor against Wake Forest on February 27 and looked to have their best stuff once again with a record-breaking 38-point win over the Demon Deacons.
Mike Young’s squad looks to have that same rhythm despite missing their last two games of the regular season. The difference between this break and the 17-day break that took place throughout most of February, is that Tech has been able to have full practices preparing for the tournament.
In order to avoid the same fate as Notre Dame, Young will look to his starting frontcourt, Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma, who have shown they can play elite defense and clean the boards throughout the year. That’s exactly what will be asked of the two big men against the Tar Heels, who will both be matched up against larger players on the block.
It’s still unclear whether Brooks will be available for Coach Roy Williams and Carolina on Thursday, but as seen on Wednesday, the trio of Bacot, Sharpe and Kessler are fine on their own.
Including last night’s ridiculous performance on the offensive glass, Carolina is the best in the nation at gaining second chances. The Tar Heels get an offensive rebound on 41.4% of missed shots. When it comes to winning the rebounding battle, the Hokies will be happy to have Tyrece Radford on the floor as well. Tech will have to crash the boards with all five players consistently. Radford is one of the best at that, averaging over six rebounds per game, despite standing at just six-foot-two.
Despite everybody being cleared to play in terms of COVID protocols, the Hokies won’t quite be at full strength as sophomore Jalen Cone will miss the ACC Tournament with an ankle injury he suffered in early February. Cone’s threat from the three-point line will be greatly missed as Tech tries to make a run and improve their standing for Selection Sunday.
Currently, both the Hokies and the Tar Heels are both nine seeds according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. A win for either team could be the push they need to improve their seeding and get out of the dreaded 8/9 match-up in the first round.
The winner will also get another chance to add to its resume in the semifinals on Friday night against Florida State. If the Hokies were to advance, Tech’s first two games in Greensboro would be against teams they did not play during the regular season. (FSU has already advanced to the semis thanks to their game with Duke being canceled due to a positive COVID test in the Blue Devil program.)
Tech almost certainly will have its name called on Sunday, no matter the result of Thursday’s game with the Tar Heels. However, the Hokies have an opportunity to prove themselves to the selection committee and put themselves just one win away from their first ACC Tournament Finals appearance in program history.