Douglas C. Pizac-USA Today Sports
I wanted to publish this post after the blowout loss to Colorado State, but the Hokies, down a scholarship player (and a big nonetheless...at least for them) were totally outperformed by a team who was more mature, fundamental and experienced (starting FIVE seniors). They (the Rams) were for all intents and purposes, the home team by virtue of playing in Las Vegas. The Hokies had also eeked out an overtime victory the night before against Bradley, a draining game in which they had to climb out of a double-digit hole and saw the lead switch hands several times in the closing minutes of regulation and overtime. But given the variables, I held off.
I wanted to publish this post after the subsequent blowout loss a week later, but couldn't bring myself to do it. After all, they were still down said scholarship player, and had just completed one of the most maddeningly stupid travel plans in the history of college sports. Leave Las Vegas on Dec. 23, fly home, allow the players to be with their families for the holidays, bring them back and then fly them directly back to the West Coast to Salt Lake City to play another game. If that makes sense logistically, financially, from a timing standpoint or gave the Hokies an unseen advantage in any way, may I be struck by lighting for questioning it. Otherwise, Jim Weaver, "YOU'VE GOT SOME 'SPLAININ TO DO!" Ultimately, I did not post at that time.
I wanted to publish this post one week later when again the Hokies were demolished. Yes, they were without Marshall Wood again, and yes, Maryland is not a bad team, but this time there were no relevant travel excuses and no advantage in seniority (started two freshmen and two sophomores and played only three juniors or higher). They stayed in the game for most of the first half, but in a 2:15 stretch to end the half, Maryland ballooned their lead from 3 to 14 points, essentially ending the game. The entire second half was played at arm's length for Maryland (and Alex Len's arms for good measure) as the Hokies never again cut it to single-digits. However, I did not post.
I wanted to publish this post almost a week later after the Hokies inexplicably lost at home to one of the worst teams in the ACC by double-digits despite having been off for several days, only having to travel from College Park, Maryland back to Blacksburg and having a decided talent advantage. Yet the Hokies came out flat, playing like they had much of the last two months; uninspired, lazy, one-on-one, no-passing, hero-shot basketball. It was time to write the post. As I prepared to post that Saturday, right after what looked like was about to be a loss to one of the ACC's other bad teams (Georgia Tech), the Hokies pulled off a surprise overtime win over the Yellow Jackets. With the win, I reconsidered my position. Maybe this team was still capable of doing SOMETHING. Maybe this was a turning point? So I gave them the benefit of the doubt AGAIN.
The next week against Wake Forest, given an entire week off, the Hokies came out flat again and barely grinded out an improbable win (given the way the two teams played) over the Demon Deacons. Even though my eyes said otherwise, I waited.
Alas, in the last four days, the Hokies have proven certifiably, they are not a good team, they have won several tough and ugly games by slim margins that perhaps they shouldn't have and that I should've written this post as soon as they lost to Colorado State. So much for being the eternal optimist. So here we go.
First and foremost, I'll address the loss of a scholarship player on a team with a shortage of scholarship players when completely healthy. I thought that was a big blow at the time of the injury, an even bigger blow late in December and early January and I still think it's big. But Marshall Wood alone doesn't make this team.
Of course as we all know, it took about a week longer than that, and much longer than the original prognosis, which certainly complicated things for a team in need of quality bodies. But as I said above, one player, particularly not a freshman, shouldn't make or break this team.
The truth is an ugly one: This team isn't that good. Yes, we all watched (or some of us at least) as the Hokies opened the season on a seven-game winning-streak. They looked unstoppable. They weren't necessarily blowing everyone out of the water, but they were winning, and by double-digits in every game but one. So how is it that the team that looked so good back in November and early December has looked so horrid since? And how did it happen so fast?
These are questions that have intrigued us all. Much like Logan Thomas' puzzling regression from 2011 to 2012, Virginia Tech fans are questioning what they saw to the point of questioning if they even really saw it at all. The answer is yes (to both). It did happen. The Hokies were the team that we all (again, or most of us) watched early in the season. But it is also true that they are now no longer that team. Why? That is something I will try to answer in the following paragraphs.
Style of play
In the movie Semi Pro, Woody Harrelson's character, Ed Monix, a beleaguered veteran of both the NBA and ABA, becomes the Flint Tropics' coach. In an attempt to give the offense some kind of structure (to run plays) and improve the team, in his first practice, Monix forces the team to run a play affectionately known as "The Puke," a play in which the players run the play until they can no longer and inevitably puke. While it makes for great cinema (and trust me if you haven't seen it, stop reading right now and prepare to laugh your ass off), the reality of "The Puke" is scary. While I'm not suggesting that coaches make their players run a play into the ground until they know it so well that in the waning moments of a game they'll run it instinctually, I am suggesting that in those same moments, players default to the coaching and tendencies they have received and that have been reinforced throughout their basketball careers. Unfortunately for the 2012-13 team, they are defaulting to the 2011-12 team.
The style of play the Hokies have employed this season can not be categorized into one style. Instead, the Hokies played two completely divergent styles this season, one before the West Virginia game, and one during and after the West Virginia game. The first style, exhibited in the first seven games was TEAM basketball. The Hokies were passing, finding the open man and often the best shot as a result. But during that game, the Hokies began relying on their 2011-12 style: 1-on-5, isolation, walk it up the floor, start the offense from 35-feet and pass it around the perimeter and hope for the best, but if nothing happened, find Erick Green and hoist up a terrible shot right as the shot clock expired.
