[Ed. Note: Bumped from FanPosts. Thanks to Charles for this basketball recap FanPost, which is again, immaculate. Bravo. Also, another thanks to him for all of his high-quality FanPosts he's made on a regular basis. He has agreed to do some basketball coverage for us, so provided he is willing, this will be his last of the FanPost variety. He's graduating to the bigs!]
Ordinarily I'd be the first one to say that calling the second game of the regular season a gut-check is a bit melodramatic. But with today's news of Athletic Director Jim Weaver's early retirement fresh on everyone's minds, to call it anything less would be disingenuous. Coach Johnson is in his second year of a five-year deal. However, most close followers of the program have long doubted that he would last the full five years, simply because the deck was stacked against him from the jump, due to the decay the program was in when he accepted the job. This past Saturday's season-opening loss against USC Upstate further validated the doubts in many a Hokie Basketball fan's mind. The fact that Weaver is not long for the job removes a proverbial safety net from under Johnson, and the time has come to produce tangible results.
Today's game, part of ESPN's 24 hours of basketball marathon that has become one of my favorite days on the calendar, saw VT scheduled against the despised Mountaineers of West Virginia at the very odd start time of 1 PM. Perhaps due to a little something called going to class, and a large something called apathy, many who could have been there to support the team were elsewhere, and Cassell Coliseum was more like Cassell Mausoleum at the start of the game.
I've been critical of Coach Johnson to date because he was 6-20 over his last 26 games after a blazing 7-0 start to begin last year. Additionally, the team had been such a disappointment with good players for so many years under Greenberg, that I found it impossible to believe that Johnson was capable of doing any better with more lightly-regarded players and walk-ons. Even keeping in mind that the transfers and attrition the coach has had to deal with would set many better coaches back. It's unfortunate that this is the pressure cooker he must operate in, namely because we don't have the historical stature in basketball to be so demanding, and because a lot of rookie head coaches would get two years before anyone even questioned their job security. This is why a lame duck Athletic Director should never be allowed to make coaching hires in the revenue bearing programs.
As previously stated, we began last year 7-0, and looked somewhat impressive in the process. Johnson espoused an up-tempo style that would countermand our lack of half-court presence. To me, this was particularly welcome after having watched Greenberg slow down so many games into the high 50s where we'd either win by a FG or lose in heartbreaking fashion. He always coached the game so that we'd have a chance to win in the last five minutes, but the drawback was that the game was so close that we could also easily lose in the last five minutes. This strategy kept us out of at least two NCAA tournaments because the quality late season wins were missing from our resume. An up-tempo style was a welcome idea, but flawed, simply because the defections and attrition left us with too few scholarship players to remain fresh for a full 40 minutes for more than the first handful of games. Without Erick Green last year, the team would have maybe won 7 or 8 games. As it was they won 13, due to the best combination of high usage and high efficiency (both modern terms that designate what % of offense a player accounts for) that a player has exhibited in a very long time. The wheels began to fall off of the 2012-2013 campaign in game 8, at you guessed it: West Virginia.
Last year's game was an exercise in frustration. West Virginia killed us on the glass (46-33), and we couldn't run out fast enough to disrupt their 3-pt shooting (10-24), a problem which was a carry-over from the Seth units. Erick Green and Robert Brown combined to take 38 of our 65 shots, and a large number of those were contested. For WVU, a sophomore stretch-4 (a Power Forward with some shooting range) named Kevin Noreen went for 14 and 12, with 7 KILLER offensive rebounds. This offset Green's 23 point, 10 assist, 0 turnover night, whose only blemish was a missed teardrop in the lane that would have won the game with 1 second left. The Hokies lost 68-67.
That loss marked the beginning of the 6-20 stretch that led us to today's match-up. Bob Huggins WVU squad didn't fare much better last season, suffering only his third losing season EVER. He's highly decorated, having seen both Cincinnati and WVU to Final Fours in the last 23 years. But having kept a wayward eye on the situation at WVU, I've noticed some slippage. Huggins has had a few health issues in the past few years, continues to get heavier (I believe he was wearing a size 8X poncho on the sideline today), and seems to lack the trademark intensity he once brought to every game. The conference re-alignment that has devastated the former Big East has seen them relocated to the very competitive Big 12 conference, and relief does not appear to be in sight.
