Work hard, play hard, have fun. This is apparently the mantra of the 2012-2013 Virginia Tech men's basketball team. I'll admit it, I was a little more than skeptical to what sounded like a ploy to sell tickets.
Well, what may have started as a gimmick to fill Cassell Coliseum, is instead ringing true on its hardwood. This team is a fast paced, "shoot if you're open" bunch that looks like they legitimately enjoy playing for their coach and with each other.
Gone are the days where Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen embarrass themselves on national television (on College GameDay, no less) because it is painfully obvious that they know nothing about each other.
I told Joe that I would put together a basketball preview, but only on the condition that I am allowed to watch the first five games first. Coming into the season, it was really anyone's guess as to the offensive system/philosophy being installed and I wanted to be able to write an informed, smart preview.
So without further ado, let me break down the roster, ask some important questions and predict the results for the remainder of the season.
Point Guard: Erick Green
Thank god he's back. That's really the only thing that needs to be said...but just for kicks let's break it down anyway.
How he fits: He's the best player on the team and will thrive in this up-tempo system. He is making very good decisions with the ball, reading the pick and roll seemingly with ease and taking the ball to the rack. His shot selection is questionable at times, but he is nowhere close to taking Malcolm Delaney-like shots. He is the team's most important player and if he also remains one of the most efficient, this team is going to overachieve.
What to expect: Green is going to come back to Earth a little bit here, no way he averages 25 a game for the entire season, but he's still going to score in huge numbers. His numbers (and very realistically his draft stock) are going to inflate because the offense won't be as anemic as the past three seasons. He's going to have the ball in his hands every possession, so I think it is fair to expect 21 points and 5-6 assists a game.
Shooting Guard: Robert Brown
A prototypical wing scorer/spot up shooter if I've ever seen one. Also the only true shooting guard on the team (sorry Johnston).
How he fits: He's the kick-out guy. Green or Eddie drives, defense collapses, Brown gets the pass and hopefully an open look. He also takes it to the hoop, usually from the wing, if his shot isn't falling that day. He is still a major work in progress as he makes defensive mistakes and turns the ball over too much. That will have to improve, as Brown's role in the offense is to head up the floor and be first on the fast break.
What to expect: There will be games where Brown puts up 20, I can almost guarantee that. That being said, there won't be that many of them, and they will only happen when his shots are falling and Eddie and Green are in foul trouble (only because he won't get enough looks otherwise). His development is going to be huge in terms of next season, when Green leaves, and Brown will be relied on to shoulder more of the offense.
Small Forward: Jarrell Eddie
Finally free from the shackles of the Greenberg "run over to the corner and get out of the way" offense, Eddie is the guy who will make some (possibly unexpected) noise this season.
How he fits: He fits. I mean it's really that simple. Eddie is finally playing with the confidence and swagger that comes with not being afraid of making mistakes and being subsequently benched. He is a great compliment for Green, has he runs well, cuts to space and can also hit an open trey. Without Green on the floor, Eddie is the focal point of the offense, frequently taking defenders off the dribble with a quick first step. He even seems like a different player defensively, not falling victim to as much ball watching.
What to expect: A bunch of points, shots and trips to the line. He will have random games with big time rebounding numbers, but it seems that JJ wants him in transition more than crashing the defensive boards. Eddie really could turn out to be the most efficient player on the team, possibly sneaking into 3rd team All-ACC. It's amazing what happens to a player when the screens are set for him as opposed to setting the screens himself.
Power Forward: CJ Barksdale
Barksdale saw a very limited amount of court time under Greenberg last season, but has taken the starting job this season all the while showing a ton of progression.
How he fits: Barksdale is the only Tech big that fits into both the half- and full-court offense. He hits the glass hard and runs the floor after, routinely becoming the necessary trailer on the fast break. He also sets decent screens and his a threat to hit a little jumper from the elbow on the pick-and-pop with Green. He is currently splitting minutes with Wood, but his progression will be essential to Wood providing depth at both forward spots (giving Eddie a blow when needed). The biggest worry about Barksdale is with post defense, but it's not like Wood is a much better alternative in that facet of the game either.
What to expect: Personally, my expectations for Barksdale are very high. Obviously there is only a five game sample size, but it seems to be that the more minutes he gets, the more productive he is. I think that he can win the starting job outright and possibly lead the big men in minutes. If his defense comes along JJ could play small ball against certain teams, sliding Barksdale over to center next to Wood and Eddie.
Center: Cadarian Raines
Finally healthy and finally Davila-less for the first time in his career, Raines is looking to build on a promising late season run in February/March.
