Friday, February 12, 2010

game preview: Gauntlet of Doom

If it wasn't before, it's time to get serious now. Put on your war face, lock up the valuables, break out the lucky t-shirt, whatever it takes to get ready for the week ahead. By this time next week, we'll have an extremely good idea about where we stand if we're thinking about dancing.

Honestly, if you're a Virginia basketball fan, and you probably are, could you ask for anything better? Three games to determine our tournament fate, and two of them in hostile gyms against the two biggest rivals we've got. That is a worthy challenge. Tomorrow, a revenge game against Virginia Tech. Monday, equally-despised Maryland in snowbound DC. And Wednesday, back to the friendly confines for the enigmatic Florida State. Because our tournament hopes rest so heavily on this three-game stretch, it's only fitting they all get lumped into one big-ass preview.

A sweep of either variety will seal our fate. Losing all three will set us back to 5-6, and if you think 10-6 is good enough for the tournament, then you'd better hope we can get past Duke, because 9-7 will not do the trick. Winning all three, if I might be allowed to hope against hope we can pull off that stunt, would get us to 8-3, with extraordinarily winnable (albeit road) games against Miami and BC remaining, as well as an already-beaten Maryland at home. Barring a collapse of stupid proportions, we'd be a very, very good bet to get in.

Much more likely is some kind of combination, and, no, 1-2 ain't gonna cut it any better than 0-3 would. Your best hope is a 2-1 split of some kind, landing us at 7-4 with work to do but the finish line clearly in sight.

Joe Lunardi fans will note that it's fitting we start this run off with VT, because check out who the first two teams out of his latest bracket are. As close as these two teams are in the tournament race, if we're going to go 2-1 in this three-game stretch, this is definitely not the game to lose. If we don't make the tournament, the first VT game will be the #1 cause of woulda-coulda-shoulda-itis among loyal Hoos. I still have a hard time believing we're actually a worse team than Tech is, but you wouldn't know it by the way we closed out the halves. The other flaw in that theory is that VT is riding a pretty nice hot streak. Not only did they get their kicks in on UNC like everyone else, they also dispatched NC State and Clemson with prejudice - the latter with a huge assist from the referees. How often does a team score more points from the free-throw line than the field and still win? Anyway, bitching about Karl Hess aside, this is still the most winnable game of the three.

Maryland is next, and it would have already happened if Maryland was interested in following ACC protocol. (Both teams and two of three refs in town? Game on, even if the arena is a ghost town because the city is buried under another blizzard. I wonder who in our administration signed off on a postponement?) Maryland is a fast-paced team with a high-powered offense, and one of the few teams in the league that has someone who can match Sylven Landesberg bucket for bucket. You might want to rip Greivis Vasquez's throat inside out every time you watch him play, but you can't deny he's one of the top all-around players in the conference, and worse, he's got a highly competent supporting cast.

Hate to say it, but Maryland is one of the best teams in the conference. Their low turnover numbers are even more impressive given the number of possessions they generate, they have a lot of players that can beat you, they don't foul much, and their ACC resume is impressive.

In order to beat Maryland on the road, it'll be necessary to slow the game down even more than usual. The Twerps can score from all over the court and with a lot of different players, and they're deadeye shots from the free-throw line, so "snail's pace" doesn't even begin to describe how we want to play the game. If the Hoos win, it might well be the lowest scoring game all season, because we're certainly not winning a shootout. A win here would be a clear upset. To put it in a little perspective, KenPom says our chances of beating Duke at home are better than winning Monday at Maryland.

As for Florida State, argh big men. This is decidedly a frontcourt-oriented team, with bigs Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton doing the job of putting points on the board. We have no answer for Alabi and he will crush us, because he's seven damn feet tall, and he and Singleton make the best shot-blocking tandem in the conference. The UNC formula is going to be the key here: deny that entry pass like your life depends on it. This may actually be easier than it seems. FSU is a turnover-prone team, and not just because the bigs handle the ball so much. Their guards don't take good care of the ball either, and they also won't scare anyone with their three-point skills. The outcome of the game likely boils down to one very simple equation: the more their guards have the ball and the less their bigs do, the better our chances of a win. And the opposite is the case on the other end. When the other team has shot-blockers, it's obviously more effective if you can just shoot over them from the outside instead of trying to go at them head on.

This coming week in order from easiest to hardest, you've got VT, TFSU, and Maryland. And there's a big gap between the Hokies and Noles. That means that VT is the biggest part of this big week. Lose on Saturday and a tournament-killing 0-3 run will be staring us in the face. Win in a hostile gym and it just might (in my ever-sunny outlook) be the catalyst for an exciting run.

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