Virginia Tech Turns Leadership Reins Over To FreshmanPosted by Lathan Wells on October 21st, 2013
On October 17, Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson did something he’d never done in 22 years as either a head or assistant coach: He named a freshman his team captain. And this wasn’t one of those once-in-a-generation, program-altering freshman talents that was tapped to be the leader of a Hokies team in transition. This isn’t Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, Kevin Durant at Texas, or even Andrew Wiggins at Kansas. “Hokies fans, we present to you 6’5” combo guard Ben Emelogu, a player who went largely unnoticed by the major programs at the national level!” While Johnson says he’s a player who can “flat out put the ball in the hole,” his senior year average of 13.5 points per game in high school in Grand Prairie, Texas, doesn’t lend much credence to that assessment. There are three key points to be highlighted with this decision: Johnson’s seemingly long leash as head coach; the extreme youth movement going on in Blacksburg; and the lack of leadership now that last year’s star Erick Green has departed.
Johnson is in his second year at Virginia Tech after replacing Seth Greenberg. His Hokies, despite having the ACC Player of the Year in Green on the roster last year, won a mere four league games and finished 13-19 overall on the season. Johnson’s contract, signed prior to last season, is for five years. The Virginia Tech administration is known to like Johnson, and he is definitely well-liked by his team, all of whom went to bat for him to assume the mantle of head coach when Greenberg was dismissed. Thus, naming a freshman as captain should not prove divisive to his locker room, at least on the surface. It also shouldn’t shake the confidence the athletic department has in him, since it’s widely known that the administration understands the rebuilding effort Johnson faces and trusts his reputation as a solid recruiter to make the team relevant in the coming seasons.
Virginia Tech will field an extremely young team this year. There will be seven freshmen and sophomores (two freshmen were ruled ineligible) looking to change the basketball narrative in Blacksburg. While none of this year’s recruits turned many heads on the national circuit, Johnson is pleased with what he has seen in practice thus far from the youngsters. He also sees an opportunity to use this youth movement as a starting point for program-building, as evidenced by this quote regarding the Emelogu selection: “And part of it, too, is I want to start getting a young guy ready to lead the team. We’re a young team and I want to have somebody right here in place and teach him how to be a leader, how I want things done.” Johnson is now starting to get some of his own personal recruits on the roster in his second season, and he can begin to mold the team as he sees fit.
As stated above, this is a team devoid of a significant veteran presence. Swingman Jarell Eddie and big man Cadarian Raines are the returning seniors of note, but each came with question marks when analyzing their roles in the team leadership discussion. Eddie was benched several times in the early parts of the year for having difficulty controlling his emotions, and Raines battled confidence issues in the post that translated to hesitant play and horrific free-throw shooting. Marquis Rankin, a junior, was to be challenged for his starting role at the point until freshman Malik Mueller was ruled ineligible. Junior power forward C.J. Barksdale received increased minutes towards the end of the season but did not set himself apart from his fellow post players. That’s about it for upperclassmen with experience on this team, and clearly each comes with questions about either attitude, commitment, or performance. It’s not terribly surprising Johnson looked outside of this group for his captain.
So what will be the overall impact of having your hand-picked team leader be an unheralded player who’s never logged an ACC minute? More than likely this is a team that will experiment with its parts and combinations on the floor, and has acquiesced to the reality that this is a transitional season. James Johnson has installed his leader in the locker room, but it will soon be time for Johnson’s decision-making to translate into wins.