How he fits: And we already have a problem. Raines is the closest thing to a prototypical banger at the five that Tech has seen since Coleman Collins (or maybe even before). It's just bad timing that he comes into his own right before Tech turns up the tempo on offense. Before Greenberg was fired, I was just hoping he wasn't too stubborn to work through Raines out of the post.
He has the ability, decent post moves (pretty good jump hook, nimble up-and-under) and has actually improved tremendously kicking out after drawing double teams—his biggest weakness last season. That being said, Raines has had a bit of trouble keeping up with the tempo so far this season. Tech needs his rebounding presence and post defense first and foremost, and his post offense only if they're not able to push. Will that work? Will Raines accept that?
What to expect: I think that come ACC play, Raines is going to be an essential part of both the offense and the defense. Breakouts will not come as easily against a team like Duke or even Maryland as it does against Appalachian State or VMI. For a team that will still want to take a lot of threes, Raines' ability to command a double team and find the open guy is essential to that success. I think he will average close to a double-double, something along the lines of 10 points and 8 boards a game.
6th man: Marshall Wood
The freshman forward is forced to grow up quickly, basically splitting minutes with C.J. Barksdale at the power forward spot.
How he fits: Wood is an interesting player, especially in this system. He is basically a stretch 4, which is a perfect fit in an up-tempo offense. It provides more room in the lane, while also giving a decent kick out option. His jumper has been off thus far (27% from the field, 18% from three) but he has made up for it in other ways. His post defense one game, rebounding in another. The concern right now is if the missed shots pile up, and how they would affect his confidence. If he keeps shooting (within reason), he seems to have a stroke that will fall.
What to expect: I can see pretty big things from Wood (he seems kind of like the player Jeff Allen wished he was), but it will also take a little time for those skills to blossom. I think he will be a guy that will improve game-to-game, but at what cost to the team? If his shots don't fall, say against Miami in February, will he still have the drive to grab double-digit boards? The answer is probably yes, but only time will really tell.
7th man: Marquis Rankin
It has been tough to track the progression of Rankin from last season to this point. He missed the first two games due to two deaths in his family, and had played a total of 11 minutes combined against VMI and UNC-G. Nevertheless, Rankin is going to be an essential piece on a shallow bench.
How he fits: This is a little harder to tell, since he's missed so much of the season so far. I think that he's massively important, if only to keep some miles off of Erick Green's tires. Rankin is an excellent on-ball defender, so one can presume that that fits very well in this up-tempo system. If he can anchor the second unit, while allowing Green to rest (such as preventing him from having to play 38 minutes in a game against UNC Greensboro), he is going to see a lot of playing time.
What to expect: Barring injury or some catastrophic step back from his form last season, Rankin will see the court a lot. Since I haven't been able to see much of him thus far, I'm not exactly sure how much, and how effective he will be. His shooting isn't particularly great, but I think Rankin can do exactly what you want from a backup point guard; to tread water until Green can come back off the bench.
8th man: Joey Van Zegeren
Van Zegeren is, for all intents and purposes, the big man depth for this team. JVZ has his holes, but also fits very well in JJ's offensive system.
How he fits: When he signed I watched a lot of grainy, probably illegal video of a string bean center running and jumping. In this fast paced offense, Van Zegeren is a great fit. He can run the floor very well, and doesn't look completely lost if he ends up with the ball at the top of the key (see Davila, Victor). He also has a nice little post game, and can pass out if need be. He does have a big problem on defense, however. His feet don't usually move as fast as his eyes, as he ball watches looking to contest shots at the rim.
What to expect: JVZ is someone who I am REALLY hoping develops this season. I think he has a lot of potential, especially on offense. There is a chance that he could keep improving over the course of the year while seeing solid backup minutes. There is also a chance that his bad defensive habits and lack of strength will keep him on the bench teaching Dutch to Johnston. However with the injury proneness of Cadarian Raines, I think there is a good chance of Van Zegeren seeing solid rotation minutes (think about 15 a game).
9th man: Will Johnston
Due to this early stretch against below average teams, compounded with Rankin missing some time due to deaths in his family, Johnston has surprisingly become the walk-on who may get a spot in the rotation (sorry Marcus Patrick).
How he fits: Johnston is purely a shooter. Actually, saying that he is a shooter may be an understatement. He hit 8 out of 13 shots this season...all of which have been three pointers. He is an ideal guy to be able to kick it out to, as he always seems geared up and ready to jack up another 3.
