One year later, the Virginia Tech Hokies are back in the NCAA tournament, seeking their first win the competition since 2007. And six years after their previous tournament berth, No. 9 seed Alabama will be the opponent. This will be the first meeting between these two sides since 1989, when the Hokies walked away with a 76-75 victory. Alabama leads the series history 9-4.
The Crimson Tide finished the regular season with a 19-15 overall record, with an 8-10 mark in the SEC, which proved to be a much deeper conference this season. Bama started strong but ended the season on a low note, losing their final five SEC games by an average margin of nine points. The team was in danger of not even qualifying for the field at that point. However, Alabama was able to turn their fortunes around in the SEC tournament with a buzzer-beating win over Texas A&M (No. 7 seed) and a resounding thumping of Auburn (No. 4 seed) before falling to eventual SEC champion Kentucky. Along with their wins earlier this season and a difficult schedule, Alabama was able to pencil in their spot in the bracket.
While Alabama has played better recently, Virginia Tech has come down to Earth a bit after defeating Duke in Blacksburg. The Hokies were 18-1 prior to their last two games when holding a halftime lead, but are now 18-3 after leading by as many as 12 against Miami and 21 against Notre Dame. Those losses have left a sour taste in the locker room.
“The way we finished that game [Notre Dame] wasn’t how we wanted to by any means,” said Devin Wilson, after the Hokies learned their seeding in the upcoming tournament. “That’s something where I think we go into the NCAA tournament going, ‘Hey, the worst has kind of happened.’ We can start a new season. Everyone’s been itching to get back out there.” (h/t to the Washington Post for the quote)
From now on, there are no mulligans. Virginia Tech will need to play with the energy they played with in the first half in each of those games for 40 minutes to avoid a repeat last year’s fate.
Per KenPom, Alabama has the 117th ranked offense and the 13th ranked defense. Their Net Adjusted Efficiency of +13.86 ranks 51st in the country. In their 18 wins, the Crimson Tide defense has held opponents to just 65.4 points per game on 37.8 shooting. Overall, Alabama allows opponents to shoot 41.3 percent from the field and only 31.9 percent from deep. This is a team that wins on the defensive end, and allows their players to use their talent to beat players one-on-one on offense.
Stylistically, Alabama’s offense is predicated on scoring the ball on the interior. Of course, having Collin Sexton helps with that due to handles and his ability to get to the basket. Over 64 percent of the Tide’s shot attempts come from inside the arc, and they convert on 53.2 percent of those attempts. That efficiency ranks 56th in the country. However, Alabama is not nearly as deadly from three-point range. They have one of the lower three-point attempt rates in the NCAA and make only 32.5 percent of their threes.
Alabama also does not generate points off of consistent ball movement, as their 49.5 percent Assist Rate ranks 245th in the country. But again, they have players that can create shots and points on their own. Kerry Blackshear Jr. has to be careful since Alabama loves to attack the paint, as early foul trouble for the Hokies’ big man could spell doom for Virginia Tech. The Tide rank 49th in the nation in FT/FGA, evidence they get to the line plenty. Like Tech, Alabama struggles at the free throw line, converting on 67.2 percent of their charity stripe attempts as a team.
Projected Alabama Starters:
Head Coach Avery Johnson has tinkered with the lineup as of late, playing four different sets of starters in the last five games. But assuming junior Donta Hall recovers from his concussion in time for tip-off, here’s my best guess for the Tide’s starting five.
Collin Sexton – G – 6’3”
Dazon Ingram – G – 6’5”
Herb Jones – G – 6’7”
Galin Smith – F – 6’9”
Donta Hall – F – 6’10”
Alabama possesses great size at nearly every position. They will certainly have the size advantage in this one, but obviously being the smaller team is something the Hokies are used to. Alabama is not as dangerous on the glass as one might think. Their 50.2 percent rebound rate is right around average, as well as their offensive rebound rate.
Obviously, you cannot discuss Alabama without pointing out future NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton. The freshman point guard has been everything the Tide wanted when he arrived in Tuscaloosa. On the year, the 6’3” Sexton averages 19 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, which are outstanding numbers. He can get to the basket with ease, and although he may not be the most efficient three-point shooter, he can get hot if you leave him open. Against Auburn in the SEC tournament, Sexton was at his best, going 6-of-8 from three en route to a 31 point, 7 rebound performance. It is rather easy to tell when Sexton has found his groove.
“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.”
The Hokies have generally done well at cutting off dribble penetration since the first Miami game, daring perimeter shooters to beat them. They should be prepared to take on this challenge. Justin Robinson facing off against Sexton will be one of the best player matchups in the first round, and the Hokies’ point guard certainly seems up to the task.
#Hokies guard Justin Robinson on Alabama's Collin Sexton: “He likes to trash talk. I like when guys do that to me, so I really hope he does a little bit to get me going. I like that about him. I like that he doesn’t back down from anybody. I don’t back down from anybody."— Norm Wood (@normwood) March 14, 2018
Donta Hall has a concussion, as I mentioned earlier. He owns the second most Win Shares on Alabama after Sexton, and it would drastically hurt the Tide’s chances to win if he cannot play.
