Personal Note: This is my 5th season covering Tide Hoops here at Roll ‘Bama Roll, and my first covering the good guys in the NCAA Tournament. I am currently writing this article with a massive grin on my face. Alabama is finally dancing again!
With the fanfare of Selection Sunday now a few days removed, the reality of the situation really starts to set in for the 9th-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide: it was dealt a really difficult hand. Avery Johnson’s squad will head up to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for an 8-9 battle with the Virginia Tech Hokies (21-11, 10-8 ACC)— with the winner more than likely having to draw top-seeded Villanova in the second round. That is not exactly ideal, but that’s life in the NCAA Tournament, and in no way is that upsetting.
Hokies coach Buzz Williams knows his way around the tournament, having previously coached Marquette to five straight appearances from 2009-2013 before arriving in Blacksburg in 2014. Williams got the Virginia Tech program turned around pretty quickly, as the Hokies made the NCAA Tournament last season for only the 9th time in history, and the first time since 2007. Now, the Hokies are headed back looking to advance past the first round this season, after falling to an under-seeded, experienced Wisconsin club last year. Make no mistake about it: this group has a big edge on Alabama in tournament experience.
On top of that, the Hokies are incredibly well balanced. They rank 39th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 54th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They have five different players who average double-digits scoring, and they play an unselfish brand of basketball that saw them finish 32nd in the country in assists this season. This is a very good team, one that could make the argument as being maybe the best in the program’s history. They are considered to be the best 8-seed in the field, and the winner of this game has been forecasted by some as a potential sleeper to make the second weekend. Virginia Tech can play some ball.
Not that Alabama is any stranger to that. The Tide ended up playing a total of 18 games against NCAA Tournament teams this season. They certainly won’t be intimidated. This should be easily one of the most entertaining match-ups of the first round, and Alabama has a strong chance to come out on top.
- POINT 6’1 Justin Robinson (13.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
- GUARD 6’5 Justin Bibbs (13.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.6 APG)
- GUARD 6’5 Ahmed Hill (10.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.8 APG)
- GUARD 6’5 Nickeil Alexander-Walker (10.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- POST 6’10 Kerry Blackshear Jr. (12.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.9 BPG)
As mentioned, this is a very balanced unit. Robinson is the guy who gets it all going, though. With a 32.7% AST% and an assist-to-turnover ratio over 2:1, he’s the gear that drives the whole offense. He’s a nice shooter as well (45.7%/40.0%/77.2%), so Alabama must be ready to defend him as both a scorer and a distributor. That makes him pretty deadly. Bibbs is the pure shooter on the floor (48.7%/39.1%/73.3%). With an offensive rating of 114.0 and an AST% at only 9.0%, clearly he’s looking to score the basketball. He’s only a 4.5% rebounder, and his defensive rating is a poor 107.5. Bibbs gets buckets, and that’s his role. Alabama needs to make sure he’s not able to get off many good looks.
Hill and Alexander-Walker are both high quality complementary guards as well. Both shoot the ball as efficiently as the other two do (Hill: 48.8%/41.0%/73.8%; Alexander-Walker: 45.1%/39.3%/74.6%), and both rebound and assist at ~10% clips. It’s honestly pretty crazy how similar Virginia Tech’s guards are, and it makes it very difficult to defend them. In the front-court, Blackshear Jr. mans the post on his own. A 55.7% scorer, even he has the ability to step out near the perimeter and knock down shots (30.6% 3P%). His most important attribute though, of course, is his 14.3% REB%. He’s the only player in the rotation that is taller than 6’6.
- GUARD 6’4 Devin Wilson (2.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.8 APG)
- GUARD 6’1 Tyrie Jackson (3.0 PPG, 1.5 RPG)
- GUARD 6’1 Wabissa Bede (2.3 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 0.8 APG)
- WING 6’6 Chris Clarke (8.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- WING 6’5 P.J. Horne (4.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
The Hokies have 10 guys that have played at least 27 games this season, but they aren’t necessarily a very deep team. Most of these guys are decent players, and will one day be major contributors on this team, but, with the exceptions of Wilson and Clarke, they just aren’t specifically significant to the outcome of this game.