What to expect:I don't think it's a secret to say that Johnston's playing time will decrease as the competition improves. While he hustles and tries to overcompensate for his...should we say lack of swiftness?...on defense, he still won't see more than 10 minutes a game barring injury.
Everyone, meet Bobby. Bobby, meet everyone. Bobby is a Hokie grad, and an even bigger basketball junkie than I am. I brought him in on this section because as we traded numerous emails and phone calls about this team, and summed up our conversations into a few questions where he learns us all some basketball.
Brian: One guy we both thought was extremely important to the success of the team was Cadarian Raines. Now that JJ's turning up the tempo and letting his young ducks fly (in this analogy JJ is Emilio Estevez) will Raines be left behind?
Bobby: Raines can't keep up with the pace that James Johnson wants to run. His minutes show that thus far. He is the trailer in the fast break and will almost never be involved in opportunities on the break, but he is still crucial to the success of the transition offense on the defensive rebounding front. If he is too tired from running the floor due to quick offensive possessions and can't defend the post and rebound properly, I think JJ will be forced to slow down the game for him. This team is always going to have to run more half court sets than will have fast break opportunities, and having Raines on the floor for those sets is extremely important. His availability and presence in the post, as well as being able to find the open man when commanding a double down low make him essential in half court sets.
Brian: That being said, if Johnson really wants to run, what are the chances that he goes small and runs a lineup of Green/Brown/Eddie/Wood/Barksdale. Every guy is athletic and between 6'3" and 6'8", which seems to be the formula for "small ball". Would this even be successful or am I just a man with a dream?
Bobby: If James Johnson were fully committed to the full court offense, this would be the lineup we would see. Unfortunately at this point, this lineup is not viable for long stretches. We should see it, though it would depend on how Wood and Barksdale develop through the year. Right now the two are playing similar roles at the 4, and I'm not sure how comfortable Barksdale would be at the 5. This lineup would have to put up big numbers on offense as a countermeasure to the many presumed mismatches on defense. Going this small and running a fast break would put us in a position to get dominated on the glass, especially on the defensive end. It is a great way to get bigs in foul trouble and run them tired, both of which get them off the court so I would not be surprised to see some short stretches of this lineup.
Brian: With this team's limited bench and fast pace, will we see a fatigue wall similar to what we saw under Greenberg the last few Februarys?
Bobby: This team will get tired. With the furious pace, extended ACC slate and limited bench there is no doubt it will happen. It will be extremely important for Rankin to be able to come in and give Green some rest, all the while making positive decisions in transition with numbers and running our half court sets effectively. Wood can come on for both Barksdale and Eddie so I don't see too many issues there, although he seems to play the 4 more comfortably. JVZ is already the guy to give Raines rest when he can't keep up with the pace of the game, and while he runs the floor extremely well for his size, he seems to get lost in post defense and has a hard time tracking the ball off the rim, which is an absolute necessity for our limited rebounder transitions. We seem to have the pieces to effectively substitute almost everyone on the floor, but the offense will be limited particularly out of half court sets when key players like Green and Eddie have to rest.
Brian: Speaking of Seth, what are the differences between the half court offense run by JJ and the offense run by Greenberg?
Bobby: I think we will end up seeing a fair amount of half-court offense this year against sound conference teams who shut down the fast break with good transition D. The half-court sets already in my eyes look vastly different, for two reasons. We have a scoring threat in Eddie who is playing off the ball as opposed to previous years (Green, Delaney) and an actual post presence in Raines. Under Seth we ran a motion offense which had Davila come set a high ball screen with a lot of stagnant players stuck in a zone of the court (old Eddie, T-Bell). Those teams had a tough time beating zones which resulted in a lot of kicking the ball around the perimeter and bad shots, mainly because our primary scoring threat was on the ball and we had little post presence.
I think this year we will see Green primarily looking to split the 1-2 zone in the front court and then read how the defense collapses. Eddie will get a lot of looks as a result of off-ball screens set for him, and having a shooter like Brown helps stretch out the defense even more. Raines is MUCH more available in the low post than anything we've had in a long time. Defenses will collapse on him when he gets touches down low. If Brown gets ball side on post touches, he will get lots of looks. Barskdale seems to be heavily involved in a screen and roll, but that seems to be more situational than anything. All in all, I think it will be much more defined what our half court sets will look like, because we have multiple scoring options as well as Green on the ball who facilitates the offense well, especially down the lane in traffic. That being said this team's strength is clearly getting out ahead with numbers.
