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No. 13 Virginia Tech gets shot at Power 5 team Washington

No. 13 Virginia Tech hasn't played a power conference team since Nov. 27. In that game, the Hokies lost to Penn State, 63-62.

Virginia Tech and Penn State both made 44 percent of their field goals. Virginia Tech made one more 3-point shot (10-9) and four more free throws (8-4).

The difference? Penn State earned seven more field goal attempts (57-50). The Nittany Lions' 44-percent shooting mark translated to 25 made field goals. Virginia Tech's 44-percent clip meant only 22 makes.

The source of that small but essential difference: Penn State outworked Virginia Tech on the offensive glass, 14-8.

Virginia Tech knows that as it returns to power-conference play on Saturday in Atlantic City against Washington, it has to change the equation on the glass, chiefly in keeping opponents off the offensive backboard.

"It's going to be a consistent (process) -- keep gaining ground, keep gaining ground, keep gaining ground," Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear said. "Rebounding is going to be a big difference in how far our team goes this season."

With suspensions and NCAA eligibility questions still limiting the size of the available roster, rebounding remains the concern for an undersized team with a short bench. It is still the main talking point surrounding the Hokies as they try to move forward. Against Washington and other high-major opponents, Virginia Tech is all too aware of its central in-game needs.

"We're getting better at it, finding tips and everything," Ahmed Hill said of his team's attempt to make rebounding less of a weakness. "Everybody's trying to rebound, fly in and grab it. I think everybody's understanding more this year that we have to rebound to win games."

The Hokies are 292nd in Division I in rebounding. They have pulled down only 298 rebounds so far this season. Their pressure defense, their highly skilled backcourt, and their ability to generate points off takeaways are considerable strengths, but the rugged theater of combat on missed shots - the precious piece of real estate within six feet of the basket - is where this team has to be able to play opponents to a stalemate. Merely avoiding a bloodbath on the boards will noticeably improve Virginia Tech's chances against Washington or any other power-conference team the Hokies play.

As Virginia Tech's focus turns to Saturday, one highly intriguing aspect of this clash is that Washington - a team which plays some 2-3 zone under Jim Boeheim protégé Mike Hopkins - isn't built to rebound that well. Zone teams often struggle to rebound. The Huskies aren't as bad as Virginia Tech on the glass, but they are hardly a good rebounding team, at 171st in Division I with 349 rebounds this season. Washington has only 12 more offensive rebounds than the Hokies, 101-89.

Hopkins is aware that Virginia Tech will pose a formidable obstacle for his Huskies in Atlantic City.

"They're attack, attack, attack," Hopkins said of the Hokies. "Challenge is good - that's how you grow. You grow by bendin' it, pushin' it, pullin' it - trying to go out of your comfort zone. I really believe these (non-conference) games are going to help us."

Hopkins specifically acknowledged that Virginia Tech's guards will be hard for Washington to handle:

"Justin Robinson is a jet - he is as good a guard as there is in the country," Hopkins said of Virginia Tech's floor leader.

Jaylen Nowell will try to be Washington's counter to Robinson and Virginia Tech's other star guard, Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Nowell has been named Pac-12 Player of the Week twice in the past month. On Dec. 5, in Washington's 81-79 loss to then-No. 1 Gonzaga, Nowell unfurled a masterpiece. He played 38 minutes against an elite opponent on the road and scored 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting with six assists and only one turnover. He is shooting 44 percent for the season on threes. He will gain Virginia Tech's full attention.

The battle between the backcourts will gain everyone's attention in Hokies-Huskies. The battle of the boards, however, is likely to tell the tale in Atlantic City.

Updated December 15, 2018

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