"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.