Virginia Tech guard Ahmed Hill was born and raised in Georgia, but throughout his high school career, the redshirt junior recalls keeping tabs on Kentucky.
Little did Hill anticipate when he committed to the Hokies that he would be part of the first team in program history to face the eight-time national champions at Rupp Arena.
"Growing up you always wanted to play there," Hill said. "They've always been a great team, so it's going to be a great day for competition."
The Hokies' debut at the storied venue in Lexington, Ky., set for Saturday afternoon at 2, is also a significant step up in competition. Virginia Tech has ripped off a 9-1 start with, by some statistical measures, the most prolific offense in the nation. But the Hokies haven't faced a team close to the size and talent level of the eighth-ranked Wildcats, nor have they played in an environment like 23,500-seat Rupp Arena.
"It's as good of an environment, in my opinion, as there is in the country, but I think it's comparable to others within our league," said Hokies Coach Buzz Williams, who won twice at Rupp in the 2013 NCAA tournament when he was at Marquette. "To the veterans, I would just say it's similar to other places. For our new guys, it'll be their first opportunity to play in that type of an environment."
It will be Virginia Tech's first game in six days and its most challenging nonconference opponent following an early-season schedule that began Thursday ranked 339th out of 351 Division I teams, according to KenPom.com. Their opponents had a combined record of 43-55, with only three of them above .500.
The Wildcats (8-1) are the first ranked team and the fourth from a Power Five conference Virginia Tech will have faced this season. The Hokies coasted past Washington, 103-79, in the 2K Classic in New York; handily defeated Iowa, 79-55, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge; and, in their only true road game before the visit to Kentucky, outlasted Mississippi in overtime, 83-80.
Based on KenPom.com metrics, the victory over the Rebels is Virginia Tech's most impressive this season. Mississippi is 77th in the advanced statistical website's ratings, which are one of several used by the NCAA selection committee to evaluate a school's tournament profile.
Kentucky, ranked 14th by KenPom.com, starts five freshmen, four of whom are projected first-round picks in next year's NBA draft. The Wildcats are also one of the tallest teams in the nation, with six players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller. The Hokies have one regular player that tall: 6-10 starter Kerry Blackshear Jr.
"I think the only chance you have at beating Kentucky is limiting their second shots and doing everything possible regardless of your scheme to try to force them to take shots outside the paint," Williams said. "They're just so, so long."
Despite all the preseason talk in Blacksburg about a renewed commitment to defense, the Hokies are scoring at the highest clip in the country, averaging 96.2 points per game. They've reached 100 points three times, and outscored their opponents by an average of 25.5 points, tops in the country.
Virginia Tech also ranks second nationally in three-point field goal shooting percentage (46.8) and fourth in assists (19.9) as well as first in advanced metrics such as offensive efficiency (1.24 points per possession); effective field goal percentage (64.2), which gives added weight to three-pointers; and true shooting percentage (134), which accounts for free throws as well as all field goal attempts.
In their most recent game, a 93-40 win against visiting Maryland-Eastern Shore on Sunday , the Hokies made 15 of 27 three-point field goal attempts and shot 55 percent. Virginia Tech has made at least 10 three-pointers in a game five times this season.
Four Hokies scored in double figures against UMES, led by Chris Clarke's season- and game-high 18. The junior guard-forward made 7 of 9 field goal attempts and a career-high three three-pointers.
Clarke was Virginia Tech's third-leading scorer last season but missed the final nine games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has scored in double figures in three of the last four games.
"We're excited, definitely, because we know this is a big test," Clarke said of Kentucky. "But we're not trying to make it a bigger deal than it is. We're still going to go in there and do what we do, Hokies basketball."
Virginia Tech last played the Wildcats in the 1996 NCAA tournament, an 84-60 loss in the second round. The schools have played four times overall, with Kentucky owning a 3-1 advantage.
Kentucky is coming off a 93-76 win against visiting Monmouth this past Saturday in which the Wildcats committed 19 turnovers.
The Wildcats were outscored in the second half, 45-39, leaving Coach John Calipari somewhat apprehensive heading into their matchup with Virginia Tech.
"I worry because we're going to get into league play, and every game's going to be up or down five," Calipari said. "It's not going to be 20. They're all going to be wars, and I'm not sure we're ready to play a 40-minute game. The games we have with Virginia Tech, with UCLA, with Louisville, we've got tough games coming up."