Considering WVU returned 2 starters (and 4 heavy contributors) for the game this year, and we are still finding a way to replace virtually half our offensive output in Green, my expectations for today were minimal. I wanted to see better than I saw on Saturday's loss is pretty much all. And in my opinion, the first thing that needed to happen was to instill a little discipline in Jarell Eddie and Adam Smith who shot a combined 9 for 31 (3-11 from three). Jarell Eddie can be described as mercurial, with an offensive game that at time resembles a young Allan Houston. However he's never seen a shot he didn't like, and the early reports on Smith (a transfer from UNCW) are that his shot selection is in the same vein. True to their nature they shot us out of the game on Saturday. By the time we decided to flex our inside muscle, the game had become a game, and we didn't have the experience to pull away. Further, with the absence of two veterans in CJ Barksdale (suspension) and Marquis Rankin (personal), our bench was short once again, as though the Basketball Gods took notice that our team had too many players at our disposal and opted to correct that for us. I honestly thought our freshmen didn't get enough minutes on Saturday, and that Will Johnston and Christian Beyer were being trusted a little too much at the expense of the more fiercely recruited talent. The result was as embarrassing a loss as we've had since the VMI debacle a few years back that murdered our RPI, and single handedly hamstrung our tournament resume. I don't think we'll have that problem this year, but losing a game to what sounds like a community college is something none of us want to answer to at this year's Christmas parties.
We brought out the same starting five today, and quickly got behind 29-12. We were trying to raise the tempo, and surprisingly (given Huggins' controlling nature) WVU was only too happy to oblige and trade attempts with us, often making two or fewer passes once past the timeline. At the 8-minute mark, we were trailing 30-14, and were being out-shot 48% to 20%, had missed all 5 of our threes, and were getting killed on the glass 18 to 11. The only noticeable outlying stat was that we had 6 blocks, which I will get into a little bit more later. Then things changed, a switch was flipped. Freshman Ben Emelogu began to heat up. The Freshman Captain (yes, true freshman team captain) hit a couple 3's, had a couple nice drives, and the Hokies began to flat out RUN the Mountaineers off the floor for the next 11 minutes of game time.
The Mountaineers still led 35-20 with 4 and a half minutes to play. But with a 10-1 run to close the half, capped by a Emelogu 3 at the buzzer, the Hokies found themselves down 5, after being at a deficit of 17 just moments before. The momentum was on our side, and the crowd on hand let their appreciation be known, sounding like double their actual number. It's safe to say Ben is a leader on the floor, and that it doesn't appear that we'll miss a beat from Erick Green in that department. At the half, Bruce Pearl (let's hope he isn't calling too many games this year) said that Joey Van Zegeren and Cadarian Raines having only four points wouldn't get the job done. At the time, i was definitely in the camp that thought he was right, we'd need another 10 points from the two of them in the second half. But given the 8 blocks we had at the half, i thought that those were worth a few points in their own right, in as much as a shortstop in baseball will save you a few runs a year, thus supplementing a shortstop's usually low offensive output. But Pearl is about Pearl, and being sensational, and he makes a living off telling people what "won't get the job done." Perhaps telling the truth to the NCAA when you're under serious investigation might get the job done, but why start there?
After the break, the onslaught continued. At one point, Tech was officially on a 25-2 run. What happened to our joke of a team? Suddenly they were sharing the ball, challenging every shot, running out on 3's, and the bench was alive like we haven't seen in....i don't know, ever? Guys were racing over to help their teammates off the floor, the kids were imploring the aging veteran fans behind the bench to make some noise. I was proud of what we were making of the afternoon, and what a different feeling that is compared to the somber relief that accompanied Seth's nominal successes. Needless to say, games aren't won after 25 minutes, and there were still 15 minutes to play. The only potential roadblock i saw was that our two postmen were both sidelined with 4 fouls. All of the contested shots in the post had taken their toll, and Joey Van Zegeren (henceforth known as JVZ) and Cadarian Raines were both on the bench for at least the next 10 minutes, having each picked up their fourth fouls a mere 5 seconds apart.
Enter Trevor Thompson. In spite of Ben Emelogu's effort today, my MVP was Trevor Thompson. The slender freshman forward with the wingspan of a pterodactyl scored 7 points, grabbed 5 boards, contributed 3 blocks and frustrated the bespectacled AC Green lookalike on WVU into 1 of 10 shooting, and an eventual disqualification due to fouls. It was quite a debut, as Johnson didn't play him in Saturday's loss. I would not bank on that critical coaching error being repeated. Though to Johnson's credit, Raines was in beast mode in the 2nd half Saturday having scored all 17 of his points in the second stanza. The only downside to Thompson's game today was missing 2-3 more FT attempts than he should have, a couple of which might have helped us avoid WVU being within one possession with the final shot clock of the game ticking down. It's nice to know we have a capable reserve in Thompson, as it will allow Raines and JVZ to remain aggressive on defense. The return of Barksdale will further buttress the frontline which is emerging as a strength for this team; no small feat considering our best bigs have traditionally been 6'8"-ish like Jeff Allen and Coleman Collins, and those guys stood alone. It's nice to have some variety to play with.
