2019 NCAA Tournament: Virginia Tech - Liberty By the Numbers
As it was for their first round game (as shown in tweet below), Virginia Tech once again has a statistical advantage against Liberty, but the Hokies should also know that there are on-paper reasons why the Flames have a much better chance at pulling off the upset that Saint Louis couldn’t.
Here’s a breakdown of the stats, thanks to KenPom, between the Hokies and the Flames. As you can see, most of the statistics between the two schools are very similar. The Hokies have a higher offensive and defensive efficiency rate while both teams are dead even in effective field goal percentage.
Saint Louis was one of the worst offensive teams Tech faced all season, but were very talented on the boards. Liberty is somewhat of the opposite – they are a fairly talented shooting team but are not as outstanding on the offensive glass.
Taking Advantage Behind the Arc
One of the biggest differences between VT and LU, which is a huge plus for the Hokies, is three-point percentage. Tech is ninth in the country on offense, shooting 39.4% from behind the arc. The Flames are 94th in the nation in three-point defense, something the Hokies might be able to take advantage of.
On the flip side, the Hokies rank second in the nation in three-point distribution on defense. This means Tech’s points distribution of 3s to 2s is second worst in the country.
Against Saint Louis, this wasn’t an issue; the Billikens were 327th in the country in three-point field goal percentage. SLU finished shooting 4-23 (17.4%) from behind the arc.
However, the Flames aren’t Saint Louis – Liberty is 51st in the country in 3FG%, shooting 37% from behind the arc.
If you watch this video below, you’ll see the Flames hit quite a few clutch three-pointers in the last seven minutes of their game last round versus Mississippi State. When the Flames get going, they’re on fire – literally.
The Hokies will have to take advantage of the three-point shot as usual, but that’s where Justin Robinson factors in. I believe the senior guard will be the x-factor off the bench for Tech, helping draw the Liberty defense out to either: 1. Isolate Kerry Blackshear down low on the block, or 2. Get dribble penetration and kick out to three-point shooters.
It’s a style that should get Tech some wide open shots against a stifling Liberty defense that plays a style similar to Tony Bennett’s pack line defense at Virginia, likely due in part to coach Ritchie McKay having been on Bennett’s staff in the past.
On the opposite side of the ball, Tech will need to make sure to go above the screens set by the Flames and not let them get wide open shots. Mississippi State gave the Bulldogs too many wide open shots in the last seven minutes (see video), which sparked the comeback for the Flames.
Liberty Getting to the Free Throw Line
While this might not be the biggest key to this Commonwealth clash, it will most certainly play a factor.
Remember how Saint Louis was second to last in the NCAA in free throw percentage? Well, Liberty’s much better – they rank seventh, shooting 78% from the line.
However, when you look at their offensive free throw rate (FTA/FGA), which calculates a team’s ability to get to the charity stripe, the Flames rank 315th in the country. To put it in comparison, the Billikens ranked 30th in that category, so they were getting to the free throw line, just missing.
The Hokies do not usually send their opponents to the free throw line – they are 23rd in the nation in defensive free throw rate.
In their exhibition match in November, Tech shot 20-26 (76.9%) from the foul line, while the Flames shot 15-17 (88.2%). 19 fouls were awarded to the Hokies, 20 to the Flames. Blackshear and P.J. Horne were each charged with four fouls in that game, while Ty Outlaw had three.
The Hokies will have to stay out of foul trouble to keep control of the momentum in this game.
Tech won’t change their defense to stay out of foul trouble to start the game, but they’ll be aware of the problems it could lead to. If Tech is outplaying Liberty everywhere but the free throw line, the Flames will be able to stay in the game. The Hokies do not want that to happen.
Tough Forcing Turnovers
When Tech played Saint Louis, I stressed that turnovers would be key for the Hokies. Tech is 27th in defensive turnover percentage, while the Billikens were 214th. Combine that with Saint Louis playing right into Buzz Williams’ cover two style defense, it seemed like Tech would force SLU turnovers all game.
I was right. The Billikens turned the ball over 18 times, with Tech scoring 25 points off turnovers. The Hokies turned the ball over 11 times, in comparison.
The Flames are a completely different team, in this instance. They are 78th in offensive turnover percentage, meaning they do not turn the ball over as often. With Liberty also being able to shoot well from all over the court, the Hokies will be challenged and likely won’t have as many transition scoring opportunities or extra possessions via turnovers.
Hokies Have Their Hands Full
Tech needs to hit their shots, keep the Flames off the free throw line, force turnovers and go above screens on defense to close out on shooters. If they can do that, they will have a great chance to make history. Doing those things will give the Hokies their best chance to win and keep the Flames out of striking distance.
With a win, Tech picks up their 26th win this season, a program record, and advances to the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C.