Last week I wrote about the play of the returning players (read: non-freshman), and how their improvement has impacted the way this team has played thus far. Many of you though, for good reason, were less focused on the old guys and wanted to know more about the class of freshmen currently in the rotation. I can't blame you, everyone gets excited about the new additions to a team. New additions mean hope and promise, regardless of whether or not hope and promise is actually coming.
At the beginning of the season, I had a lot of questions about this team (19 to be exact). Now that we're ten games into the year, I think that many of those questions have been answered. Not that there aren't anymore questions, it's just that the questions have evolved. No longer am I worried about if Ben Emelogu can create his own offense, but rather the ways in which he creates it.
Basically, we've started to go from worrying about things that were unknown to worrying about things that we don't have a large enough sample size to legitimately analyze, but tempts me to do it anyway. Regardless, let's take a look at each newcomer, what we knew coming in, and what we know now.
What we knew: Smith came from UNC-Wilmington, put up some impressive numbers against ACC competition (32 points against Wake Forest and 23 against Maryland) and was listed as a shooting guard. That was all the available information. Was he a point guard? Was he more of a Malcolm Delaney-type? Not much was clear with how he fit in with guys like Jarell Eddie and the rest of the squad.
What we know: The dude's a shooter. Out of the ten games that Tech has played, Smith has put up double digit shot attempts in seven of them. The other three? He shot it nine times twice and missed one game. He enjoys his shots. He's also learning how to play the point, which has come along better than I expected. Needless to say, it wasn't great in the beginning (his time at point guard set a whole new definition of "ball stopping"), but he has definitely grown into the roll, even finding open guys every now and again.
The new question: Will Smith find his roll? First of all, let's all let out a collective laugh that I just typed "Will Smith", and pour one out over the fact that he passed on The Matrix. Now we move on, and I think that the most obvious move for Smith is to switch the roles in the beginning of the game with Emelogu. As it currently stands, Smith starts and Emelogu comes off the bench, with Smith averaging nearly 29 minutes a game and Emelogu averaging 24. While a five minute difference doesn't seem like that much, think about it like this: that's 13 percent of the game in which the best defensive five is not on the floor for Tech (Wilson / Emelogu / Eddie / Barksdale / van Zegeren). Smith is a solid shooter, and can score in bunches. When his shot is falling he can be an essential offensive weapon, like when he scored 19 against West Virginia or 28 against Radford, but in my opinion that's the role of a prime bench guy, not an ACC-caliber starter.
What we knew: Wilson was a 3-star guard out of Pennsylvania, and was the last guy to sign with James Johnson for this class. Listed as a shooting guard by Rivals, it was clear fresh out of the gate that he was actually a point guard, and that he would compete with Marquis Rankin and German transfer Malik Mueller for playing time. Johnson described him as "pass first" in practice, but being Tech fans, no one knew what that meant.
What we know: Wilson is not only the starting point guard, he's the team's only point guard, with Mueller being ruled ineligible and Rankin not dressing thus far (and before you ask, no I don't know what's up with him and I just hope that he's doing okay). Wilson is by far the most difficult player to evaluate thus far, because you can't simply judge his role on the offense by his point totals. At times he looks like he's in total control, especially in pick and roll situations, but he also gets lost at times, and loses the ball in the lane too much. His 5.5 assists per game put him in the top-40 in the country, but his 3.1 turnovers a game is one of the worst among players who average at least five and a half assists per game. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: the way he develops will directly correlate with the way this team plays this winter. Also, the "Wilson was a really good high school wide receiver" line will become this year's go-to fact for under-informed broadcasters (I'll say it'll be used more than the Jarrett Boykin XXL gloves but less than anything involving David Wilson and unnatural feats).
The new question: Will he play like a freshman? Starting with VCU (which I'll cover a little bit later), every single team for the rest of the year will attempt to give Wilson all he can handle. Will he give wins away, or will he shine? It's the most important (and terrifying) development to watch this year.
What we knew: Practically nothing. Due to a pair of broken fingers in the summer between his junior and senior seasons, Emelogu wasn't even rated by Rivals, and was missed by a large portion of the scouting population. Luckily, assistant coach Kurt Kanaskie was able to scoop him up. Due to his lack of coverage as a recruit, there was little that was expected of him this year (at least from stupid people like me). However that was before JJ named him the sole captain to begin the year. How would he handle that? Would this lead to a team being divided?
What we know: This guy can ball. Explosive first step, can create off the dribble for both himself and others and has a really nice stroke. Seriously, when Emelogu gets hot you can just forget about defense. Did you see the end of the Seton Hall game? Dude was making them from Madison Square Garden even though the game was being played in the Barclays Center. He is still young, however, and sometimes makes young guy mistakes. For instance, against Miami he was settled for too many contested jumpers early on, and his shooting percentage showed it (5-15, 1-7 from behind the arc). In fact, he settles for too many threes in general, with 37 of his 73 attempts coming from deep. At times he also defers to others, which isn't always bad but can cause problems when the offense needs to score.
The new question: Will Emelogu drive to the hoop more? The biggest problem with last year's team was that when defenses started to close out on deep shots quicker, they would struggle. If they started out cold from the field, which was a regular occurrence, things usually went south quickly. The primary reason for this was the lack of guys that they trusted to make their own shots, so they simply had to rely on being open when catching the ball. The one guy not named Erick Green that could create his own shot consistently (Robert Brown) settled for a more and more threes and long twos as the year went along. Without anyone to make shots for others, the offense came to a screeching halt while the four other players on the court did all but pull up chairs to watch Green go to work on offense. This is why Emelogu is important. He's a guy that can create a shot for himself, even with Wilson off the floor. If he keeps driving to the hoop, that's the difference between potential layups and potential long jumpers. You don't have to be an analytics expert to know which shot is more favorable for offensive production.