Brian: And while the word "tempo" has been the staple of early Hokie basketball discussions, will they really be able to keep the pace up come conference time specifically without sacrificing defensive rebounding?
Bobby: It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Numbers are already showing deficiency in rebounding, and this is mostly due to only 3 players having a true rebound responsibility on the defensive side. Green is almost always looking to become available for the outlet to start the break, with Brown basically at half court when we haul in a board. Eddie has rebound responsibilities but also is required to get up the floor for numbers in transition, leaving only the 4 and 5 (Barksdale, Wood, Raines, JVZ) as the primary rebounders on defense, also acting as the trailers in the fast break. If JJ decides to run a small ball lineup he will most certainly be completely committed to running the break, but there may be some cases where we are giving the opponent way too many second chances via offensive rebounds and may pull more guys into rebound duties in order to try to eliminate that (which will reduce the effectiveness of the resulting fast breaks). These rebound assignment adjustments will likely be situational and fluid, because outside of how to attack 2v1 and 3v2 opportunities, this is one of the few adjustments to be made to the fast break game.
Brian: Tech has been playing basically 9 guys (well 9.5 if you include Marcus Patrick...pun intended) during these warm up games. Realistically, how do you see the minutes falling and how many players do you think will actually be in the rotation come January?
Bobby: This small sample size of games is going to be a good indicator of PT for the team. I can see Raines minutes dropping as the season goes on if he cannot keep up on both sides of the court. That could lead to more time for JVZ or a small-ball unit. This year will be a work in progress for Johnson and by mid-January we will have a better idea of who and what he is comfortable with running and how committed he will be to the fast break. Eddie and Green will have increased minutes in tight games since they account for such a large part of the offense. Wood and Barksdale PT is still up in the air at this point with a true 5 like Raines or JVZ on the floor.
Brian: Last question, and arguably the most controversial. Who will end up being Tech's most important player, Green or Eddie?
Bobby: Jarrell Eddie. Green will be the best player on this team, especially given how crucial he will be to the success of this system we are running. Having said that, teams will game plan against him and it will be important to have a second scoring threat, and with Eddie blossoming into a highly versatile player on both ends of the floor I think we will end up living and dying by how Eddie plays game to game. At his best so far this season he is on a rebounding assignment on defense and still managing to get involved in fast break opportunities, which is extremely useful as his spot shooting capabilities will either stretch teams out for easy points in transition or he will end up getting a ton of open looks. His development of a post game and working really hard to get off screens for good shots will be extremely important to our half court sets. If he is having a bad game, your guess is as good as mine as to who will be putting up points for us.
Final Predictions (that is if anyone is still left reading this monstrosity):
Out of conference: We have a 5 or 6 game slate in OOC games, which are against Iowa, BYU, WVU, Oklahoma State and potentially/probably Bradley twice in the Las Vegas Challenge. With WVU being down this year and thanks to last year's season, a favorable matchup in the B1G/ACC challenge I think anywhere from 9-4 to 11-2 is reasonable to expect at this point. We will learn a lot about this team in the three game stretch of Iowa, OSU and WVU. If we get out of there looking good this team will finish in the upper half of the ACC. I'll say 10-3 after the OOC slate is over heading into ACC play.
Conference Play: An 18 game schedule should help our RPI this year, but will make the season tougher. There are clear tiers in the conference, the top being the triangle teams (Duke, UNC, and NC State), the second tier being Miami, FSU, Maryland, then there is the bottom half of the conference (UVA, BC, Wake, Clemson, GT). We have 4 games against the top tier, 5 games against the middle tier, and the remaining 9 against the bottom half of the league. As of right now I would guess taking 6 of 9 against the bottom half, 2.5 of 5 against the 2nd tier and 0.5 against the top tier, giving us a 9-9 record in ACC play.
That gives me an overall prediction of 19-12 heading into the ACCT, and given the weak schedule in and out of conference and the ACC being poor as it has been of late, no dancing for us.
That sounds pretty good to me. I'll say that they will probably go something along the lines of 17-14, dropping a few more games against unexpected teams. That being said...I think that 17-14 will be a moral victory for a squad who nobody believed in last month, not to mention last season.
And because of the entertainment factor, I think that this team will only gain steam in popularity both on campus and with alumni. After this football season it is going to be refreshing to watch an entire roster play hard for their coach, not just 70% of it.
This team is likable, fun, energetic and young. They will make us all pull some hair out and probably blow a few more close games than we can handle. But they will also keep us on the edge of our seats as we watch them work hard, play hard and finally have fun.