Virginia Tech has already faced many top NBA prospects this season. They began on December 16 when they took on the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari is known for his ability to lure top prospects to Lexington. The Hokies went head-to-head with the likes of potential lottery picks such as Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on that day back in December. Tech couldn’t close out the victory, but that experience on the road perhaps helped them later in the season, as they went 5-4 in ACC road games.
Virginia Tech later faced Duke, who has five potential first round picks in their starting lineup. Four of those players are freshmen, including probable lottery picks Wendell Carter, Jr. and Marvin Bagley, III. The Hokies lost to a Bagley-less Duke team in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but came back to defeat the entire Blue Devil roster on Senior Night in Cassell Coliseum.
Tech will face a similar challenge on Thursday when they face Alabama freshman point guard Collin Sexton in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think he’s the best guard in the country,” Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams told the gathered media in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. “I think the draft in June will reflect that.”
Sexton is expected to be a lottery selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. As of now, NBADraft.net projects him as the No. 9 overall pick to the New York Knicks. As a comparison, Bagley is projected to go No. 2 overall, Carter is No. 7, and Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander are No. 11 and No. 12, respectively.
Plenty of Alabama players have had an impact on the team’s success this season, but none has been as good as Sexton. He single-handedly willed his team to a victory over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament when he drive coast-to-coast to end the game on a buzzer-beating finger roll. Sexton took the inbounds pass with just over four seconds remaining, and somehow made it into the paint on the other end of the court before time expired, making the last second shot in the process.
That victory over the Aggies sent Alabama from the wrong side of the bubble into the NCAA Tournament, while their victory the next day over Auburn improved their seeding to a No. 9. Sexton had 27 and 37 points in those two games. For the season, he led the Crimson Tide by averaging 19 points per game. He also topped the team in assists with 110.
Buzz Williams believes there will be lots of broken plays in this game, and he feels that how the Hokies guard Sexton on his second touch is as important as how they guard him on his first touch.
“I think because there will be so many broken plays and because of offensive rebounding, how we handle [Sexton] on his second touch, I think is critical,” Williams said. “We can’t be flat on his second touch. We all have to guard the ball per se and be in the gaps on his second touch.”
In recent weeks, Virginia Tech has been very good at denying penetration and forcing the opposition into a lot of bad shots from long range. Junior guard Ahmed Hill sees that as the key ingredient to stopping Sexton, as well as the Crimson Tide as a whole.
“We are going to do the same thing, not let anyone drive to the paint,” Hill said. “We have to contain him and not let him get any easy looks. That’s pretty much it.”
Despite the presence of such a dominant player on their roster, the Crimson Tide still only went 19-15 overall and 8-10 in the SEC this season. Their inconsistencies also show when you look deeper into their numbers. They had seven Quadrant One wins, but a trio of Quadrant Three Losses. They were also defeated by the SEC’s bottom two teams, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. No one knows exactly which Alabama team will show up on Thursday night.
“They are a very streaky team,” Virginia Tech freshman guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “When they get hot and start rolling, they are pretty hard to stop, so I feel like we just have to continue with the highs, don’t let the lows get too low, and make sure we get to the free throw line and stay out of foul trouble.”
In SEC circles, Sexton is known as a player that is highly competitive and who can get in the head of other players.
“I can’t speak to that,” Buzz Williams said. “I can speak to his talent, but yeah – we’ve played against a bunch of guys that are competitive. Hopefully we have some guys on our roster that have that same competitiveness. But his talent is semi other-worldly.”
Will that “semi other-wordly” talent be able to knock of a more experienced Virginia Tech squad on Thursday night? Time will tell, but for now the Hokies are looking forward to the challenge.
“The ACC Tournament left a bitter taste, but it was what we needed,” Alexander-Walker said. “In a sense, it was an upset and a reality check. This is the tournament for upsets, and we want to make sure that it doesn’t happen now, and we are doing everything that we can in preparation so that come Thursday night, we are ready.”