Checking in on Hokies Hoops

"Do you want basketball tickets for Christmas?" That was the (pretty ironic) text I got from my mom about ten minutes after Tech lost to USC Upstate two weeks ago. It was at that exact moment in time where I wondered whether my nine-win prediction for this team was too kind. If this was how the entire season was going to go, I would rather have spent an entire year in solitary with Bruce Pearl than watch this team.

That was, however, only the first game of the season and I will admit to being a bit irrational. The team has since ripped off three straight wins over West Virginia, Western Carolina and VMI, sparking a very small hope in the fan base that this team is better than anticipated. Well in short, they probably are, but not for many of the reasons we expected.

Now, before I talk about what's been going on with the team I need to clarify something: this team won't be good. Now, let me clarify something on the point that I just clarified: this team's record won't be good. They'll almost definitely finish in the bottom two or three teams in the conference, so read all of the following through that lens.

Now, on to some interesting developments we've seen through four games.

Ben Emelogu is good: I'm not talking a "will be good in the future" type deal, this guy is good right now. He has an impressive shooting stroke from beyond the arc, but he's more than just a spot up guy. He can create off the dribble for both himself and his teammates. He has size to drive the lane with confidence and also to grab rebounds. His biggest problem is over-aggression on the defensive end, causing him to get into foul trouble (which has happened in three out of four games). I'll discuss this team's defensive problems a little later on, but foul trouble on the part of Emelogu and others is a contributing factor, especially later in games.

Jarell is going to Jarell: So yeah, four games in and it seems as if Eddie is going to stay the same sort of glorified role player that he's been over the past two years. There will be days like the opener where he takes too many shots, and misses the majority of them (he went 6-21 against Upstate), and there will be days when he gets unsustainably hot for a half, if not longer (7-12 against VMI). With the emergence of Emelogu he won't be asked to do too much, which may make him a little pouty at times. One place he will be essential is on the glass. If this team tries to contest as many shots as they do it will be up to guys like Eddie, Emelogu and Marshall Wood to grab as many boards as possible.

The frontcourt is a...strength? We know JJ said that he was excited with the play of his big guys, one of the reasons for placing a redshirt on freshman Maurice Kirby, but we all know how coaches talk. He may be on to something, though. It's not just the relatively gaudy blocked shot numbers (three different guys on the team have had five blocks in a game), but the way they provide balance both offensively and defensively. I've already adopted Trevor Thompson as my favorite player, a position that was never filled after the departure of J.T. Thompson. Do I have a thing for Thompsons? Debatable, but watching Trevor come in for weak side blocks and fill the lane on pick and rolls...it just makes me happy.

The backcourt could be a concern: Through these four games, the guard rotation has consisted of three guys: Emelogu, Devin Wilson and Adam Smith. That's already a problem, but a bigger one than that is that only one of those three is a point guard. Wilson is currently averaging 33.5 minutes a night, and with Marquis Rankin out that's not going to change. It'll only take one night for Wilson to pick up a fourth foul before the 10 minute mark in the second half for a night to go incredibly wrong.

Here are some quick other points not important enough for their own bold section:

  • Adam Smith is not a point guard. He's really not. Any time that he's forced to play point guard the offense changes. What he really should be, and I think will eventually be a role he settles into, is an irrational confidence guy. Bring him in as the sixth man, let him take shots and run more offense for him. He's a creative offensive player, but not one I'm sure I want on the floor for over 30 minutes a night.
  • C.J. Barksdale is good. He has a mean streak, can play a nice little post game and can grab his share of boards. That being said, motivation has always seemingly been a problem for him. If he plays like he did against VMI (and I'm just talking effort, not even numbers) he's going to be an excellent part of the rotation, and could also completely change the frontcourt rotation.
  • The defense is a huge problem, and will be all season. It involves a combination of things (foul trouble, poor on-ball defending techniques, matchup disadvantages), but it's not due to a lack of effort. Last year the defense was extremely poor in at least some part due to the fact that Erick Green was essentially a DH. He carried so much more of a burden on offense that they tried to "hide" him as much as possible, making the defense strain even more. So while this may seem like the same bad defense we saw last year, it's not. It's still bad, but for different reasons.
  • James Johnson needs a defensive assistant. In 2007, the Boston Celtics improved from the 18th best defense in the NBA (below average) to 2nd. Many attributed this to the addition of Kevin Garnett, a noteworthy defensive stalwart. What went underrated for many years, however, was Doc Rivers' hire of assistant coach Tom Thibodeau that same season. Thibs was a noted defensive assistant (and now leads a defensively terrifying Chicago Bulls squad) and made the Boston defense terrific. I think JJ needs a guy who can provide a similar impact on this team. Johnson is good at recruiting, getting his guys to play hard every night and drawing up some offensive plays and game plans. I think he needs a Thibodeau. Obviously it's harder than it sounds to find a guy like that, but considering the money he saved the university (he's on a very cheap contract), JJ should be able to get one.
  • This team is better than last year's version. It's simple really, more depth, more talent and more ball movement. Sure, it was great watching Erick Green score points, but relying on one guy that heavily also makes for bad habits on both ends of the court (especially ball watching on offense).

