For the third year in a row, it's been a tough winter for Hokie hoops. However, these past few months have not only been a trying time for the Virginia Tech men's basketball team, but for its fans as well. As the losses mount, frustration builds, and as frustration builds, things are said. It starts with just a few people throwing out something in the middle of a twenty point loss, but all of a sudden a LOT of people are saying it and it becomes one of those things that just become "common knowledge".
Twitter is a vehicle for "common knowledge"—things like facts and thinking things through are checked at the door in favor of quick wit and #hotsportstakes. After a while, those half baked conclusions seem to become the indisputable narrative. Topics ranging from complaining about Jarell Eddie to questioning James Johnson's tactical ability are topics brought up game in and game out.
Today I want to address four myths and common commentaries that are tossed around during games.
Tech Hardly Ever Runs Offensive Sets
I see this complaint on Twitter all the time, and it drives me nuts. "What just happened? Did Tech even run a play there?" Just stop it. This isn't the NBA, a coach doesn't just roll the ball out and say "go play". A collegiate team practices a few times a week, and has time to go through the playbook. I know that there are a few insiders that read this website, and I'm willing to bet that they'd back me up when I say that I'm sure James Johnson and staff don't just blankly stare at a wall as their team practices contested 25-footers.
From what I can see, there are three reasons as to why the offense gives off the impression of disorganization: youth, lack of depth, and talent.
Tech's inexperience is a huge disadvantage, especially when it comes to offensive cohesiveness. Learning a handful of offensive sets, and routinely executing them well enough to yield a successful play is a bit more difficult than it seems. A successful offense doesn't start and end with a well drawn play. Instead, it's the way players react to the little things that routinely have the greatest impact. How will a defender go around a screen? Will the helping big man hedge towards the three point line, or will he fade back and pack the lane? What do you do, as a ball handler if you are double-teamed during a given play? These are just a tiny sample of things that can happen on any given possession, and players have to practice for all of them. All it takes is one player to mess up one certain aspect of a given scenario, and the entire play is out of whack.
You normally see a certain lack of cohesion from all young teams, some of which eventually figure it out, and some that never do. Even teams with freshmen that are NBA-caliber players like Kentucky have problems performing consistently on offense, it's just a lot of things to learn in one year. These guys are learning, and they're learning a lot. Something mentioned by the Richmond Times-Dispatch's Mike Barber caught my eye during the Pittsburgh game:
Watching on TV, it's interesting to see how much teaching James Johnson does during the game. Each stoppage he's teaching freshmen something— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) February 8, 2014
It's tough to have even a remotely consistent offense when your coach is still teaching 60 to 100 percent of the players on the floor.
The other two reasons why Tech doesn't have any offensive fluency need less words to explain. Lack of depth not only means tired legs during the back half of games, but lack of quality practice time as well. One of the oldest clichs in coaching is that the better a team practices, the better it plays. Well, it's pretty difficult to have a good practice with seven healthy scholarship guys. How do you expect a team to simulate the length of a team like Florida State when four of their forwards are dinged up? Even simpler, how do you expect a guy like Ben Emelogu to have a consistently good game when his ankle keeps him from going all out in practice? When you set up a game plan for a specific team, it's easy to talk about what you want to do offensively, but if you don't have the people to fully in place in practice it doesn't really do you much good.
And then, there's the whole talent thing. To be blunt, at times there are shots to be had, and guys just don't hit them. Now, I realize that it's college basketball and the 15-foot jump shot is a white whale, but you still can't help it if the shots don't fall on a consistent basis. Now maybe it's not the first option of a play, but Tech needs buckets when the ball lands into the hands of someone for an open corner 3, or in the mitts of a big man with favorable position on the low block.
This team runs an offense. It runs offensive sets pretty regularly, yet it just has certain inadequacies to overcome, many of which can't be helped.
This Team Should Have a Better Record
I'm not going to elaborate to a depressing point about this, but this is something that I see frequently as well. Many people are still bemoaning the fact that this team doesn't win games that many people think it should. Anything from "Clemson is beatable" to "Jeff Bzdelik's ACC road record" have been brought up as reasons why Tech should have beaten fill-in-the-blank ACC team here.
