ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (19-15)
vs. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES (21-11)
NCAA Tournament – First Round – PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, PA
Tip-off: Thursday, 9:20 pm ET
Line: Virginia Tech -2, Total: 141.5
The winner of this 8/9 matchup could give Villanova headaches in the second round.
The SEC felt deeper than ever this year, and nothing could reflect that better than a 15-loss Alabama team earning an at-large bid as a No. 9 seed. Of course, early last week, it didn't seem like the Tide would get a bid, but wins over Texas A&M and Auburn lifted them from the edge of the bubble to an assured bid. Other wins this season over teams like Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Rhode Island gave them an overall compelling profile. The ACC this season felt just about as deep as it always does, justifying Virginia Tech's placement as a No. 8 seed despite finishing seventh in the league and losing its first game in the conference tournament. The Hokies have already defeated three potential national champions this season in North Carolina, Virginia and Duke, so No. 1 seed Villanova ought to be on its toes if it's faced with Virginia Tech in the second round.
Over the years, mid-seed tournament underdogs that have advanced deep into March have often fit a certain profile: Strong defensive teams with a star guard who can get one-on-one buckets when the team needs them. Alabama fits that archetype to a T. The Crimson Tide are 13th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive rating and only 115th in adjusted offense, but they have an absolute stud handling the ball. That would be freshman PG Collin Sexton, a very likely lottery pick after his dominance in the SEC Tournament. Sexton had 27 points and a buzzer-beating runner as time expired to lift the Tide from NIT participant to Big Dance attendee in a 71-70 victory over Texas A&M in the opening round of the tournament. Against Auburn the next day, he dropped 31 points in an easy victory over a team that ended up as a No. 4 seed. It's very easy to imagine Sexton's star shining even brighter on this bigger stage, and if Alabama makes a run it will be largely thanks to him. Of course, his supporting cast will obviously need to play well, as well. The Tide's second-leading scorer in both of those victories was G Dazon Ingram, who pitched in 13 and 14, respectively. He was their fourth-leading scorer on the year, with number two and three being F Donta Hall and G John Petty, each averaging around 10 PPG. As the team's leader in blocked shots and rebounds, Hall is especially important for a team that's short on experienced big men. He suffered a concussion against Auburn and didn't play in the conference semifinal against Kentucky, but appears set to play on Thursday.
At 39th in KenPom adjusted offensive rating and 54th in adjusted defense, Virginia Tech is a more balanced team than Alabama in terms of ability on either end of the floor. It's also just more balanced in scoring distribution, with its five leading scorers all within 3 PPG of one another. But it also has a top-tier guard in Justin Robinson, who will go toe-to-toe against Sexton in what is sure to be one of the feistiest individual matchups of the first round. Robinson isn't likely to go off for 30 likely Sexton might—although he can—but is steadier and a better facilitator for his teammates. And as a junior, he has the advantage in experience. Senior G Justin Bibbs joins him in forming one of the tournament's more experienced backcourts. Bibbs leads the Hokies in minutes played. After Robinson and Bibbs, Tech has some excellent role players. F Chris Clarke finished as runner-up in ACC Sixth Man of the Year voting, and he was first on the team in rebounding and second in assists despite being sixth on the team in minutes played. G Devin Wilson is a terror on the perimeter, finishing fourth in conference DPOTY voting despite playing only 16 minutes per game. G Nickeil Alexander-Walker is scoring in the double-digits as a freshman, and he showed big-game chops a few weeks ago with 17 points in a win over Duke.