KEYS TO THE VIRIGNIA TECH REMATCH
Two years ago, an 18-9 (8-6 Big East) Rutgers team traveled to Blacksburg to face the cellar-dwelling Hokies in a game that likely would wrap up an NCAA bid for Coach Gary Waters' upstart Scarlet Knights. But, continuing a trend of poor play on the road, the Scarlet Knights left their intensity at home and lost decisively, 63-49, to Virginia Tech and extinguished their dreams of a return to the NCAAs after an 11-year absence.
Two years later, a 16-9 (7-7 Big East) Rutgers team returns to Blacksburg in more desperate straits. The Scarlet Knights need three consecutive wins to get back on the NCAA bubble. Rutgers has won only one Big East road game since their last visit to Blacksburg. Rutgers is still a much worse team on the road than in the friendly confines of the RAC, shooting much worse and scoring many fewer points. The intensity is still lacking and despair sets in very quickly. Waters must address deficiencies if his team is going to reverse its road woes. Here are five keys to the rematch with Virginia Tech.
1. True Grit. The Hokies are young – starting three freshmen and a sophomore – and still lack talent. However, Virginia Tech is a tough, gritty team at home. They grind out wins much as Rutgers does. Rutgers must be prepared to match Virginia Tech's toughness and intensity. Otherwise, Tech will win an ugly game. The Hokies have won four in a row at home, including a win over Providence. They won't simply roll over for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights will have work hard for a second league road win.
2. Bryan Matthews. Matthews is the Big East's leading scorer, averaging 23 ppg. Matthews lacks the raw talent of many of the league's premier players. He is a blue-collar guy who relentlessly outworks and outhustles his opponents. That is bad news for a Rutgers team not known for its work ethic and hustle on the road. Specifically, Herve Lamizana likely will be matched up against Matthews. While Herve is taller and more athletic, Herve is a lazy and unaware defender. Exactly the type of player that Matthews can victimize with his effort. Much as Providence's Ryan Gomes did against Rutgers. Matthews likely will get his 20+ points against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights – especially Herve – must make Matthews earn those points. And do so without giving other Hokie players good shots because of double or triple teams. Matthews must score less than one point per equivalent FGA. If Matthew lights up Rutgers with efficient scoring, Rutgers will have great difficulty making up those points given their poor shot selection on the road.
3. Dribble Penetration. Rutgers offense is very primitive. The Scarlet Knights don't run a lot of designed plays to get good shots. With the exception of high screens set by the big men, Rutgers' offense is predicated upon individual players making their own shots or setting up their teammates. While the conventional view is that Rutgers lives and dies with the 3-pointer, that is a misconception. Rutgers' halfcourt offense thrives on dribble penetration. When the Knights are attacking the basket off the dribble, their shot selection improves dramatically. Rutgers' ability to shoot the 3-pointer forces defenders to run out at the shooters, creating opportunities for dribble penetration. When the Knights pass up the hurried 3PA and attack off the dribble, they break down the opposing defense. The result is either better mid-range jump shots, layups, fouls, open perimeter jumpers (off of kick-out passes), or open big men at the rim (off of dishes inside). Virginia Tech plays a lot of zone defense, much as does West Virginia. Rutgers successfully attacked the Mountaineer zone with dribble penetration. They must do the same against Virginia Tech.
4. Defensive Rebounding. Virginia Tech doesn't have a lot of scoring options. Only one other player – freshman G Zabian Dowdell –averages more than 10 ppg. And Dowdell barely does that. The Hokies are ranked 13th in FG% in the Big East. They miss a lot of shots. Which creates a lot of opportunities for defensive rebounds. To compensate for its offensive woes on the road, Rutgers must keep the score in the low 60s. At most. Rutgers must control its defensive glass and limit the Hokie halfcourt offense to one-and-done. The Scarlet Knights must grab at least 75% of the rebounds available on their defensive glass.
5. Transition. Since Rutgers shows such poor judgment in its halfcourt offense on the road, the Scarlet Knights must find other ways to score. Transition scoring is one such way. Plentiful defensive rebounding opportunities will likewise create lots of transition scoring opportunities. The Knights must push the ball aggressively upcourt and attack the basket before Virginia Tech sets its halfcourt defense. Such aggressiveness will result in better shots and more FTAs. Rutgers must score at least 15 points in transition.
An NCAA team beats Virginia Tech handily in a road game it absolutely must have. So, while the Virginia Tech game is an important game, it is not a big game. If Rutgers can't win in Blacksburg, the Scarlet Knights were never really in contention for an NCAA bid. Rutgers only had the illusion of being on the bubble. Like two years ago.
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