Let's just be completely honest with ourselves and realize that this team is legitimately the worst team in the conference. It's not fun to come to grips with, but it has to be done. Not to be too harsh, but simply look at the starting five guys on any given night and tell me how many of them would legitimately have a chance to start if they played for the opposing team. The answer won't always be zero, but it won't usually be high.
The good thing is, it's not a trend that will definitely stay the same from year to year. A team's fortunes can change due to so many things: one stellar recruiting class, a player developing in the offseason, a coach making a leap...there are a ton of ways to improve from year to year, and I think that this team will prove that. It's just that at this current moment in time, the talent level top to bottom (especially considering the age of the talent in Blacksburg) just isn't the same as other places.
Jarell Eddie Hurts More than he Helps
This became the most popular misinformed opinion after Eddie gave up a four-point play in the closing seconds of regulation to help Pitt send Saturday's game into overtime. In fact, Jarell had a few different mistakes at the end of that game that one could argue cost his team a win (a costly turnover here, clock mismanagement there). Where would they have been, however, without his 15 points? As much as you can say he hurt them in that game, he also kept them in it with a couple of big boy shots.
Yes, I know that he's shooting under 30 percent from the field since the Syracuse game, and that a shooting percentage like that is usually reserved for the middle school rec team I used to coach. I get that, I really do. I know this will sound weird, but he is Tech's lone threat to consistently score. He's the guy that opposing teams will always have bolded on their scouting report, and the player that defenders won't let out of their sights. He's a good shooter, but how many good shooters can be dependable with a hand in their face almost every single time they touch the ball? Sure, it's frustrating that he often doesn't follow his shot for a potential put back, and he makes me cringe when he tries to do too much. However, he's for better or worse (and I know, it's been mainly worse) their best player. At the very least he stretches the defense, taking a guy out of the lane in order to stay close to him (why do you think Raines and van Zegeren get as many 1-on-1 post ups as they do).
One final thought on this: for those people who say that a last shot should go to anyone else (the majority say Emelogu, but I've seen others as well), I just don't agree. Emelogu, especially on a bum ankle gives you nothing that Eddie doesn't bring to the table other than a streakier jump shot. Eddie is the guy, and he has the highest probability—again, I didn't say how high—of making a shot.
The Team Has Quit on the Season
I feel strongest about disproving this myth. Right around the time of the Boston College game, I was seeing a lot of people (fans, bloggers, beat writers) question the effort and heart of this team. I understand that there is a lot of frustration floating around the basketball team right now, and that was especially the case post-BC. I understand that losing to another dismal ACC team by over 20 points is nowhere remotely positive, but to not only question the effort of the team during that game, but to also cast the accusation like an umbrella over the rest of the season? I said it after the Pitt game, and I'll say it again; that's just lazy.
One thing that I try to never do is question the legitimate effort of players who are playing a sport of any level. It's impossible to fully know what's going through a player's head, and simply disrespectful and insulting to question whether or not they are trying.
If you watch this team, you can see the effort. You can see the pain on their faces after each mistake, the frustration in their eyes after each missed shot. This isn't a team that just coasts through games simply trying to get them over with, but instead a team that isn't as talented as the opponents they are playing. Yes, they give up a ton of threes on defense, but do you know what else they do? Play two centers together, which in a zone means that they are responsible for getting out to the wings on defense. The foot speed just isn't there. What about when Will Johnston and Christian Beyer play on the same side of a zone? It's not that the effort isn't there to contest a long shot, they just don't quite have the athleticism to cover enough ground and get to the shooter in time.
To not only have fans, but professional writers question what basically comes down to a college student's moral fiber (whether or not they are a quitter) is wrong on more than one level, not to mention unprofessional. This team plays hard. Whether they're playing hard for JJ, for each other or for themselves, the effort is there.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but losing feeds into negativity, that negativity makes the bad seem even worse, and the truth gets blurred. As fans, aren't we supposed to be able to accurately and rationally discuss our team, even when their season has gone horribly wrong?