Henry Skutt: Well, let's start somewhere obvious. Collin Sexton. The star freshman for the Crimson Tide is averaging 19 points per contest while shooting at a 44% clip. Buzz Williams said in his interview on Selection Sunday that he's "arguably the No. 1 point guard in the NBA draft." What should Hokie fans expect to see on Thursday night from #2 in crimson?
Caleb Turrentine: Speed. Collin Sexton has elite speed and that is the reason he's NBA ready after just one collegiate season. So if Hokie fans are seeing much of anything, it's probably a good thing for Virginia Tech. Sexton and Alabama are at their best when they are on the run. The Tide's point guard is great in transition and can finish at the rim against anybody in the country (see Texas A&M finish). If there was one thing I would warn Virginia Tech fans about, it is Sexton's ability to get to the free throw line. It has to be frustrating from an opposing team's standpoint. He's averaging 10.1 free throw attempts per 40 minutes - chances are he plays closer to 40 minutes than his season average 29.8 minutes. Sexton can be a difference maker but keeping him on the perimeter should be the key to stopping him.
Who steps up for Alabama if Sexton doesn't? AKA, what player should Tech fans expect to go off for 25 points on Thursday night?
Donta Hall would be the easy answer here but he is still day-to-day in concussion protocol. If you are asking for points specifically, John Petty is probably the only one capable of scoring 25 points on any given night. He can score in bunches, especially when he is hot from beyond the arc. He has made at least four 3-pointers in eight games this season, including a performance against Auburn when he made eight 3-pointers and Sexton was out with an injury. With that being said, if Sexton does not get his 20 points, it will have to be a team effort with guys like Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key combining for the 30 missing points. Alabama is 9-1 this season when Ingram scores 10 or more points. I could certainly see that being a trend that continues on Thursday.
It's been a roller coaster season for Alabama. A particularly volatile stretch consisted of, in order: Win against Oklahoma. Loss to Missouri. 18-point victory against Florida. Loss to Mississippi State. 28-point win over eventual SEC co-regular-season champ Tennessee. I get stressed from just thinking about those swings in emotion. What did that stretch teach the 'Bama fanbase about this team and what should it teach Tech fans?
This is a terrific question because I am still not sure what the stretch told us about Alabama. It might just be to expect the unexpected. That specific stretch of games was quickly followed up with a five-game losing streak before making a run to the SEC Tournament semifinals. I think that Alabama fans feel exponentially more confident after wins. If the Tide can pull it off on Thursday, the expectations will be to beat Villanova. Nothing about this team has made sense this season so there's no reason to start now.
Alabama made a run in the SEC tournament, making it to the semifinals as the No. 9 seed. That stretch of games included a win over No. 1 seed Auburn, a contest in which Alabama was down by 10 at halftime. 'Bama started the second frame on an 21-5 run though, and eventually won by 18. Tech, on the other hand, gave up a 21-point lead in their one and only conference tournament game. What, if any, impact do you think the vastly different performances in conference tournaments will have for the two teams on Thursday night?
Alabama is a very young and inexperienced team. You might think because of that comeback, this is the type of team that does not know any better when to quit. However, there have been times this season (i.e. loss at Auburn) when the team does not respond well and looks to quit on itself after falling behind early. I think momentum certainly plays a factor in March but I do not see Alabama having a 35-7 second half run or Virginia Tech blowing a 21-point lead on Thursday.
Obligatory Q&A question now. Who wins on Thursday night, and why?
This answer could change quite a bit between now and tip off but right now I think the edge goes to Virginia Tech. The Hokies have been in this spot before and do not want to be leaving after one round again. Donta Hall can be a huge difference in this game but I am not confident he will be seeing the court. Tech obviously can shoot but if Hall is out, the Hokies may have the advantage on the inside as well. I think this will be fun and should be close but give me Virginia Tech 75, Alabama 71.