Before I start talking about what's happening with the men's basketball team, I believe that it is important to remember where this team was one year ago. Sitting at 8-1, with impressive wins over Oklahoma State and Iowa, people started to buy in to the Hokies. Some stupid people even thought that the team was so happy to be out from under Seth Greenberg that they would play above their talent level, simply out of sheer happiness (okay, that was me).
Little did we know, that would be the high point of the year. The very next game Tech went on to lose to Georgia Southern, which marked the beginning of an uber-depressing 5-18 run over the next three months. That run was full of desperate Erick Green jump shots and very little else.
Before I move on, I'll wait for you to get through that PTSD-like flashback brought about by the thought of last season.
Okay, we're back.
The reason I brought that up, given the team has exceeded early expectations and with VCU up next, it may seem as if this team is headed in a similar direction as its predecessor. Let's put the kabosh on that right now. This team is already a better team than they were last season. In fact, I think that they would probably beat last year's team by double digits.
Let's make a list of true road games that the Hokies won last season: UNC Greensboro. That's the list. The Hokies beat the Spartans on November 19th, and then failed to win a game on the road for the rest of the year. Now, for the first time that this young team played a true road game (and by "true" I mean in a non-neutral site game) they find a way to win. Not only do they find a way to win, but they find a way to win after playing the first two thirds of the game poorly.
Sure, you can point out that Miami is potentially the worst team in the conference, and that a win over the Canes is probably something that would come much easier to a better team. That's fine, and you would make very valid points. But let's consider the fact that this team didn't beat bad teams away from Cassell, regardless of their caliber, last season. This team will beat teams that are worse than them, and that's an improvement (I'm talking baby steps here, people).
Before I move on, here are my quick thoughts about the Miami game as a whole:
- This team is going to shoot itself out of a bunch of games. I realize that they have a ton of guys who can hit shots, but good lord was that first half hard to watch. No one could hit anything, and it seemed as if this thing had been wrapped up after 30 minutes of regulation.
- The biggest problem with relying on the three ball? You don't go to the free throw line. Tech went to the stripe all of three times in Coral Gables, and they were all shot by the same person. Some of this is youthful mistakes, Devin Wilson and Ben Emelogu should be driving far more than they are, but some of it is just having a team with a bunch of guys who like the three ball (Eddie, Smith, Emelogu, Wood shot 33 threes against the Canes). As much fun as it is to watch these guys play when the shots are falling, this is something that needs to be changed, and changed quickly.
- This team is 21st in the nation in team rebounds with nearly 42 a game. You will soon see that rebounding is a key theme to the rest of this piece, but that's over six more a game than last year, and is one of the sneaky reasons that this team is better than a year ago.
- Emelogu needs to drive more. I realize I touched on this 50-or-so words ago, but he's by far the most explosive player with the ball in his hands, and he's a handful for defenses. He gave Seton Hall trouble, and will give many ACC teams trouble should he provide both an outside shooting threat as well as an off the dribble threat.
- FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE MAKE BEN EMELOGU DRIVE TO THE BUCKET. Just one more time, to be safe.
One of the most impressive things about the team this season has been the improvements that we have seen by the majority of the returning players.
Joey van Zegeren is first and foremost on that list of player improvements. I understand that he is still not even close to an offensive threat. Normally, playing 4-on-5 while on offense is a huge negative, it's why I called for Cadarian Raines to replace Victor Davila two years ago. In fact, I hate having someone that provides no offensive threat, regardless of position. It screws up floor spacing, and makes the rest of the floor more crowded for the people who can actually make their own shot. The only way in which having a player like this on the floor can actually benefit your team, is by that player being two things: a defensive force and a hustler on the offensive glass.
Last year, van Zegeren was such an average-to-below average defensive player I basically didn't factor him in much to this year's plan. He was slow on defensive rotations, and his foul count showed for it (averaging a foul nearly every five minutes he was on the court). This year, he's not only rotating better, but he's in much better condition to bang bodies with other big men. He can battle for defensive position and grab some tough rebounds. It's even gotten to the point with JVZ that I think James Johnson is legitimately starting JVZ over Raines as his best option at center, instead of a motivational/disciplinary move against Cadarian.
In my season preview, I asked a legitimate question: who is the real C.J. Barksdale? Was he the loafer that we saw for the majority of the 2012-2013 season, or was he the grinder that we saw during a four-game stretch in late February and early March? Well, after coming back from suspension, Barksdale has been killing it. He's an important cog, especially on offense, where he keeps the ball moving and gets after it on the offensive glass. He averages over 2 offensive rebounds a game in the six games that he's been a part of, and he's showing a little bit of a mean streak pulling them down. I'm not saying that it often makes a huge difference, but it's nice to have a guy who legitimately wants to hit the offensive glass, especially in end-of-game (or half) scenarios. Sure he still may not set the best screens and gets taken advantage of from time-to-time on defense, but I think C.J. has found a place on this team that suits him, and it was very clear that they missed him (and his rebounding) against Miami.
Marshall Wood is another guy in the Barksdale vein, but for him it's on the defensive glass. I've said a bunch in these posts that it is critical to have your smaller guys (guards and small forwards) rebound the ball when your big men are going to contest shots at the rim. Wood has played his role well thus far, snagging at least five defensive rebounds in over half of Tech's games. On offense he's obviously still a jacker (we all know he enjoys his top of the key threes), but this offense will give him an open shot that he can hit from time to time.
The ringleader of this group, however, is obviously Jarell Eddie. I honestly did not see this coming. Eddie has somehow transformed from the leader of the Pout Brigade (named for players who wanted to get more shots last year...which was everyone whose last name didn't end rhyme with Bean) to a true leader of men on this team. The guy leads by example on defense, on the glass and obviously on the offensive end. He can shoot, that's never been a question, but it's how he shoots. He's obviously not going to hover around 50% from three for the entire year, that's a number that's just not sustainable, but he makes shots when it matters and is now both willing and able to create shots for his teammates. I love the way he has stepped up for James Johnson so far this season, This guy can play, and it's fun watching him seem to put it all together this year, or at least so far this year. If he can continue to play this way, this team is going to be much better than we anticipated (which, again, isn't saying much).
Again, don't get your hopes up too much with this team. They have the privilege of playing VCU on Saturday the 21st, which will bring everyone back down to Earth a bit. Sure, they have nearly two weeks to prepare for the Rams, but their lack of guard depth will inevitably stymie against that Shaka press. Don't be too dejected though, because if this team can be 9-4 going into conference play, you have to consider it a win for the program.
Again, it's just one baby step at a time.