Last year, Virginia Tech returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade as the up-and-coming program facing an experienced 8 seed in Wisconsin. While the Hokies fought hard, Wisconsin's talent and experience shined bright on the Badgers' way to beating the Hokies and upsetting #1 overall seed Villanova two years later.
This year, the Hokies enter the NCAA Tournament as the experienced team in their first round matchup against a young Alabama team making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012. While VT is still a program on the rise, the Hokies have the benefit of last year's experience as they face an Alabama team led by one of the top freshmen in the country in Collin Sexton.
It's hard to argue that the Hokies or Crimson Tide didn't deserve the seed they received. If anything, a credible argument can be made that a 19-15 SEC team who lost five-straight before going 2-1 at the SEC Tournament shouldn't be higher than a 10 seed instead of getting a 9 seed. Despite that,
Alabama found some rhythm in the SEC Tournament
while the Hokies have shown how high their ceiling is in their big upset victories at UVA
and at home against Duke
and North Carolina
. Both teams have shown that they have very high ceilings and are starting to play some of their best basketball even if they are still a little inconsistent.
Virginia Tech: Justin Bibbs
You've probably heard plenty about Justin Robinson facing Collin Sexton in the lead up to this game, but one man that can't be discounted in Justin Bibbs. The senior guard is second on the Hokies averaging 13.1 points per game, shooting a career high 48.7% from the field, and is only averaging 1.1 turnovers per game.
Bibbs has been shooting a career low 39.1% from three, but Bibbs has been able to make some big threes in big moments for the Hokies and won't be intimidated by the stage. Having a veteran shooter like Bibbs for a big stage like this is advantageous for the Hokies as he won't be intimidated by the stage.
While most of the attention will be on Sexton and Robinson, keep an eye on Bibbs as a guy who could go off and have a big game in pursuit of his first NCAA Tournament victory.
Alabama: Collin Sexton
NBA scouts will have their eyes focused on Collin Sexton during the night session in Pittsburgh. Sexton has been as good as advertised averaging 19 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game this season his way to earning SEC Co-Freshman of the Year honors. The former five-star point guard should be a lottery pick this spring and will be one of the first point guards selected this spring.
Sexton is a dynamic scorer who can find plenty of ways to score and turn a nothing play into a bucket. Give Sexton space to get some momentum going to the rim and you almost have no chance at stopping him from scoring.
Collin Sexton is a special talent and will likely be one of the best basketball to ever play for the Crimson Tide. Tonight, Sexton has a chance to build on his legacy that is highlighted by a game-winning layup in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
Keys to the Game
1. Crash the Boards
Rebounding is an issue for the Hokies as we've mentioned in our By The Numbers preview
of tonight's game. Fortunately, the Hokies are facing an Alabama team that isn't a great rebounding team either and may be without their best big man in Donta Hall who is a game-time decision due to a concussion suffered against Auburn last Friday.
However, we've seen the Hokies have some rebounding issues even against teams that they probably shouldn't. Over the final few games, VT did show signs of improvement on the glass against some of the conference's smaller teams. Alabama does have some size though even if Hall is out, but it's a little more unproven led by Daniel Giddens who only averaged 13.3 minutes per game this season.
If the Hokies can be as effective on the glass as they were against other smaller teams like Clemson
, it'll make a difference in the end even if VT has other issues as they did against Miami with too many turnovers.
2. Make Free Throws
Virginia Tech has had some struggles from the free-throw line, but they're facing an Alabama team that has been much worse at the charity stripe this season. The Hokies, despite some of their struggles, are shooting 71% from the line while Alabama is shooting a dismal 67.2% from the line.
Time and time again, free-throw shooting has made the difference for the Hokies both in a positive and negative way at times. As the experienced teams that has been shooting at a higher rate from the charity stripe this season, the Hokies should be the team that is better at the line.
The Hokies need to get the job done at the free-throw line as a team that likes to attack the rim and therefore, draw some fouls. If not, they could help Alabama a little when attacking the rim and make them more comfortable with fouling to prevent a basket.
Experience matters in March, and the Hokies have the benefit of last year's NCAA Tournament to prepare them for this year's game. While Alabama does have a couple really talented freshmen including Collin Sexton, the Hokies have a deep group of scorers full of experienced guys who are used to playing big games.
One of the biggest things to watch will be the status of Alabama big man Donta Hall who suffered a concussion against Auburn in the SEC Tournament. Avery Johnson told the media yesterday that a game-time decision will be made about Hall. If Hall is out, it gives the Hokies an advantage in the post with the more talented and experienced Kerry Blackshear, something that would make a major difference.
Either way, Alabama doesn't have a lot of guys they can look to as scoring options outside of Sexton. Meanwhile, the Hokies have multiple guys that can lead the charge including Justin Robinson, Justin Bibbs, and Kerry Blackshear.
The matchup between Robinson and Sexton will be one of the best individual matchups of the first round games with two talented, attacking point guards facing off. If Robinson can find a way to contain Sexton and force him into mistakes, Alabama is going to have a hard time winning this one.
Virginia Tech and Alabama have both shown that, at their best, they are really good. The question is which teams will show up tonight. If one team has been more consistent, it's the Hokies who are 8-5 in their past 13 after a 2-4 start to ACC play while also going 3-2 in their final 5 regular season games. However, Alabama has momentum from their conference tournament after ending a five-game losing streak with back-to-back wins.
The big difference in this one is on the defensive end as the Hokies have been significantly lately with their matchup zone giving plenty of teams nightmares including a veteran Notre Dame in the first half of their ACC Tournament. While the Hokies may not be able to contain Sexton, they'll be able to slow down the rest of Alabama while experienced guards like Justin Robinson and Justin Bibbs step up and get the job done to lead the Hokies to their first NCAA Tournament win in over a decade.
Pick: Virginia Tech 73, Alabama 67
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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