Despite playing the second style, the Hokies still nearly beat the Mountaineers (not a huge accomplishment in a down year for the program), but that was clearly the game where these problems began. Before that point, James Johnson's style was clicking, and the team was running up and down the floor and scoring with ease. The Hokies had been tested several times before that game, so it wasn't that they were folding under the first real pressure. But their mentality was noticeably different late in this game and certainly after the loss. Instead of cracking under the pressure of being tested, perhaps the Hokies weren't used to a team that punched back after they made their second half run.
Ultimately, even though the Hokies played the Mountaineers tough on the road and lost on a last-second shot, something that should have gratified them (even though they played the wrong way), they lost ALL confidence in their abilities and the style of play that had gotten them to that point. In their next game, they put together a lackluster performance against an underwhelming Mississippi Valley State team followed by the debacle loss to Georgia Southern. Case and point, since then the Hokies have been 4-8 and have not reached the 80-point mark, a mark that they had not fallen below prior to that game.
It was naïve for James Johnson to employ an offensive concept that directly ignored the most glaring weakness of his team: numbers. While the fans clamored for a more up-tempo offense (something that Seth Greenberg had promised for a long time but never delivered), Johnson pushed the envelope a little too early. He tried to blast off before he had the requisite ship on the launch pad. While many coaches like to install their full system year-one, and many could care less how the team performs during that transition year because the personnel don't fit the system, it is a different prospect entirely to try to install a system that a team CANNOT perform adequately because of a shortage of personnel. So perhaps if James Johnson wanted to get out and run, he should have introduced some his offensive concepts and some of his philosophy, but not so much that it would completely cripple the team halfway through the season.
It's an exhausting system, and so the players have every right to be tired even if it feels like from watching that they aren't giving enough effort. Maybe their legs just aren't there anymore. And that's where I've been really unimpressed with James Johnson. It's up to him to notice things like that and make game-to-game adjustments. If he sees that the team is coming out flat every game, he needs to do something to change that, not just continually bang his head against a wall hoping for the best result. Making adjustments could mean a lot of things, but would most likely mean lighter practices, fewer practices and more film, which is not always a bad thing. With such a shortage of players, being able to keep bodies fresh is an absolute must. So that Johnson's team has continually looked outworked and gassed (especially in their legs on jumpshots) over a period of a month and a half is more an indication of bad coaching than anything. And as it relates to playing the way the Hokies did in the first seven games and how they've played since, Johnson has to have noticed the difference in their style of play. Right? He HAS to have. And again, his adjustments to that concern has been unsatisfactory. So coaching and particularly this system has played a big part in the Hokies demise this season. Even if Erick Green has flourished perhaps because of it, the team has generally suffered.
The nature of the beast
Athletes are taught at any early age not to make excuses. Excuses are dead weight. But in some cases when taking things at face value, you have to at least embrace the reasons why something didn't happen. If that means those things are excuses, so be it. In the case of Virginia Tech's 2012-13 basketball team, those excuses are unavoidable. It is a fact that the Hokies just don't have enough quality bodies to be competitive in a Division I college basketball power conference. That is both a condemnation of Seth Greenberg (the man who recruited these players) and Jim Weaver, the man who damned this team and several future teams to obscurity by waiting a month after the coaching carousel had stopped spinning to fire his coach.
Greenberg is to blame only for the quality of the players on the floor currently, and that is relative to their initial quality as players and what he taught them to get them to the level that they were at the beginning of the season. Jim Weaver is to blame for wrecking the Hokies 2012, 2013 and possibly even 2014 recruiting classes (if you disagree on this one, I'll be forced to educate you about the recruiting process), but for right now we're only discussing the 2012 class. Because of the date (and perhaps simply the act) of Seth Greenberg's firing, Montrezl Harrell and up to two other players are not currently at Virginia Tech. That is fact.
The combination of the two created the perfect storm for this basketball team: this season, which otherwise might have been the Hokies year. I know there are a lot of variables that would have to had fallen into place for that to happen, but for the sake of argument, we're going with it. Picture a team, as many commentators opined earlier in the season, with the Hokies current makeup PLUS Harrell and Dorian Finney-Smith. Add to that up to two other recruits of average caliber. That is an NCAA team (or at least a bubble team). But the reality is, the attrition (both player and staff) and the lack of suitable alternatives wrecked this basketball season before it was even started.
The Hokies, no matter how hard they try, are going up against modern history with their slim roster, and as is to be expected, history has prevailed. Modern day college basketball isn't meant to be played with seven healthy, eligible scholarship players. It just isn't. That's why I call this the nature of the beast. History says that the Hokies were destined to fail at some point because of this.
So whether you believe it or not, the glass ceiling for this Virginia Tech basketball team was much lower than it would otherwise be because of the personnel handcuffs. Without them, the Hokies might be a legitimate contender. With them, they are exactly what we're seeing now: A team that is talented and experienced enough, but is falling short of the expectations that were set two months ago because they don't have enough bodies.
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