One of the keys to today's game, and if you read my columns moving ahead you will notice that I harp on this: Getting into the bonus early. Today we were in the bonus at the 14-minute mark and the double bonus at the 10-minute mark. This led to 5 additional attempts from the stripe, and 9 additional points on the scoreboard. This definitely accounts for the margin of victory by itself. Remaining aggressive and getting to the line will be paramount for a young team with such a slim margin for error. It caused Huggins to move out of his comfort zone with the substitution patterns.
Down the stretch, heady guard play by freshman Devin Wilson and some key drives by off-guard Adam Smith kept the Mountaineers at bay. This backcourt has some potential. Wilson is in the Erick Green mode, a tall PG who takes good care of the ball and picks his spots to make his offensive moves. He's cautious in his shot selection and would prefer getting to the rack over shooting the 3. I was duly impressed with him today and his defense on Eron Harris, who he forced into 4 of 17 shooting. Smith calmed his shot selection down today (7 for 12, 2 of 5 from distance) and was too quick to handle and got to the basket at will. He is a bit short for the off-guard, and his experience at UNC-W will serve him well as our backup PG since Rankin's return is still shrouded in mystery. And to be honest, Rankin has done little to separate himself at all. He often appears to play even smaller than his diminutive stature and doesn't possess a consistent jumper. I find him to be very similar to Hank Thorns, and would not be at all surprised to see him transfer to a smaller school in an attempt to earn more playing time. Sitting out now while the youngs develop isn't helping his cause.
The game was exciting down the stretch, with WVU settling down and even coming back to reclaim the lead at 61-60. But the Hokies depth ruled the day, and we were able to insert our veteran bigs back into the game and control the tempo. Raines hit a couple of huge FTs at the 4-minute mark, and Smith had a runner to put the game away that was so quick you needed the rewind button on your DVR just to see the first step. The game gave me a glimmer of hope for the young team, Coach Johnson, and the program as a whole. The resilience demonstrated will serve us well as we move into an even more competitive, expanded ACC this season. Though i don't expect to make the postseason this year, it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that we could be playing for .500 and a low NIT seed this Spring. It's always good to have a tangible goal to shoot for. That's a far cry from what last season's dumpster fire and Saturday's loss portended.
The only negatives i saw today involve Jarell Eddie and Marshall Wood, two of the more experienced Hokies. As one of the veterans, Eddie has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve and get down on himself. He had 10 quiet points today, and one really nice take, but he had 3 bad turnovers, and only used one foul (a sign of a lack of aggressiveness on D to me, fouls are to be used as a tool in moderation in my manual). Eddie can be a weapon, but he needs to remain medium usage....21 shots like Saturday and we will wind up with double the L's to W's. As for Wood, he's only gotten up 9 shots this year. I was looking forward to his aggressiveness this season given the offense we needed to replace. He seems content to blend in and stand in the corner and wait for the pass that doesn't come. With his size and leaping ability, he needs to be in the mix a little more. He came on late last year, and I'm hoping he might just be a slow starter. He has the quickness to defend larger two guards and stretch the floor. If we desired we could go 6'4 at the PG, and 6'8 or taller everywhere else, and i'd like to see a few rotations like that against the "Directionals" and "Coastal Pansy States" we have coming up on the schedule.
Beating WVU at anything is always sweet. Coming back from a large deficit to do so is even sweeter. We learned a lot about our group today. Keeping in mind that it's only game two, the excitement this generates can be some serious propulsion towards exceeding everyone's expectations. Hopefully this season sees more of the student body dig their flip flops and pajama pants out of the closet, and walk a couple hundred yards across campus to the venerable barn we call home. This team hasn't done anything to deserve the apathy that accompanies our program. Let's all give James Johnson the best possible chance at nailing his audition, if not for more years at the helm of our program, but his next job then. Today marks a new day in Virginia Tech Athletics and the future is what we all will make of it, there is nobody to look at for blame but ourselves if we don't make it the brightest it can be.
Three Cheers for the Hokies, may we do this again soon.