The stage is set. The Hokies are dancing for the second season in a row. The host is the
beautiful warm exciting existing city of Pittsburgh. No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Alabama.
Goodness was Alabama an up and down team this season.
The Tide's main gauntlet that stands out to me was the January 27 to February 10 stretch. In those 14 days, Alabama beat No. 12 (lol) Oklahoma, No. 23 Florida by 18, and No. 15 Tennessee ーSEC co-regular-season champs ー by 28. Seems pretty good to me.
Not so fast.
During that same stretch, 'Bama lost to Missouri (sans Michael Porter Jr.), and Mississippi State.
The Crimson Tide finished the regular season on a five-game losing streak, but turned around and won two games in the SEC Tournament to advance the semifinals. That run included an 18-point blowout victory against Auburn. Alabama went into halftime down by 10 in that game. To create a 28-point swing is impressive by itself. To do it against the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament is eye-opening.
But the Crimson Tide followed up that quality win with a 23-point loss to Kentucky. To be fair, the Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the country. But come on. That's a huge difference in back-to-back games.
If you haven't heard the name before now, I'm impressed. The 6-3 true freshman is easily one of the best point guards in the country.
- Averages 19 points a game
- 44% shooter from the field
- Averages 4 assists per game
- Plays almost 30 minutes every night
Sexton has scored in double figures in each of the past 14 games. All of those games, save for just two, were 15+ point performances. Six were 20+ showings. In the last four games, he's put up 23, 27, 31, and 21.
TL;DR: Sexton is really really good.
He's blazing fast, hyper-aggressive and NBA-ready. Devin Wilson touched on his skills after Selection Sunday.
"Sexton's a very good guard ... they made a little bit of a run in their tournament. Game winner [by Sexton], and taking out Auburn as well."
— Alabama Men's Basketball (@AlabamaMBB) March 8, 2018
Buzz Williams sang Sexton's praises as well on Selection Sunday.
"They have arguably the number 1 point guard in the NBA draft ... I know how good Sexton is ... I do think that Sexton will be the number one pick as a guard in the draft in a few months."
Sexton is great when running a fast-break. He has the quickness to get to the rim, but also is dangerous as a shooter. That balance of skills causes defenders to respect the pull-up.
"Every time he touches the ball, he's a threat. He's not taking his foot off the gas pedal," said Justin Bibbs. "If he gets it 94 feet, he's going full speed. He plays for his teammates at times, plays for himself at times. He's just a great player."
"Fast. Crazy fast with the ball," added Nickeil Alexander-Walker. "I think he's one of the fastest I've seen in awhile. He's going to headhunt his shot. He wants his shot."
Sexton is also adept at getting to the charity stripe. He draws 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes (top-10 in the country) and attempts over 10 free throws a game. That type of player is a matchup issue for the Hokies, as Tech is just 3-9 on the season when their opponents free-throw rate (free throw attempts per 100 shots), is above 35%. I fully expect Sexton to be attacking the rim for 40 minutes against the Hokies.
But on the flip side of that, the revamped Virginia Tech defense has created a focus on preventing rim attacks. Tech has started to clog the lane, limiting the number of layups that opponents gets. It's a complete clash of what Sexton hopes to do with the ball.
"We're going to stay 'us', no matter who we play. With him, it helps a lot," explained Alexander-Walker. "I think that packline is going to force them to take a lot of contested threes. Long two's. I think that plays to us well."
That type of matchup is one that could decide the game on Thursday night. If the Hokies can step up and stop the drive, they'll more than likely advance to the next round.
Bama's Supporting Cast
The other concern for the Hokies' defense is shooting guard is John Petty. He's a freshman sharpshooter who can get red-hot from the beyond the arc in a hurry. He's a 36.2% shooting from deep, and averages 10.1 points per game. However, Petty is 13 for 45 (28%) from three in the last seven games. If the Hokies want to have a better shot at advancing, they'll have to hope that slump continues to hold true.