What we knew: Thompson was a big time get for JJ, as a legit big man who can run the floor. He had a relatively impressive offer list, including Southern Cal and Xavier, but no one knew how the big man rotation would work out/if we would see Thompson at all.
What we know: Um...his dad is former Yankee outfielder Ryan Thompson? It's been a weird time for Thompson, his minutes have slowly gone down since playing against West Virginia, capping off with a whopping 6 total minutes played over the past two games. I don't know if this is a coaching thing or simply a case of too many bodies at his position, but we just haven't seen Thompson on the floor much. This is a shame, though, because he has shown promise in very few minutes, including a five block night against VMI and an 11 rebound game against Western Carolina.
The new question: Will he play? I'd love to see Thompson get on the floor a little more, but I understand why he doesn't. JJ has to rotate two power forwards (Barksdale and Marshall Wood) and two centers (JVZ and Cadarian Raines). I know that I've written that the plan for Wood was to transition him to small forward, but do you blame JJ for wanting to take Eddie out as little as possible right now? Even when he does, he prefers to go with a smaller lineup by playing Wilson, Smith and Emelogu all at the same time. What I don't understand, however, is why Thompson can't get Christian Beyer's minutes. Four minutes more a game would be huge in both the experience and confidence category for Thompson (sorry all you Beyer lovers out there, but it needs to happen).
What we knew: We knew that Kirby was tall and from Arizona.
What we know: We know that Kirby is tall and from Arizona.
The new question: Will Kirby's redshirt have to be burned? I would assume not, but this is Tech basketball we're talking about here. Last year they had to pull a guy out of McComas Hall to play backup power forward. It would definitely be beneficial for Kirby to have a JVZ-like redshirt year that he can use to improve the little things a post man needs to do without using a year of eligibility.
Previewing VCU (9-3)
This is going to be an extremely challenging test for Tech. They go into a "neutral" site game...in Richmond...and play a team that likes to press and run all over the floor. For the Hokies, a team that that turns the ball over nearly 14 times a game, that could definitely pose a problem.
I know that this probably makes you think that the main matchup to worry about is solely Wilson, and how he handles being pressed for 40 minutes. This, however, is a common misconception. Whether or not you beat "Havoc" does not lie with the point guard alone, but rather with the entire team. If the entire team can get the ball up the court and handle the pressure when the ball is in their hands, they won't struggle as much (aka the less the other guys turn it over, the better).
For instance, Trey Burke had seven turnovers by himself when Michigan played the Rams in the NCAA Tournament last year. That's not a good number by any stretch of the imagination, but the reason that the Wolverines blew the doors off that game was the way his teammates handled the ball. Tim Hardaway Jr. played very well, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III stayed active down low and both had big days. Michigan turned the ball over only 12 times, primarily due to the effectiveness of their other ball handlers, and won by 25. It also helped that they shot over 50 percent from the field with only a third of their shots coming from deep.
That's how a fantastic team would plan to beat VCU, but let's be honest, that team also had two guys that are currently in the NBA and two guys that will be there in the next year or two.
We can, however, look at the Rams' three losses this season and see a plan of what to do in order to beat them. VCU has lost to Florida State, Georgetown and Northern Iowa this year, and each game had two common themes:
Playing defense is a necessity against VCU. It's common for a team to try to match a fast paced team bucket for bucket, thinking that that's the only way to keep up with them. While that may seem like it makes sense, that strategy is destined to fail. In fact, in the three losses, the Rams took at least 15 more shots than their opponent and in one case (Florida State), they shot the ball 21 more times. It doesn't matter how many times they shoot, but it matters how the big men defend the rim and how the guards close out on threes. VCU averaged 20 shots from deep in each loss, and the majority of the time if they're not taking a three, they are trying to take it to the rim. If the big men can hold their ground (without getting in foul trouble) and the guards can contest threes, Tech will gladly give up midrange jumpers.
If the Rams can't get the shots they want, it's not like they will wait to see what opens up later in the shot clock. These guys are going to GO at all times, which means sometimes taking poor shots. In their losses VCU averaged 34 percent shooting from the field. That's not good, and most importantly, it leads to them not being able to fully set up their defense. When they make shots consistently, they are able to set up their defense and can run away with games.
Being efficient on offense is also a must. The way to beat the Rams is not only to break the press, but to also be efficient with the possessions that you have. Each team that beat VCU shot over 50% from the field, but it's not like they were bombing from deep. Guards that can consistently get to the rack have given the Rams problems, because it not only throws their defense out of whack, but it also creates the chance to draw fouls. They are very good at defending the three, but get into trouble when attacked right at the heart of the defense.
Tech will have to be able to hit their free throws, which also means having to, you know, take them. If the Hokies settle for a ton of threes and other assorted jumpers they could get in trouble quickly, especially if those jumpers are shot with a hand in their face.
Wilson, Smith, Emelogu and Eddie will all have to try to get shots at the rim. If Wilson is able to attack off the dribble, I wouldn't be shocked to see him score double digits and possibly even have a double-double with points and assists. You know what? I wouldn't even be shocked to see him have a triple-double of points, assists and turnovers.
It's not going to be easy, but beating Virginia Commonwealth would not be impossible for this team, they just have to prove that they have grown up a lot since they left Miami nearly two weeks ago.