This weekend the Hokies are in Brooklyn to play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. On tap? Oh, you know, only Michigan State, the No. 1 team in the country. For obvious reasons, my hopes aren't particularly high.

What I am interested in, however, is the next game against either Oklahoma or Seton Hall. They're both average teams (the Sooners went to the dance last year, but their top three scorers are all gone), but isn't that the type of test we need to see? I don't want to see them play another directional school, but I'm not ready to see them play top-flight talent either. If they can beat one of those teams, it will say a lot more about this team than anything shown against Sparty.

So keep yourselves guarded, but there's no reason as of now to be completely despondent. They'll definitely have their share of bumps along the way, but the talent and the potential is there. Keep your optimism in check, but watch this team as a group of kids who will only get better being coached by a man who just may have been a better hire than many of us thought.

That being said, I'm still going to wait to see if I want basketball tickets for Christmas.

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Comments

Good stuff, thanks for posting.
I am excited to watch this team, and see how they develop.
I have no expectations, so it should be fun.
Big game tonight!
Go Hokies.

I enjoy watching tech basketball, especially with the young talent we have right now. Yes, their record may not end up being very good, but I look forward to watching the team and individuals grow every game. It helps that each game we are the underdog, and I can always hope that that night is going to an upset. Basketball is a crazy game sometimes.

I take jokes from roomates and friends about coming home after working 10 hours and watching us play teams like Western Carolina on ESPN3 on my tablet or the full replay of us playing WVU because I haven't seen the new Freshman play, but they don't understand. I love my school and always get excited when I get the chance to watch our teams. It doesn't need to be a showcase game of the week for me to care, I want to see every game. I know a bunch of you out there are probably the same way. Never know what could happen, and when it does, were you watching to witness it, live it? I will.

@vtscottyb

this>>>
i always feel this way. Take heat from my friends not wanting to watch the prime-time games because im watching us play some cupcake. I know exactly what you mean. True hokie SPORTS fans.

Contemplating walking on as a kicker...
But no seriously...

The funny part is Greenberg had a better record against #1 teams in the country than against numbers 2-25. Let's hope Johnson can emulate that part of his career and knock off a giant. I was astounded that we scored over 100 points against VMI. We might need to do it again to beat MSU.

We'd totally be ranked if Bobby Brown stuck around

RealDiehl

Thanks for all of this Brian, this is great stuff. I haven't gotten to watch nearly enough Hokie basketball in recent years for varying reasons, but what I have seen gives me hope. I highly doubt we'll ever be a top-tier team in the ACC (especially with the additions of Pitt, Syracuse, ND and Louisville on the way), but there are pieces in place to be a solid team in the future. As you've said, this is a young team with a coach that's still learning on the job, so they will have nights where they look great and others where they look terrible.

As long as they continue to show effort, I'll be pleased with this team. The other thing I'll be looking for is to see how well JJ can retain his players from year to year. Transfers happen far too frequently in college basketball, and unless you're one of the select few teams who have elite talent (the one-and-done guys), team continuity and veteran players give you a chance to win. That is the type of program I feel that VT is capable of running and I hope JJ gets the chance to prove his worth.

So, what's up with the

poor on-ball defending techniques

part of the defense? And I thought JJ was supposed to be a Tom Thiboudeau? Wasn't defense supposed to be his calling card?

