The Virginia Tech Hokies have a date with the Alabama Crimson Tide in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament. This season marks Bama’s first tournament appearance in six years, and with Collin Sexton at the helm, this Crimson Tide team can make some noise in an impossible-to-predict competition. Since this is an opponent the Hokies have not seen in 29 years, we had a Q&A with SB Nation blog Roll Bama Roll’s Brent Taylor to preview the matchup.
Gobbler Country: For those of us who don’t watch enough SEC basketball, could you take us through and describe Alabama’s season thus far? What were the highs and lows that landed the Crimson a tournament berth, especially since the team was only 8-10 in SEC play but managed to play well in the SEC tournament?
Brent Taylor: Man, this is the kind of question that could leave you with an entire novel of an answer. A little backstory: for the last decade, Alabama basketball has been stuck in a sort of mediocrity that is just good enough to keep coaches from getting fired too often, but not good enough to leave fans with anything other than a mostly-bland, slightly-bitter taste in their mouths. Coach Avery Johnson brought a spark to the program 2 years ago when he was hired, and then signed a recruiting class this year (with Collin Sexton) that is probably the program’s best ever, and brought all kinds of expectations with it. The Tide started strong out-of-conference, and nearly took down the then-ranked #14 Minnesota despite playing with only 3 players after nearly the entire team got suspended mid-game for leaving the bench when the weren’t supposed to.
Conference play opened up with a drubbing of the high-flying, undefeated Texas A&M, leaving us fans looking at what might be the best season since our 2004 team that made the Elite 8. Then they lost back-to-back games, including a 46-point offensive clunker against a bad Georgia team. And then right on the heels of that fresh disappointment, they turned around and won four straight, once of which was against the then-undefeated Auburn Tigers. A loss to Ole Miss was an immediate dowsing of cold water, but then 3 days later they turned around and beat Oklahoma with Trae Young.
A loss to Missouri followed, and then resounding win over the highly-ranked Florida Gators. You seeing the trend yet? Good, because then they lost to Mississippi State but turned around and beat No. 15 Tennessee. At that point, we were widely being projected as high as a 5 seed in the tournament. Despite the ugly losses to bad teams sprinkled in, Alabama had toppled quite a smattering of the top teams in the nation and boasted one of the best resumes in all of college basketball. But instead of coasting that into an easy tournament berth, they decided to absolutely quit and lose 5 straight games to end the season in an impressively terrible fashion. From a possible 5-seed to being potentially left out of the tournament altogether, most of us were rightfully frustrated and downtrodden about the whole sport in general. Fortunately, the Tide turned around and trounced Texas A&M and Auburn in the SEC tournament before being eliminated by Kentucky (no shame in that) in the semifinals.
GC: We all know who Collin Sexton is. What does he do well, and how can the Hokies contain the incredibly talented freshman?
BT: Sexton is a dynamic player, that’s for sure. He’s at his best when driving to the basket, and as it’s said around here, he’s “quick as a hiccup.” You can have a man guarding him at the top of the key, and then suddenly he’s going right down the lane for an easy lay-up, and it just doesn’t quite make sense with all the laws of physics. When he drives, he’s also great at two other things: drawing a foul and/or drawing defenders away from someone else in the box, and he has the vision to make some crazy dump-off passes inside the lane. He can be a good 3-point shooter if left unguarded as well, though I wouldn’t call him a sharpshooter or anything.
Truthfully, containing him isn’t that hard though. Compress in the box so that anytime he drives, he has to go over/around a center as well as the man already guarding him. Then just keep him from dumping it off to a big man in the paint. When he runs out of options, he can get impatient and start throwing up bad shots. Once you start forcing Sexton to be the hero rather than a distributor, he loses a lot of his flow for the game and presses too much.
GC: Who are some other players on Alabama who don’t get as much credit as Sexton, but have been instrumental to the team’s success?
BT: Donta Hall. The 6’10” center is in his 3rd year, and has gone from an energetic shot blocker off the bench as a freshman to a dynamic offensive threat as well this year. He’s got an inhuman arm span and relentless energy all pent up in a gangly body that has him blocking shots left and right. Plus he dunks. A lot. While Sexton gets most of the press, Donta Hall is the man that has led and energized this team throughout the year. He’s still working on polishing his jump shot game, but he’s been known to occasionally hit a turn-around 16 footer if his defender plays too off of him in fear of getting dunked on.
Dazon Ingram is also a 3rd year player with a lot of experience who plays both wing and reserve point guard for Sexton. He’s a physical, 6’5” guard who excels at driving to the basket straight through guards that are usually smaller than him. He’s a great rebounder as well, and one of the more consistent players for Alabama—usually in the top 3 in scoring most every game.
Also look out for freshman Herb Jones off the bench. A 6’7” guard with a lot of reach, he can be a terror on defense, blocking shots, nabbing rebounds, and rolling across the floor for loose balls. Plus he has like a world record for drawing charges.
GC: Overall, what are ‘Bama’s strengths and weaknesses? Do you see Virginia Tech as vulnerable to those strengths or able to take advantage of their weaknesses?
BT: Alabama’s strength is their speed and length combinations. All the guards are tall and rangy, and all the forwards can really move. They excel at scoring within 5 seconds of crossing halfcourt, and can get in some major scoring rhythms with transition offense. Collin Sexton making a crazy reverse layup or an alley-oop to Donta Hall are the kinds of things that can get this team absolutely rolling.
On the other hand, once they slow down on offense and get forced into a perimeter game, things can go awry. Freshman John Petty is a 3-point specialist that is only special about every 3rd game. If he’s hot, then he can make a defense pay until they loosen back up for Sexton to get into the heart of it again. If he’s not, then things go poorly for long stretches of time.
I think a lot will depend on how well Kerry Blackshear Jr. does at shutting down the lane. If he can limit Donta Hall’s touches while just getting in the way of Sexton and Ingram, it will be a long day for the Tide.
GC: KenPom rates the Crimson Tide’s defense as the 13th best in the country. What does Alabama do well to keep opponents from scoring the basketball?
BT: Again, the answer is length. When nearly every Alabama guard is as tall as many team’s forwards, you just get a lot of shots that are either blocked or just affected. Unless you’re named Kentucky, most teams struggle to get a strong game in the lane against the Tide. They do seem to have a little bit of a weakness against teams that can consistently hit 3-pointers, but then, who doesn’t have problems against them?
GC: Finally, it’s prediction time. Who do you have winning this game and why?
BT: Between Alabama’s hot-and-cold play all season and Virginia Tech’s similar roller coaster, I honestly am not even sure what to expect. My first thought when it was announced was that it was a tough matchup for us and that the Hokies will send us out one-and-done… again. But after I’ve sat and thought about it, I think Alabama just may come out hot after the loss to Kentucky. But, I think my pessimism is going to win out, and the Alabama offense bogs itself down for a long stretch of the first half to a margin that they never recover from. So, for giggles, lets say Alabama- 68: VT- 76. With my confidence on that at about a 50%.
Thanks for joining us and answering our questions, Brent (and we especially appreciate the prediction).
There will be a Q&A from the Virginia Tech’s perspective where I answer Brent’s questions about the Hokies on Roll Bama Roll coming up soon.
I’ll have my official preview of the game out sometime in the next day.