Donta Hall is the third and final Alabama player to average double-digit scoring this season. The 6'9" forward scores 11 points a contest. But, he's still in a concussion protocol and may not be available on Thursday night.
Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said on Wednesday that Hall will be a gametime decision and that he's probably around a 60% chance to play.
Those are the main threats for Alabama. To be completely honest, this 'Bama team will go as Sexton does. I've read a couple articles comparing Sexton's impact to Alabama as the same as Kemba Walker was to Connecticut. I could see it.
|Team||RPI||Average RPI win/loss||Pomeroy||Sagarin|
|Virginia Tech||61||163/42||32nd overall
39th in AdjO (115.0)
54th in AdjD (98.4)
5-6 vs. Top 25
6-10 vs. Top 50
116th in AdjO (108.5)
13th in AdjD (94.6)
2-4 vs. Top 25
8-9 vs. Top 50
|Team||Q1||Q2||Q3||Q4||Best Wins||Worst Losses|
|Virginia Tech||5-7||3-3||5-1||8-0||at UVA
|vs. Saint Louis
vs. Notre Dame
vs. Florida State
vs. Auburn (2x)
vs. Rhode Island
at Ole Miss
The main stat that stands out to me is Alabama ranked 13th in Pomeroy adjusted defense. That's impressive.
"They're long and athletic," explained Bibbs. "Being able to stop guys and keep them in front of you is a huge factor. They're not necessarily small, like how we play, but they're not really big either."
Williams also proclaimed his respect for Alabama's defense.
"If you really pay attention and studied the evidence of their numbers, and the more I watch tape of them, I think they're very good defensively."
Another statistic that was mentioned by Williams during his press conference on Wednesday was Alabama's pace of play.
"If you studied the numbers that matter, and you put Alabama in the ACC, they would be third in the league, relative to tempo," said WIlliams. "They would replace us. We're third."
It's lame to repeat information, but it's about to happen, so brace yourself. Again, Alabama is a very fast team. They're going to push the tempo.
"Getting into a track meet with them, I don't think we would mind at all," said Bibbs. "But it has to be our type of track meet. It has to be organized and how we play. We can't bend it to how they play."
The Hokies' tendency to score at the rim needs to be noted. Virginia Tech takes 46% of its shots at the rim. That ranks in the 99th percentile nationally. And related to that, Tech shoots 63% at the rim (70th percentile). Alabama allows an opponent to take only 28.5% of their shots at the rim (90th percentile).
That matchup is yet another key to the game. The Hokies will need to attack the rim and play their style of basketball.
Keys to the Tournament for Virginia Tech
It's no secret what Virginia Tech has excelled at this season — fast tempo, getting to the rim, ball movement, and three-pointers.
But recently, the Hokies have shown their proficiency on the defensive end as well. Playing an almost UVA-like packline defense, Tech has made it almost impossible for other teams to get inside for layups. Instead, Tech's opponents are forced to jack up contested three-pointers as the shot clock expires.
"I think we need to be able to guard them as a unit, as all five of us, as we have been doing the last couple games that we've been in this new style of defense that we've been trying to play," explained Wilson. "I think if we're able to guard everyone and stay as a unit, I think we'll be alright."
It's been said that defense wins championships. Virginia proved that last Saturday with their victory in the ACC tournament. For such a long time, the Hokies' defense has been a liability. Now, it might be a strength.
It's also always mentioned that a team should be playing their best basketball in March. To be honest, Tech isn't. The Hokies have played a total of two games this month. Both have been losses. The Hokies squandered double-digit leads in both. Both losses were demoralizing. And yet, Wilson isn't worried. In fact, he thinks it's a good thing.
"The past two weeks we haven't played our best basketball, and I think that might work in our favor," Wilson said. "We came in seeing what we needed to work on, and now we're able to correct it, instead of kind of riding that high horse and think that everything is okay when maybe they're not."
The Hokies can beat anybody when they play to their strengths. Even the No. 1 team in the country on their home court.
That's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. Any team can get hot. For Virginia Tech, the potential is there, but now is the time for it to come to fruition.