Editor's Note: Pierson and Brian had an epic debate discussing the pros and cons of retaining/dismissing James Johnson. Enjoy it. --Joe
Pierson: My wife and I watched Taken 2 last night. Aside from rationalizing how producers actually thought they could pass Maggie Grace as a 17-year-old, it's easy to be endlessly entertained by Liam Neeson "doing what he does best" and hunting down vindictive Albanian mobsters. After establishing himself with powerful roles in The Mission and Schindler's List, he began to move into this uber-intimidating, "world beater" type role in films like Batman Begins and Taken. The older Neeson gets, the more he's typecast as a soft spoken badass. The A-Team? He is Hannibal—nothing more needs to be said. The Grey? Neeson is surviving in the wilderness, showing the wolves who's boss. Non-Stop? I'd be willing to bet the movie was pitched as Taken at 35,000 feet. And for what it's worth, he will always be remembered as Ra's al Ghul.
Where am I going with this? In all of the aforementioned Neeson flicks, you know before watching the first frame that his character will bring a purpose, an aggression, and an unbeatable intensity. I honestly can't remember the last time I saw that in the eyes of the Hokie basketball team. Certainly not this season, and maybe—maybe—not since the Oklahoma State game early last season. Maybe. The point is, there are a number of things lacking from the James Johnson-led Hokies, and the most visible evidence is the lack of killer instinct that makes teams great.
After watching the last 4 months of basketball, and re-watching the last 9 conference games as some sort of masochistic exercise, I can say with confidence that this team is broken. The effort level is inconsistent, there's little-to-no tenacity or hunger to out play, or out hustle the opposition. I can count on one hand the number of moments over the past two-plus months (most of which occurred during the Pitt game) where I felt that the team's energy reflected their own belief that they had a shot to win. Frankly, there are moments where the team appears conscious they're facing an uphill battle, and that pisses me off. There are plenty of excuses to make. To name a few:
- Injuries and "other issues" have forced the team to play with limited numbers, thus limiting their ability to get out and run or play defense at a high intensity level;
- The current roster is not conducive to the system JJ wants to run;
- Following the graduation of Erick Green, there is no capable Alpha Male to take the reins and lead this team. Jarell Eddie proved that he couldn't handle the role, and Ben Emelogu, despite his talent, is still only a true freshman playing on a bum ankle. The guys Seth Greenberg (and in many ways, JJ) had recruited to take that role—Montrezl Harrell and Dorian Finney-Smith—are elsewhere, and it has clearly hindered the program's ability to compete at a high level.
It's apparent JJ is constantly coaching and teaching. I want to be absolutely clear that I am in no way questioning his efforts, but the translation onto the court is erratic, at best. I am tired of turning on Hokie games and hoping we keep things competitive. I am tired of getting blown out by teams that we should be handling. I know we have a new athletic director and it immediately makes this a controversial subject, but I think it is time for a change. The program has stepped backwards since the dismissal of Seth Greenberg, and JJ hasn't shown enough over the past two years to instill confidence that he can bring Tech out of the cellar. I was one of the few who was excited when JJ was hired, but with each passing game I am starting to believe that it was too much, too soon for a promising young assistant.
Brian: Woah, Pierson coming out of the gate swinging! I really enjoyed the Neeson analogy, the dude's intensity could make Joe's baby grow chest hair, but it seems that your wife has never made you watch Love Actually. (Let this mark both the first and last time that Love Actually has been brought up on this website.)
I see what you're saying though, and as another guy who has watched every. single. godforsaken. game. I would agree that the results have been disheartening to say the least. It makes me uncomfortable trying to become a sports psychologist, diving into the psyche of a team. Who are we to judge whether or not a player is hungry (well other than Jeff Allen during his freshman year, who looked like he was always hungry), or whether or not they have intensity and desire to win?
Plenty of former Hokies could be misrepresented while trying to figure out whether or not a player has the drive to win. Malcolm Delaney was the coolest customer on the court at all times, same expression on his face whether he was up by 20 or down by 20. Heck man, even Tyrod Taylor was a level-headed guy, especially in his last two years. Did we question his intensity or energy? Nope, he just went out there and took care of business. Basketball is such a different breed, though, because it feels much more personal. You can see the faces and the bodies of every guy on that floor and you can see how much every loss psychically pains the team.
In fact, I felt the opposite way for the latter part of the season. After a string of 20-point blowouts in the middle of their ACC schedule, would anyone have been surprised if the team just checked out and lost badly on its way to the worst season in recent memory? Sure the season finished like that anyway, but the guys played as hard as they could. Whether they were playing for JJ or simply themselves is another debate entirely, but you can't deny that those guys were laying it out on the court.
