Sometimes SBNation comes to us with ideas for articles they would like to see written. It is our job to do our best to oblige. About a week ago, they sent out a memo that asked us to write about a moment, or series of moments, that may have defined this year's basketball campaign. Was there a particular turning point that led us to success or failure?
For anyone who follows VT hoops, they know that what we reaped this year was sown long ago, when former AD Jim Weaver made a less than calculated decision to dismiss former coach Seth Greenberg in late April 2012 after almost all candidates for head coaching jobs (nearly 40 if I recall) had been snatched up. In Weaver's quest for more of a "family-like environment", he reached out on the cheap to re-acquire James Johnson in order to bring him back from Clemson as the head coach. Though the panicky, short-sighted gambit was long viewed as actively failing, Hokie fans concerns were finally affirmed by yesterday's decision by new Athletic Director Whit Babcock to relieve Johnson of his head coaching duties.
As we drill down though to get to the crux of the issue, was there anything that occurred on the floor that might have triggered the move on Weaver's part. What could have precipitated the collapse under Greenberg (where they lost five of their final six games in 2012), that led to the dismissal, which led to the defection of some key players, the hiring of Johnson, and finally the poor product we've endured the past two years?
In order to answer this we need to look back at 2012. The Hokies had been snubbed by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee once again in 2011, making it the fourth straight year they had finished with 19 or more wins (three of them with 21 or more) without making it to the big dance. After graduating the highly touted Jeff Allen/Malcolm Delaney recruiting class, which seemed stuck in a perpetual Groundhog Day, the Hokies boasted a Top-15 class for 2012. The class was similar to the Allen/Delaney group in that it featured a top-150 newcomer at pretty much each position, led by Dorian Finney-Smith and Robert Brown. The new class, coupled with Dorenzo Hudson's return on a medical exception and rising junior Erick Green seemed primed to at least repeat as an NIT team, if not finally reach the promised land.
Despite a hard-fought early season loss to Syracuse in the pre-season NIT, the Hokies had a favorable early season slate that featured some winnable non-conference tilts against Kansas State at home, and Minnesota (missing some key players) in the BIg10-ACC challenge. Naturally, the Hokies lost both games, limiting themselves in the eyes of the committee who look for teams to SOMETIMES win these out of conference tests to prove they are worthy of the NCAA tournament. Sadly, that was the last time VT fans were able to even entertain discussion of the big dance without immense belly laughter afterwards.
As was customary under Greenberg, the team was short-handed, playing 8 guys most of the year. But losing Ty Garland to transfer at mid-season (another former Hokie who would see success upon leaving) hurt depth. For that campaign's Hokies though, the back-court wasn't the problem. It was size and depth on the interior (always a problem under Seth) that killed that team. That and the inability to get out on 3 point shooters at critical moments. The Hokies began that ACC season at 11-3, without any quality wins, but hoping to correct that problem with in-conference success, and at the very least pick up the six wins necessary to earn another NIT bid. The logical progression we made was that we'd see two tournaments AT LEAST with that group of kids, and what we had coming behind them in Montrezl Harrell and Marshall Wood.
The Hokies won four of their first 13 games, quickly extinguishing hope for an NCAA run, but getting us to the brink of NIT qualification. Just two more wins would put us over the hump, regardless of any ACC Tournament futility. VT lost it's first four in the ACC that year, with three of them by less than four points, typical Seth style keep it close then choke losses. After their first win (a 2 pt slugfest @UVA) they lost three more in a row, two by less than four points. Detecting a trend here. We were just that close to being a 22-23 win team once again!
At 1-7 in the ACC, and the NIT still a possibility, the Hokies went 3-2 over their next five games setting up a home game against UVA, which certainly seemed winnable seeing as VT had stolen the game in Charlottesville. This is the moment we've been building to folks. The moments that shaped these two abjectly miserable seasons that Weaver found fit to foist upon us!
Setting the scene: The Hokies entered the game without Center Victor Davila due to injury, so the depleted frontcourt was in dire straits. Mike Scott (now with the Atlanta Hawks) had dominated Jeff Allen, a seasoned player, the year before, and it portended awful things to come. But despite not having Davila (really the first time I've looked at him in retrospect and wished he was on the court, like EVER) the Hokies shot decently and jumped out to a game-high lead of 47-39 at about the 14:50 mark of the 2nd half. Things were going well. After a Sammy Zeglinski three, Erick Green made a layup to make it 49-42 with 13 minutes to play. The Hokies would score just 10 points the rest of the way.
During a scoring drought (sponsored by Kroger Food Stores) that lasted eight minutes and eleven seconds, VT went from a seven point lead to trailing by seven. They missed nine field goals, and both their free throw attempts. The lack of free throw attempts in itself is frustrating. The Hokies continued to shoot and miss jumpers instead of initiating contact in the paint and allowing themselves to re-calibrate during free throw breaks. Out of five timeouts, two of which were Tech's, and three which were media, VT got no points. The sad thing about this sequence is that UVA didn't play better than their averages at all. They only scored 14 points in the eight minutes, but it was sufficient enough to take a strangle-hold on the lead. Or so it seemed.
Erick Green wasn't going down easy. He made a layup and got fouled for the three point play to make the game 61-58, collected the rebound off a UVA miss and almost scored again, but converted one of two free throws to make the game 61-59. After Scott missed the front end of the bonus for UVA, VT once again the ball and took a full timeout with 22 seconds left. The Hokies were left with a Dorian Finney-Smith turnover as the clock wound down to two seconds. They never even got a shot off. And that is what I will think of these past two years with James Johnson, we never even set ourselves up to take a shot.
After that UVA game dropped VT to 15-13, the bottom fell out. The Hokies lost their final three games, two more games by less than five points, before ending the season in a blow-out loss to the NC State Wolfpack. VT, at 15-16, would now need to win at least two ACC tournament games to qualify for the NIT. After beating Clemson in round 1, they bowed out in a hard-fought game with Duke, finishing at 16-17.
Seth Greenberg undoubtedly thought he had built enough goodwill in basketball-starved Blacksburg. He was the tallest in a class of midgets, at least as far as recent history was concerned. He had navigated the difficult transition to the ACC fairly well, and built a little bit of national notoriety up. Not all of it was good, but at least it was exposure. We could begin to see the possibilities of turning into a two revenue sport school that had success like Ohio State or Texas or Florida. But deep down, we knew that Seth wasn't NEXT level. However, knowing that and acting on it at that sensitive juncture are two entirely separate things.
For Weaver to fire Seth while he was hosting a recruit, for reasons that had already obviously revealed themselves way prior to the dismissal date, was a critical blow to how VT was perceived outside. Some say that Greenberg disrespected Weaver one time too many, others maintain (and I am in this camp) that he realized Seth was due an extension that he didn't want to pay and that with Seth's stock a bit low, he could take the chance of firing him.
The fact that Weaver didn't care that it was too late in the hiring season to make the decision is just indicative of how little he thought of basketball in terms of the grand larceny scheme that is major college football. He went for a safe, familiar hire who he knew would take the money even though he was hired by a lame-duck AD and would receive little to no fan support. Weaver set our ceiling as the middle of the ACC in even our best year, and determined that it wasn't worth the expenditure. Two years later, we fielded a team that was barely competitive in the ACC because of that callous disregard.
And that my friends was the Alcoa moment that led to the off-season moments that led to the grim experience we all just shared this past season. Thanks for riding down Memory Lane with me. Check back with me tomorrow for my ultimate take on the James Johnson Life Cycle.
Nuestro Cassell es su Cassell!
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