Hall is incredibly important to Alabama. It would be a huge, huge loss for the Tide if he can't go. Hall is second on the team in points, leads the team in rebounding, and is the team's Energizer Bunny. #Hokies https://t.co/DqWQbkfoJq— Jawhar Ali (@soundslikejafar) March 14, 2018
Hall’s size is another reason Alabama is effective scoring the ball in the paint. He can finish over and through opposing big men and he will put even more stress on Kerry Blackshear at the rim. On the other end of the floor, Hall averages 2.1 blocks per game for an insane 9.7 percent Block Rate. His rim protection will be a major factor in deciding the outcome of this one. Often times Hall’s blocks spring Alabama into their transition offense, something they excel at given their talent, length, and athleticism. For the season, Hall averages 10.9 points and 6.8 boards per game.
Dazon Ingram is another dangerous option for the Alabama offense, averaging 9.9 points per game. He is adept as a slasher with his ability to get to the rim on straight line drives. At 6’5”, Ingram has the size to finish over some of the smaller guards the Hokies will use to defend him. He is not a great three-point shooter, so the Hokies will have to stay disciplined on Ingram’s pump fakes so they do not allow easy middle penetration.
One more key player to watch is freshman John Petty. He is the best three-point threat on Alabama, knocking down 36.2 percent of his downtown attempts. The Hokies do not really need to worry about the 6’5” Petty driving past closeouts, as he is almost exclusively a floor spacer with a .776 three-point attempt rate. Petty has been effective all season scoring 10.1 points per game, albeit inconsistent with his shooting.
The starting lineup I listed above (which will probably be wrong) rounds out with guard Herb Jones and forward Galin Smith. Jones has started 11 games this season but has not been very productive scoring the basketball, averaging only 4.2 points per game on 40 percent shooting. However, Jones does a lot of the little things well, such as defend and rebound. And when you add in the fact Jones is 6’7”, he becomes a quality role player to have. Smith does not do as much, averaging just 2.6 points per game but still adds more size and rebounding ability to an already lengthy team.
Braxton Key, a product of nearby Oak Hill Academy, is another player with length, standing at 6’8”. Key is a plus-rebounder, snagging 5.5 rebounds per game. Rebounding will no doubt be a critical piece of the puzzle for the Hokies, who have to ensure they do not give a great defensive team more shot attempts. Daniel Giddens, listed at 6’10”, provides more size in the front court and averages 4.2 points per game. I would not be surprised to see Avery Johnson keep his big men fresh by using a rotation to wear down the Hokies’ interior as the game wears on.
Having all that size without on the floor without sufficient shooting can actually be beneficial for the Hokies. They can afford to pack the paint and simply outnumber Alabama when they battle for rebounds. Duke decided to play three 6’10” guys and were unable to properly space the floor as a result, shooting under 44 percent in the loss in Cassell as the Hokies were able to key in on the paint while on defense.
Despite Alabama’s stout perimeter defense, the Hokies would be well served trying to get shooters open shots. Intuitive, I know, but it will be especially important tonight. This will help open up the lane a little bit more and negate some of the shot-blocking the Tide possess. Justin Bibbs, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Justin Robinson need to consistently threaten the three-point line to give Blackshear space to operate on the low block, assuming he is not in foul trouble.
In their losses, ‘Bama has allowed opponents to shoot 37.5 percent from three, a significant increase over the season average numbers. Kentucky shot Alabama out of the SEC tournament, going 12-of-18 from three. It is impossible to expect a repeat of that performance from the Hokies but hitting 36-to-38 percent of their threes would give them a great chance to win. Virginia Tech cannot start settling for threes, however; that is how the offense sputtered against Notre Dame which sparked the comeback for the Irish.
Virginia Tech also has to win the turnover battle. Alabama has a 17.6 percent turnover rate which ranks in the bottom third of the nation. Although it may not seem like it, the Hokies have been one of the best teams in the country at taking care of the rock with a 15.2 percent turnover rate. Over the last month, forcing turnovers while not giving the ball away themselves has resulted in more shot attempts for the Hokies. For an efficient team like Virginia Tech, this is a positive. Forcing live ball turnovers will also generate transition opportunities where the Hokies’ speed and quickness should be showcased. Easy buckets are never a bad thing in elimination games.
A third key of the game is something I sort of mentioned earlier, and that is to pack the paint. Alabama has not been a great three-point shooting team all year, and although tournament games tend to break trends, you want to defend against a team’s strengths. Tech must continue to “run to the fight” in the paint and rebound collectively as a team. They must also communicate well to shut off any dribble penetration against the zone. Given Alabama’s size and athleticism, one mistake could be costly, especially against Collin Sexton.
And as usual, keeping Blackshear out of foul trouble will be paramount.
Alabama’s defense is certainly very good, maybe even elite. However, I do have questions whether some of the role players outside of Sexton for the Tide can step up and match the freshman’s ability to score the rock. Virginia Tech is the more well-rounded team, and although they may not be as deep, they certainly have a good bit of tournament experience. Alabama’s length does present some problems, as we have seen longer teams give the Hokies some trouble lately (see: Louisville). Despite losing their last two games in heartbreaking fashion, the Hokies have been a resilient team all year, and I think their mental makeup, shooting, and talent will beat out Sexton and Alabama’s size. It will be a close one. The last two victories for the Hokies over Alabama have been one-point wins, and I’m picking a third one to happen tonight.
Virginia Tech 70-69.
How to Watch
Time: 9:20 PM EST
Venue: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh)