Ahead of Thursday’s NCAA tournament first-round matchup between the East Region No. 8 seed Wisconsin Badgers and No. 9 seed Virginia Tech Hokies, we asked Jawhar Ali from Gobbler Country, SB Nation’s Hokies site, to preview the game from the opposing side. Below is our conversation, edited only slightly for style and clarity.
1. What was the initial reaction to Virginia Tech’s seeding? Did it change at all once Hokies fans had a chance to check out the full bracket?
Many people were disappointed with the Hokies’ seeding. I think a lot of fans thought the team deserved at least a No. 8 seed and had plenty of questions as to why the Hokies were a No. 9 seed. But you have to remember, the last time Virginia Tech was in the NCAA tournament, the Motorola RAZR flip phone was the hottest thing on the market. The tournament committee may have factored that length of inactivity into its decision to give the Hokies a lower seed than most fans anticipated, in addition to one of the weaker non-conference schedules for major conference teams. However, the other No. 9 seeds—Vanderbilt, Seton Hall and Michigan State—probably don’t have as great of a resume as the Hokies. I don’t mean to be a homer here, but I also think that Tech is a better team than both Northwestern and Arkansas, two of the other No. 8 seeds. It’s a moot point at this juncture, as the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds play each other with the winner most likely waiting to play the No. 1 seed in the region.
2. Can you summarize Virginia Tech’s season for Wisconsin fans? What were the highs and lows, and most prevalent themes?
The Hokies had a great start to the season, with some struggles in the middle portion of conference play, but finished off the year strong. Part of their great start was due to their weak schedule, but the Hokies were blowing teams out. In their first ACC game, Virginia Tech throttled No. 5 Duke 89-75 in what was probably its best win of the season. The Hokies lost some of their mojo after that game, running through the gauntlet of a tough ACC schedule in which they were barely eking out wins and getting blown out on the road. They regained that edge after their double-overtime win against Virginia in which they were down 37-23 at the half. That win sparked a run where the Hokies won six of nine to end the season, where they won one tournament game against Wake Forest and lost to No. 3 seed Florida State.
The key themes for the Hokies this season have been “clutchness,” injuries and resilience. Virginia Tech has excelled in crunch time, sometimes due to Seth Allen possibly being the best clutch player in the country this season. The Hokies are 8-4 in games decided by five points or less. This has been despite losing one of their best players in Chris Clarke and one of their best bigs in Kerry Blackshear Jr. If those two were healthy, the Hokies could have easily been a higher seed in the tournament. Losing those two, in particular, did not derail the season, as the Hokies were able to win games with a seven-man rotation in one of the deepest leagues in the country.
3. How did Virginia Tech’s regular season compare to preseason expectations?
I think many people expected a tournament bid at the beginning of the season, just not in the way it transpired. Virginia Tech was seen as an AP Top 25 candidate throughout the season but it had a rough patch in the middle where it did not even remotely resemble a tournament-worthy squad. By the end of the year, the Hokies were a shoe-in for the tournament. Preseason expectations were definitely met and even exceeded considering how much adversity the team has been through with injuries and poor play. Again, when you make the tournament for the first time in a decade, it’s hard not to be satisfied with the results.
4. How do you think Virginia Tech matches up with Wisconsin?
Wisconsin was not the draw the Hokies wanted. The Badgers have shown to be an excellent defensive team this season which coincides with the Hokies’ greatest strength on offense. Having said that, the Hokies have been one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation. During conference play, Virginia Tech has made an absurd 41.4 percent of its deep attempts. Wisconsin, as you know, has allowed teams to shoot well against it from the perimeter this season. The other key part of this matchup is rebounding. Wisconsin is one of the best rebounding teams in the country with a 54.6 percent total rebound rate and does an excellent job on the offensive glass. The Hokies love to play small ball, which means their tallest player on the floor is Zach LeDay, who stands at 6’6. Ethan Happ could have a field day down low even though LeDay is one of the two best players on the Hokies. It is almost a certainty that Wisconsin will have more rebounds and more field-goal attempts, but the Hokies have a good chance if they can win the turnover battle, get to the free-throw line and shoot the ball well from the perimeter.
5. What’s your prediction for the game? Do you think most Hokies fans have similar expectations?
Another reason the Badgers are a tough matchup for the Hokies is due to their tournament experience. Wisconsin has reached the Sweet Sixteen five of the last six years while the Hokies haven’t done that since 1966. Both teams have contrasting styles of play, which should make for an interesting matchup on the floor and between Buzz Williams and Greg Gard. I think Wisconsin’s ability to rebound and its tournament experience will win out. The Badgers are one of the more under-seeded teams in the tournament as well. I think the Hokies have a better shot at winning this game (my odds are around 55/45 Wisconsin) than people think, however.