Men's Basketball: Baby Steps

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.

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Comments

Quick question: Let's say Ben Emelogu has the ball and there, off in the distance, is a bucket. What should Ben Emelogu do? I'm thinking maybe bounce the ball in the direction of the bucket and attempt a basketball shot. Wanted to confirm here.

"Yeah, it do." - Mike Vick

Thanks, now I'm picturing Mr. Bean running the point for last year's Hokies and suddenly our record makes more sense.

Also, super excited about Ben. I think he's going to end up the best of the freshman, but I also see Wilson developing into a quality point guard once he gets some experience. Asking him to come in and run the show right away hopefully won't adversely affect his confidence. You can see the talent in spurts, he's just too young and inexperienced to put it all together right away.

Maybe I am tainted by 15+ years of VT Basketball but these are the kind of years that I really enjoy. The underdog. Everyone counting us out. Reminds me of the Big East team with Ace, S. Good, S. Smith, Watlington, and the Jacksons. That was one of my favorite teams of all time. The other team that exceeded expectations and was fun as hell to watch was Dowdell, Gordon & Deron. We may not make it to the final four, but as long as we hustle, play tough and exceed expectations, I will be proud of this team. As much as I liked Malcolm and Jeff Allen, their selfish style of play was not good for the team. VT is so much better when its a motley group of players playing their hearts out for each other. Lets hope this year (and many more to come) are in that vein.

Go Hokies.

AUTHORS NOTE: Tech also beat Georgia Tech on the road last season 70-65 in OT on January 12th, 2013. I sincerely apologize for the mistake in the article, and I just wanted everyone to be aware.

Love these articles on the basketball team, please keep them coming. I haven't been able to see many games since firstrow1 hates me but this team is much more fun to watch than last year. My biggest surprise is Eddie turning into a beast. The single thing he beasted last year was that water bottle but he's cast away many doubts I had about him. And the only thing that's going to be harder than guarding emelogu in the future is trying to spell it without sneaking a peek at google

West Virginian by birth, Hokie by choice

yep, eddie is definitely most improved thus far this year but jvz has been pumping me up with all the swats and blocks out there. like you say brian, baby steps, but i feel like this team is more engaged as a whole than last year's and am cautiously optimistic.

"I promise you I will keep getting back up as long as you keep pushing forward." -Michael Brewer
"That kid you're talking to right there, I think he played his nuts off! And you can quote me on that shit!" -Bud Foster

I was lucky enough to make a short trip to the burg yesterday and went to check out Cassell and the new scoreboards. Ended up they were having practice. A few of my observations (only my amateur opinions):

1: There is no doubt when you watch that everything in practice is at rigorous pace, what JJ wants to run. Large focus on getting back on D and also getting out and running in transition. Also, conditioning, conditioning, conditioning.

2. Eddie impressed me with his leadership in practice much like he is showing more in the games.

3. JVZ has vastly improved in most areas. Even suprised me with his spot up jumper even though he rarely uses it in games.

4. This team appears to be a cohesive group, challenging each other to be better. I liked what I saw.

Again, this was just an observance of about a half hour but it was an interesting look at what the focuses are in practice and how the team interacts with each other.

@vtscottyb

Everyday is the same, yet different. Starts off with some position drills (guards/bigs) then they do some transition game then they stretch. After that it is either some more position drills followed by offensive schemes/etc or they go straight into offensive sets and running the floor.
They are pretty much always up tempo. Will Johnston and JVZ are tasked as being very vocal leaders and getting people in place for drills, but everyone chips in for the most part. (One of my favorite parts is that missed layups result in push ups, which they learned proper form from the Navy SEALs this summer.) Rebounding is greatly focused on and sometimes can lead to some physical confrontations, but that is the intensity that JJ wants to bring out of these guys.
He may not have the guys for his system completely (mostly because of depth), but he is getting there and we may end up surprising some teams. Haven't been that impressed by Maryland or BC and Miami is considered worse than us this year, so it may not be overall single digit wins like everyone thought at the beginning of the year.

Is Rankin practicing with the team?

EDIT: This was meant to be a reply to VTCPA's post

I don't believe he has practiced with the team since fall camps. He pretty much is around for the games and that's about it. I see him here and there though, so maybe he is getting closer to coming back, but at this point, I'd say he doesn't play at all this year and just redshirts.

As of the practice Wednesday Rankin wasn't in attendance.

@vtscottyb

I know the article mainly focuses on returning players. What is your opinion of Adam Smith? My brother is a UNCW grad and raved about him after his freshman season, so I kindly rubbed it in his face when Smith transferred to Tech. Obviously he can shoot lights out at times and seems to be able to create his shot in addition to spotting up. I worry a little about his size as a 2 guard, especially getting into ACC play.

He's definitely small and that's going to be an issue against ACC teams. Offensively he loves to shoot and attacks the basket better than anyone else on the team. His problem is that he doesn't have great vision, so when he does attack the basket he's out of control at times which leads to bad shots. If he can develop some passing ability off those drives for guys like Emelogu and Eddie this team will be much better. I personally love it when players attack the basket, so I'm starting to like him a little more (during that USC Upstate game when he was jacking it up every time he got the ball I was afraid he was gonna be another Robert Brown).

Rip his freaking head off!

I think the USC Upstate game was a jitter game for a lot of the players and especially Adam. He sat on the bench last year, but it's a whole different ballgame coming through that tunnel suited up and ready to play, especially after he has been working so hard to be a top guy for this team. I think he is a lot more locked on now and will definitely develop.

*Note on RB: he ended up at UAB following former tech assistants Rob Ehsan (who I'm pretty sure recruited him and he had the most connection with) and Jeff Wulbrun.