PITTSBURGH — Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams did not need to make an opening statement at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday, as if he already knew what the first question would be. He wasn’t asked about how it felt that his eighth-seeded Hokies were in the NCAA tournament for the second time in as many years or how his team might collectively fare Thursday against ninth-seeded Alabama in a first-round game in the East Region.
He instead was asked how he might stop arguably the country’s hottest player, freshman guard Collin Sexton, who solidified his place as one of the tournament’s top story lines after leading his team to the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals last week and into the NCAA tournament after a swoon late in the regular season.
“I think he’s the best guard in the country,” Williams said, the first words he muttered before running down the list of what makes Sexton so dangerous. Virginia Tech refined its identity as a defensive-minded team over the final month of the season, but it will face one of its stiffest challenges of the season in Sexton and the ultra-athletic Crimson Tide.
“I think we would be foolish to think it’s just him,” Williams said.
It has been roughly six weeks since Williams reformed his team’s defensive approach with a number of strategic moves following a porous effort in an 84-75 loss at Miami on Feb. 3.
Williams inserted senior defensive specialist Devin Wilson into the starting lineup to help solidify the perimeter, and the Hokies refined their identity as a team that defended as a unit, crowding the lane and better protecting the rim.
The numbers have reflected an uptick in production; through the first 10 games of ACC play, culminating in the loss to Miami, Virginia Tech allowed 78.1 points per game on 47 percent field goal shooting. In the nine games since, the Hokies have held opponents to 66.8 points per game on 41 percent shooting. In addition, opponents’ three-point shooting has dipped from 42 percent to 34 percent. In the biggest victories of that stretch, the Hokies held Clemson to 58 points, Virginia to 60 and Duke to 63.
But they haven’t faced a player as hot as Sexton.
In the past four games, Sexton has averaged 25.5 points on 52 percent shooting, along with 4.0 assists. He has made 10 of 20 three-point attempts and 32 of 38 free throws in that span.
“He gets it at 94 feet. He’s going full speed. He’s playing for his teammates at times. He plays for himself at times. He’s just a great player. . . . We all have to stop him,” Virginia Tech guard Justin Bibbs said.
Said Wilson: “We need to be able to guard them as a unit, all five of us, as we’ve been doing the last couple of games with this new style of defense.”
Some of college basketball’s biggest stars came and went from the dais here Wednesday — five potential lottery picks will play at the arena this weekend, including Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, both freshmen who remain in the conversation for national player of the year. But they do not carry the same momentum here as Sexton, whose presence was felt throughout the day even though Alabama was the last team to take the practice floor in the evening.
“He’s extremely competitive. He’s got that gear, I think, that really good players have,” Oklahoma Coach Lon Kruger said of Sexton. “He’s in attack mode all the time.”
Kruger saw it firsthand in late January when Sexton and Alabama prevailed in a showdown against Young and the Sooners. Sexton scored 18 points and helped hold Young to 17 points on 17 shots and eight assists. By normal standards, Young had a standout game in the 80-73 loss to the Crimson Tide, but those numbers were rather pedestrian compared to what he had accomplished through the first two months of the season.
By early March, Young appeared to drop off as college basketball’s darling point guard as the Sooners lost eight of 10 entering the NCAA tournament. He has been replaced by Sexton, who resuscitated the Crimson Tide’s NCAA hopes with a game-winning layup against Texas A&M in the second round of the SEC tournament, followed by a 31-point performance in a win over Auburn in the quarterfinals.
“Honestly, I don’t use what people say to distract myself. I stay off all social media. I don’t really want to see what people say or comment, good or bad,” Sexton said.
For all the issues Sexton’s explosiveness in the lane, craftiness on pick and rolls and three-point-shooting ability pose for the Hokies, the key for Virginia Tech could be stopping Sexton’s second-chance opportunities.
Alabama ranked 12th in the SEC with 10 offensive rebounds per game this season, but Williams expects as many “broken plays” as his team faced when it lost to Miami in February, the turning point for his team. Now it has another chance to turn a corner against the country’s hottest player, who has a knack for getting into his opponents’ minds with his competitiveness.
“I can’t speak to that. I can speak of his talent,” Williams said. “His talent is semi-otherworldly.”
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