The No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup in the East Region is the epitome of this March Madness: wide-open. Just as it is often tough to differentiate between teams seeded right in the middle, this NCAA Tournament field has an unusually large number of teams poised to make a deep run and another large group talented enough to prevent that effort.
The Hokies (21-11, 10-8 ACC) make their 10th tournament appearance — their second consecutive trip — while the Crimson Tide (19-15, 8-10 SEC) are back in the field for the first time since 2012 and the 20th time overall.
Thursday will mark the 15th game between the two schools. Alabama leads 9-5 in the all-time series and 4-2 in neutral-site contests, but this will be the first meeting since 1989, a one-point Virginia Tech win in Blacksburg.
Only two teams in this tournament field can claim wins over the overall top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers. Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech squad, however, is one of them (West Virginia is the other). But that one-point win over the Cavaliers on Feb. 10 wasn’t the only important win on the Hokies’ résumé. Against teams in this year’s field, Tech struggled early on, losing to Kentucky, Syracuse, Virginia, Florida State and Miami. Only two days after the loss to the Seminoles, though, Virginia Tech came right back and beat North Carolina by 11. The Hokies closed the ACC season 4-2 in their final six games against tournament teams, beating NC State, Virginia, Clemson and Duke with losses at Duke and at Miami.
The veteran leadership on this team has been crucial to Tech’s success. The top four scorers on this team (senior guard Justin Bibbs, redshirt junior guard Ahmed Hill, junior guard Justin Robinson and redshirt sophomore forward Kerry Bleackshear Jr.) all have been with the program for at least three years.
Looking back, Alabama head coach Avery Johnson can see a similar pattern in his team’s non-conference and SEC schedule - started strong and faltered late. Alabama started 6-0 this season and closed November 7-1, but opened December by losing three of five. The Tide later ripped off a string of four straight SEC wins and another where they won three of four, before dropping the final five games of the regular season.
Their final two wins came in the SEC Tournament against Texas A&M and Auburn, solid performances which bolstered their résumé substantially. Youth leadership is the story with this team, as four freshmen and one sophomore started in Alabama’s SEC Tournament loss to Kentucky.
East Region: No. 9 Alabama Crimson Tide (19-15) vs. No. 8 Virginia Tech Hokies (21-11)
Time: Approximately 9:20 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh, PA)
Keys for Alabama
An No. 8 vs. No. 9 game tends to come down to the wire, which means that free throws can often swing the game in one direction or another. Good news for the Tide, who excel in that department.
As a team, Alabama is top five in the SEC in both attempts (778, fourth) and made FTs (523, fifth). As a product of his dynamic playmaking ability, freshman standout guard Collin Sexton is third in the conference in both of those categories, accounting for 30 percent of the team’s attempts and 35 percent of their made FTs.
Keys for Virginia Tech
Against an Alabama team that loves to go on scoring runs (just ask Auburn), deliberate possessions that result in points are the recipe for success for Virginia Tech. the Hokies are among the top 25 nationally in assists per game, and that’s exactly what they’ll have to do on Friday.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but there are some ties here. The Hokies also lead the conference (and are 10th nationally) shooting 49.8 percent from the field, and are a close second in the ACC in three-point shooting (38.5 percent, Virginia: 39 percent).
Here’s what it comes down to for Virginia Tech: move the ball around, use the variety of weapons to create and make shots and tire Alabama out so the Crimson Tide can’t go on the extended scoring runs.
Both these teams have shown a capability to beat good teams during the season, and that experience will be needed in this opening-round matchup. Virginia Tech will have to get hot, especially from distance, if it wants to have a chance. But Sexton will need to take over — especially if the game gets close late — if Alabama is to have any shot to win in the opening round.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 75, Alabama 70
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @HokiesMBB)