One of the more under-rated NCAA Tournament matchups in the first round is Friday’s clash in the East Region between the 4 seed Virginia Tech Hokies and 13 seed Saint Louis Billikens. The game will be played out in San Jose with the Hokies favored by 10.5 points.
The Billikens were one of the last teams to punch their ticket, as well as an unlikely inclusion in the field. They were the 6 seed in the Atlantic-10 Tournament but they won four games in four days, culminating in a comeback win over St. Bonaventure in the finals. St. Louis is now a suddenly hot team that is entering the tournament with a 23-12 record.
Meanwhile, the Hokies assured themselves of an at-large bid a long time ago. Virginia Tech ended up finishing 5th in the ACC this year, which isn’t half bad considering the league has three of the four no. 1 seeds in the tournament. Virginia Tech closed the season by winning six of their last nine games, including an upset of Duke, to finish 24-8 overall.
Back Justin Time
Returning in time for the start of the NCAA Tournament is Virginia Tech point guard Justin Robinson. The senior has missed the last 12 games of the season with a foot injury. Even though the Hokies managed to go 7-5 without him, including that upset of Duke, Robinson is still the heart and soul of the team. If he’s fully healthy, which is still a fairly sizable “if” at this point, he’s a game-changer for Virginia Tech.
The good news is that the Hokies have other players who can step up, as three others aside from Robinson averaged double figures this season. Kerry Blackshear Jr. is a beast in the post who can take over a game if the opponent doesn’t have a reliable post defender. Nickell Alexander-Walker is also a reliable scorer and solid passer. In fact, the Hokies are great at sharing the ball and finding the open man, which is why they’ve managed to survive Robinson’s absence.
St. Louis’ run in the A-10 Tournament more or less came out of nowhere, and they somehow have to find a way to harness that momentum and carry it over to the Big Dance. It was actually the team’s defense that was the catalyst for the Billikens during those four wins. They gave up just 55 points per game during their four A-10 Tournament wins. Keeping teams off the scoreboard for long stretches and forcing turnovers is how they won those games.
However, it might take more than that to keep pace with a good offensive team like Virginia Tech. The Billikens shoot just 31% from the perimeter as a team, which doesn’t bode well for them. Javon Bess and Tramaine Isabell, the team’s top scorers, are both capable outside shooters, but for the most part, they rely on their ability to get to the rim. That could be difficult against a Virginia Tech team that plays with great defensive energy.
Gonna Get Ugly
The Billikens figure to struggle offensively in this game, and the Hokies may not be much better as they try to integrate Robinson back into the fold. Ultimately, Virginia Tech should survive in advance, but 10.5 points is a lot to cover in what should be a low-scoring affair. Bet on Virginia Tech to win but St. Louis to beat the spread.