Clarke is quite note-worthy though. A rare mix of strength, athleticism, size, and speed, Clarke is an outright game-changer off of the bench. A de facto starter (24.8 MPG), Clarke can score at any level (57.1%/40.6%/65.0%), run the floor, rebound (team-best 15.7% REB%), dish the rock (21.3% AST%), and finish at the rim with the best of them. He’s one of the most fun players to watch at the college level, and he will have a major impact on this game.
Three Keys to Victory
- Dominate Around the Rim. The Hokies are about as well-rounded of a team as they come. However, if there is a weakness on this squad, it has to be the interior defense and rebounding. With only one true post player (and Clarke), it’s not difficult to see why that is the case. Virginia Tech only blocked 73 shots the entire season. Donta Hall has blocked 68 himself. The more glaring issue for Tech is the rebounding though. The Hokies rank 203rd in Defensive Rebound Rate, and 312th in Offensive Rebounding Rate. Avery Johnson has indicated that Hall will be a game-time decision Thursday night, as he is still recovering from his concussion. Whether or not he plays may be the biggest key to the game. With Hall, Alabama has a really good chance of dominating the Hokies on the interior and on the glass. We saw how much of a difference it made when Alabama flipped the script on Auburn in the 2nd half of their SEC Tournament game last week and started dominating the boards. The Tide out-scored the Tigers 55-20. Virginia Tech is a similarly built team. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if Avery continues to go big against a smaller group, or if he decides to keep the Tide’s more versatile defenders in the game, because while a two-big line-up could wreck havoc in the post, it could also leave the Tide vulnerable to outside shots.
- Perimeter Shooting. You may have noticed in the roster breakdown, but Virginia Tech can light it up from outside. The Hokies know how to find open shots, and when they do they are pretty good about knocking them down (38.5%, 37th in the nation). Alabama’s defense has been pretty stingy more often than not, but they will need to be on their ‘A’-game for this Virginia Tech offense, because they can hurt you from pretty much anywhere on the court. On the flip side of that, if Alabama can answer with some outside shooting of its own, the Tide may be able to void out what should be, on paper, a big advantage for Tech. John Petty, who had been MIA for almost a month, looked like he finally rediscovered his stroke late in the Tide’s last game against Kentucky. Hopefully that carries over to Pittsburgh, because if Alabama can stretch Tech’s defense out and open up some lanes, watch out. Collin Sexton, Dazon Ingram, and Braxton Key are at their best when they have room to put the ball on the ground and drive the lane.
- Free Throws and Turnovers. Considering how many tight games Alabama has been involved in this season, one has to wonder how much higher the Tide could have finished up if they would eliminate silly turnovers and make their free throws at a better rate. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, is very solid in both of these areas. The Hokies are 67th in Turnover Percentage, and 189th in the country at 71.0% from the line. This is more than likely going to be a fun, back-and-forth game between two very different teams. If Alabama can do a better job of valuing the basketball and cashing in at the free throw line, they have a very good chance of getting the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2006.
The Tide is finally back in the NCAA Tournament, but they’ve got no time to pat themselves on the back. Virginia Tech is a very solid team that can be really dangerous when they get going from the three-point line. Unlike Alabama, who relies a ton on Collin Sexton to create on offense, the Hokies spread the love all night long. Their ability to get multiple scorers going at the same time makes them incredibly dangerous, especially since they pair it with some solid defense. However, Alabama is a deeper, bigger team overall. This should be a fun battle between two very different teams with similarly high ceilings.
At the very least, make sure to cherish seeing Tide Hoops back where they should be: dancing in March. Hopefully this won’t be the last time Collin Sexton balls out in an Alabama uniform.
The game will tip-off at either 8:20 PM CDT, or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Villanova game. The game will be televised on TNT.