No. 8 Virginia Tech (21-11) vs. No. 9 Alabama (19-15)
Virginia Tech is headed to Pittsburgh as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll be taking on No. 9 seed Alabama, who made the field after going on a good run in the SEC Tournament last week. Should the Hokies make it past the Crimson Tide, their reward will most likely be a date with No. 1 seed Villanova, who won the National Championship two seasons ago.
But first Tech must make it past the first round, which they haven’t done since 2007 when they rallied late to defeat No. 12 seed Illinois in Columbus, OH. They’ll face an Alabama team that is coached by NBA veteran Avery Johnson. He is in his third season in Tuscaloosa, and this marks his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Here’s a look at Johnson’s body of work thus far…
2015-16: 18-15, 8-10, NIT first round
2016-17: 19-15, 10-8, NIT first round
2017-18: 19-15, 8-10, NCAA
Totals: 56-45 (.554), 26-28 (.481)
Johnson replaced Anthony Grant, who Virginia Tech fans will remember from his days as VCU’s head coach. Is Johnson an upgrade over Grant? Time will tell, but the early indication is that no, he is not. Here were Grant’s numbers at Alabama…
2009-10: 17-15, 6-10
2010-11: 25-12, 12-4, NIT Runner Up
2011-12: 21-12, 9-7, NCAA first round
2012-13: 23-13, 12-6, NIT quarterfinals
2013-14: 13-19, 7-11
2014-15: 18-14, 8-10, NIT second round
Totals: 117-85 (.579), 54-49 (.524)
Grant had a better overall winning percentage, and managed a winning record in SEC play. He also had three 20-win seasons. Unless the Tide beat the Hokies on Thursday, Johnson will not have had a 20-win season in any of his first three years. However, Johnson did coach in the playoffs four times in the NBA, and took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals at the end of the 2005-06 season.
Alabama is in the 2018 NCAA Tournament as a result of their high number of quality wins, and their run in the SEC Tournament. They had seven victories over Quadrant One opponents this season, including wins over Texas A&M and Auburn in the SEC Tournament. The Selection Committee seemed to place high value on Quadrant One victories this season. For example, UNC is a No. 2 seed despite having 10 losses because they have 14 Quadrant One wins and their computer numbers are so high.
The Crimson Tide showed the ability to win big games this year when they needed to do so. They also showed the ability to play poorly for long stretches. They had three Quadrant Three losses to Minnesota, UCF and Ole Miss, and they also lost five games in a row heading into last week’s SEC Tournament before making their run to the semifinals.
Overall, it was a somewhat frustrating, up and down season for Tide fans. To go along with those big wins, they also lost to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, both of whom finished at the bottom of the SEC standings.
Alabama has two big things going for them. They play good defense, and they have a big time point guard. Here’s a look at the statistical comparison between the two teams, from @OX_VT on Twitter. As you can see, the Crimson Tide have been a good defensive team this year.
Alabama ranks No. 56 nationally in defensive efficiency, and they rank No. 18 in the country in three-point percentage defense. Many NCAA Tournament games evolve into slower paced affairs than their regular season counterparts, and statistically speaking, it seems as if the Crimson Tide would want to play that type of game against the Hokies.
Ten different players have started games for Alabama this season. I won’t try to guess Alabama’s starting lineup, but I’ll give a glimpse of their main players.
G Collin Sexton (6-3, 190, Fr.): 31 games, 30 starts. 19 ppg, 110 assists. Sexton is a big time freshman who is current projected to be a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. He willed the Tide to a win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament with a fullcourt drive and buzzer beater to end the game.
G John Petty (6-5, 195, Fr.): 34 games, 29 starts. 10.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg. Petty was another good freshman signing for Avery Johnson. He didn’t have a great year shooting the ball, at just 38.8% from the field and 36.2% from three-point range. However, overall he was one of Alabama’s most reliable players.
G Dazon Ingram (6-5, 207, So.): 33 games, 31 starts. 9.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg. Ingram is Alabama’s best rebounding perimeter player, and arguably their best overall rebounder, pound for pound.
F Donta Hall (6-9, 232, Jr.): 32 games, 29 starts. 10.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg. Hall is Alabama’s top post presence. He averages 23.9 minutes per game. Hall has been in concussion protocol since Friday’s win over Auburn in the SEC Tournament, and it’s unknown if he will play against the Hokies.
F Braxton Key (6-8, 225, So.): 24 games, 15 starts. 7.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg. Key is a Charlotte native who would be very familiar with ACC programs. He played for Oak Hill Academy, and he was listed with a Virginia Tech offer out of high school.
G Herbert Jones (6-7, 200, Fr.): 33 games, 11 starts. 4.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg. Jones is a long wing and one of several freshmen who plays a big role for Avery Johnson. He averages just over 21 minutes per game.
G Avery Johnson, Jr. (5-11, 187, Jr.): 33 games, 0 starts. 4.2 ppg, 1.1 rebound per game. Johnson is the son of head coach Avery Johnson.
C Daniel Giddens (6-11, 247, So.): 33 games, 18 starts. 4.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg. Giddens is more of a true center than anyone else on Alabama’s roster, but he only averages 13.3 minutes per game.
F Alex Reese (6-9, 250, Fr.): 30 games, 1 start. 3.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg. Despite his size, Reese is able to step out and shoot the three-pointer, going 22-of-69 (31.9%) this year.
F Galin Smith (6-9, 235, Fr.): 31 games, 3 starts. 2.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg. Smith is one of many post options for Avery Johnson.
Alabama generally uses a 10-man rotation, and just because a player starts doesn’t mean he will play for the majority of the game. We don’t know what Johnson’s starting lineup will look like on Thursday night, and it doesn’t really matter.
Two factors give Virginia Tech an advantage. First and foremost, 40% of Alabama’s playing rotation is made up of freshmen, and three more are sophomores. There are no seniors at all among the rotation. That gives the Hokies an experience advantage. Second, the Crimson Tide can’t shoot, as OXVT’s graphic above shows. They are one of the worst teams in the country in three-point percentage, specifically, so on paper Virginia Tech’s defensive strategy of denying the ball to the post and forcing outside shots should work well against Alabama.
On the other hand, Alabama will have the most talented player on the court in Collin Sexton. He had 27 points in the win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, and 31 points the next day in the victory over Auburn. He is capable of taking a game over at any point.
If the Hokies advance, we’ll be back later in the week with a preview of their second round opponent.