For some reason the teams that want to run-n-gun it can't play defense. See: VMI, Gonzaga, Dallas Mavericks circa 2005, Big 12 football, etc.

RealDiehl

I'd say that a lot of that falls on inexperience - don't forget, most guys who play D1 basketball were the best athletes on the floor in their high school career. Fundamentals can often take a backseat when you rely on athleticism and a lot of bad habits can develop there that translate to the college game.

And I don't ever recall JJ being considered a "defensive coach" - if I remember correctly, he wants to run an uptempo offense and full-court pressure defense (similar to VCU).

Same problem as last year, fundamentally flawed. I am defensive oriented myself because I was drilled in the fine art of boxing out before grabbing a rebound, keeping my head on a swivel and keeping players in my perpherial visions.

If Johnson does not figure out how to rotate guys on the low blocks, they are going to get killed by superior athletic teams with developing backdoor plays.

Another problem is they do a poor job of fighting through screens, which is a continuation of the Greenberg's era, and don't be surprise if team start to throw pressure defense at Virginia Tech because there's not enough ball handlers to handle the rock, and Johnson doesn't seem to get a clue when it comes.

For example, one game, this team we played against was constantly throwing half court traps and full court press, we devoted a signifcant portion of practice time to break those press. When we recongized it was coming, we were able to immediately move into pre-designated spots, and fire off pass as soon as it got in our hands. We did it with uncanny effectiviness, it caused the other team to quit using press. Recongition is the key. The coach and the players have to be able to spot it coming and call it out.

I support Logan Thomas and make no apologies for it.

This post was on point; nailed a lot of things I've been thinking. I love the fact that we have some decent bigs, especially ones with shot-blocking ability. This is new for VT and should help make up for some of the poor perimeter defense. I just have never warmed up to Eddie and it's obvious why; poor handle, streaky, never made a "leap" of improvement from year to year. We will be even better next year without he and Raines, mostly because we'll finally have a full roster of scholarship players.

Gotta say I think you absolutely nailed this one. Jarrell will definitely always be Jarrell and part of that has to do with him having bad knees. Adam Smith I thought would be able to fill in at PG to spell Wilson while Rankin is out, but clearly this team needs Rankin back for depth and his defense. CJ and Raines were going to be focal points before the season started so to have CJ back will help and allow JJ to use Thompson sparingly as he is still getting adjusted to the college game. Trevor certainly does not lack confidence, but he is far from polished.

JJ really does need to look at his staff in the offseason and find guys to complement his style. I don't think it is really there right now.

2 things:

1. Can we just pretend JT and Trevor are brothers, since at least the football team does well with them?

2. Concerns about the younger guys running out of steam the longer the season goes on? I recall some freshman falling apart late in the year because they just aren't used to playing so many games.

Running out of steam physically or mentally? I think the physical aspect is not a big deal as high school kids in varsity sports are use to training all day/every day so wear and tear from a game isn't too bad as long as they have those few days in between to recover. Mentally, I could understand it being a strain. Sometimes younger kids in sports just get tired or bored with playing. I know it sounds ridiculous (and I never understood this), but when I was in high school, our baseball team was so good at winning that after they won their division, they talked in the halls about losing during regions because they just didn't want to play any more or drag their season on any longer. These were also guys that had won states the year previous and went on to play in the minors/college so they had little care left for their high school team. So yes, I would say there is a chance a kid fresh out of high school gets "burned out" before the season is through. Especially if you start dropping a lot of games in a row, its hard to find motivation.

Then again, theres the chance we just snagged a bunch of ballers that just wanna play every day no matter what *fingers crossed*.

Go Hokies!

thats interesting about jj hiring a defensive assistant. are all the guys we have now offensive minded?

"It's worth it right? It's worth it to lay it all on the line for your brothers!"

"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 (both quotes)

One of my problems with Hokiesport.com regarding the men's basketball coaching staff they don't tell us what role they play. It mostly touches on their experiences and how great a recruiter each assistant coaches are.

I support Logan Thomas and make no apologies for it.

Nice! Thanks for posting this..almost game time against #1.

Touchdown Tech - Bill Roth

Does anyone know where I can watch this? It's probably a longshot since I don't have TruTV and assumed it would be on my watchESPN app.