Virginia Tech at Penn State
Virginia Tech (2-2) made the trip to Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout and it turned out to be a mostly humbling experience. After blitzing Eastern Washington by 17, the Hokies got bounced by Butler in the semis then lost big (82-64) to Gonzaga in the third-place game. A 69-64 home win over Elon to get the season started has Virginia Tech at .500 through four games. Right now it does not look like the Hokies are ready for the bigtime, which is what the Big 10-ACC Challenge usually qualifies as, but the good news for fans in Blacksburg is that Penn State is one of the least formidable of the possible opponents.
Virginia Tech is hoping to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, where last season the Hokies got by Illinois 54-52 in the first round before suffering a 63-48 blowout at the hands of Southern Illinois. Overall VT went 22-12 and posted an impressive 10-6 record in the ACC.
In order to get back to the Big Dance the Hokies will have to overcome the loss of seniors Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordon, and Coleman Collins. Arguably the best freshman class in Hokie history will help greatly in that effort. Jeff Allen and Malcolm Delaney are already making noticeable contributions. The leadership, however, will come from veterans Deron Washington and A.D. Vassallo. Virginia Tech is athletic enough and quick enough to give any Big 10 team fits, but the key will be the young guards controlling the offense and taking care of the ball.
Penn State (2-3) chose the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Florida for its pre-season tournament, and the Nittany Lions might be regretting that decision. They came away with a last-place finish after going winless in three tries. The Lions lost to South Carolina 74-67 in the opener, suffered a disappointing 82-73 setback to Rider in the first consolation game, and then they were finished off 70-59 by Central Florida in the seventh-place (or last-place) game. Two prior home wins against St. Francis (PA) and Canisius leaves Penn State with an at least respectable 2-3 record heading into the Big 10-ACC Challenge.
The Nittany Lions are hoping to rebound from a season in which they digressed markedly following the 2005-2006 campaign. Despite returning four starters from a team that went a respectable-for-PSU 6-10 in the Big 10, Penn State plummeted to a 2-14 conference record last year. Overall the Lions went 11-19.
Coach Ed DeChellis won’t be helped by the fact that he lost both components of his starting backcourt. Guards Ben Luber and David Jackson are gone and backcourt-mate ax Dubois transferred. That’s not to say Penn State shouldn’t be significantly better than last season’s abomination. DeChellis has stars in swing-man Geary Claxton and power forward Jamelle Cornley and a strong incoming class should give the Lions a measure of athleticism that was sorely lacking last season.
This athleticism should prove especially value for defense, of which the Nittany Lions played almost none in 2006-2007. They’ll have to play some of it against an athletically-gifted Virginia Tech team, because the only way Penn State can hang in there is if it forces the VT guards into turnovers. If Claxton and Cornley step up in the spotlight they could carry PSU to victory, but overall Virginia Tech has the deeper and better team and that should prove to be decisive down the stretch.
The pick: Virginia Tech by 5.