ACC Team Preview: Virginia Tech HokiesPosted by Lathan Wells on October 25th, 2013
It’s difficult to argue that a coach with the eventual Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year on his roster was dealt a difficult hand, but that’s exactly what James Johnson was given in his first season at Virginia Tech last year. Johnson’s team, following the dismissal of long-tenured coach Seth Greenberg, operated most of the season with only eight scholarship players (and at times as few as six), making it difficult for the Hokies to employ his favored full-court pressure and trapping defenses. It also made for a very taxing season on his players overall, with very little depth to turn to and no consistent offense outside of the POY award-winning Erick Green. Green has departed for the greener pastures of the NBA, which leaves the Hokies in a transitional year as Johnson attempts to mold the team in his image in his second term.
Virginia Tech didn’t lose much outside of Green (their only other significant departure was the transfer of guard Robert Brown to UAB), but as stated above, the team certainly stood to gain quite a bit from an influx of new faces. While Johnson’s recruiting class this season is dominated by lightly-regarded players (at least by most scouting services), they will all be thrown into the cauldron early as the Hokies experiment with lineups and combinations. Combo guard Ben Emelogu, recently named captain of the team despite being a freshman, is characterized by Johnson as someone who can slash and jump-start the offense. Guard Adam Smith, a transfer from UNC-Wilmington, sat out the requisite season last year, but posted solid numbers in his freshman campaign in the Colonial Athletic Association (13.7 points per game, the top freshman scorer in the conference). Smith also has the benefit of familiarity with ACC competition, having notched 32 points against Wake Forest and 23 against Maryland in non-conference action two seasons ago. Freshman Devin Wilson also should see some minutes at the point as the Hokies try to rebuild their guard ranks.
While there are veteran returnees for the Hokies, largely in the frontcourt, one could argue whether that’s a real feather in the team’s cap. Swingman Jarell Eddie, who had a promising 2011-12 campaign, regressed as last season unfolded. His three-point shooting prowess became sporadic in the last third of the season, making the team even more one-dimensional on the perimeter and overly reliant on Green. Eddie’s senior season in Blacksburg has to be marked by more consistency, as he is the team’s best returning scorer. While the newcomers will have every opportunity to play heavily in the backcourt, incumbent junior point guard Marquis Rankin should open the season as the team’s starter. In order to remain in that starting role, though, Rankin must improve his assist-to-turnover ratio, which was a less-than-stellar 26-to-32 last year.
The frontcourt holds promise, at least in terms of veteran returnees. Consistency will ring true for this unit as well, as big men Cadarian Raines (senior) and C.J. Barksdale (junior) have yet to prove themselves as capable of commanding the paint to this point in their careers. Neither player’s scoring nor shooting percentages rose drastically from the year before, and both had a tendency to disappear for long stretches. Joey Van Zegeren should provide some muscle off the bench, and sophomore forward Marshall Wood will hope to build off of promising showings late in the year after recovering from a foot injury to provide more offensive punch. Again, there are returnees, but how much talent is really here?
Virginia Tech will have its inexperienced squad tested early, as they will tangle with West Virginia and Michigan State in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and intrastate rival VCU in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic. Johnson will know very early on how the guards are coming along and whether the upperclassmen in the frontcourt have improved their game-to-game reliability. Obviously the conference slate will only be tougher this year, with the addition of the three schools from the old Big East, so this is not necessarily an opportune year to be in rebuilding mode. However, Johnson will be able to (see: have to) throw his young players into the fire early and see how this group responds.
The best-case scenario for 2013-14? Eddie regains his shooting stroke, the big men find ways to impact games in the paint on a nightly basis, and the influx of young guards helps Johnson get his desired up-tempo, pressing defense into regular rotation. Maybe the team steals a few conference victories they have no business winning. Worst case scenario/reality? This team will likely remain in the cellar of the ACC and post a losing record as they’ll surely be an underdog in every conference match-up, making Hokies fans look ahead longingly to the possibilities of Johnson’s third year at the helm in 2014-15.