You say that it pisses you off that the team is cognizant of the uphill battle it faces on a game-to-game basis. Let me ask you this, isn't it obvious to everyone? Let's play a little game. Run down the starting five of each ACC team that Tech has played and tell me how many guys wearing maroon and orange would start for the other team.
No, seriously do it. I'll wait. Waiting... Still waiting...
Okay, done? Yeah, the answer for every single school lies between zero and one. This team isn't as talented as its opponents, and what talent it has is accompanied by youthful mistakes.
You say that injuries are simply "an excuse", but let's think about it. In football, the reason you have a bench full of bodies is that injuries are bound to happen. You know players will miss games, and you have to have depth at each position. In basketball, you only have 12 guys and this team has had to use six- and seven-man rotations for the majority of 2014. Guys went down in droves, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Look at the most recent Maryland game. The team was playing very well for a half, but by mid-way through the second half the team was totally gassed and JJ couldn't sub anyone in. They ARE playing at a distinct disadvantage, and have been for most of the year.
This team has fallen off in the last three years, but it was trending down when Greenberg left. Seth never had to give big minutes to Christian Beyer and Will Johnston. Why punish someone who was told to play chess with half of a checkers set?
Pierson: Now I need to make sure my wife doesn't read this article. Can you block movies from ever appearing on your Netflix Queue?
First off, with the exception of Erick Green, I agree that the cupboard was bare when he took over. One of my biggest issues isn't the fact that we are losing games, it is the way we are losing them. If I remember correctly, in your pre-season preview, you noted that your expectation for the team was around 9-10 wins. I agreed with that number at the time, and in hindsight I wouldn't change anything. In addition, I agree with you that (a) this team as it is currently constructed cannot consistently match the top flight teams in the conference; and (b) there aren't more than one or two guys that could start elsewhere in the ACC. But I think we can both agree that there are a few guys on the current roster (i.e. Devin and Ben) that have the potential to be studs by the time their careers wrap up.
I understand your argument about the dangers of attempting to delve into the psyche of a basketball team, especially one comprised of 18-22 year olds. The team's effort in the Pitt, UNC, and Georgia Tech games was clear: this squad has not, and will not give up. They clearly respect and enjoy playing for JJ, even if this team knows that their ceiling is incredibly limited this year. What catches my eye and my ire are the little things; there are basic basketball fundamentals that are severely lacking during the course of the games.
- Players aren't active off the ball, offensively or defensively.
- The only person setting consistent, purposeful and hard screens is JVZ. Making matters worse, the guys running off the screens are not coming off them properly, nor are they adapting to the undercutting and hedging that the defense has consistently done.
- No one EVER has their hands up in the 2-3 zone. To make matters worse, players' feet look heavy. Hands in the air disrupt passing lanes and active feet make closeouts easier. Defensive rotations in the 2-3 are slow, almost to the point where the system looks like it is designed to be conservative and minimize defenders chasing the ball (over-rotations that pull successive players out of position, destroying the 2-3 set).
Now I know that I am over-simplifying things, and there are far more complexities to these little things that we are not even aware of. Fatigue and injuries are surely factors, as are the talent levels. For instance, I would rather have a more athletic wing up top than, say, Will Johnston. But at the same time, Johnston brings an energy to the game that a lot of guys do not.
My point is, all of these things are correctable and could go a long way in improving both the perception and the tangible results of the team. As I mentioned earlier, JJ never stops teaching. It is one of his greatest qualities, and an important element for any young team. If a guy sets a lazy screen, JJ or one of the assistants is surely noting that to the player during the next stoppage in play. However, there continue to be recurring, technical problems.
Maybe it is an issue of JJ's assertiveness, and whether he has the ability to get through to these young men. When JJ was hired, the current players on the roster raved about how great of a coach he was and how excited they were to play for him. Players' coaches, like former Phillies' skipper Charlie Manuel, Andy Reid, or Pete Carroll, can be highly successful with the right mixture of players, and a few mature, vocal leaders that the rest of the team looks up to. Where this approach falters is when the team lacks that leadership, which is typical of a young team.
Look, there is no question that this team will continue to improve in the coming years. A lot of that has to do with the relative youth, lack of depth, and physical strength disadvantage that has been exploited in ACC play. These were all known issues coming into this season. JJ's challenge was to show improvement and establish an identity for this program. Two years in and the identity is excuses. Now the bright side is we may have a healthier, older roster that might be able to run JJ's preferred high-intensity offense and defense. Has JJ gotten a raw deal in his first two seasons? Sure. But forgive me for struggling to justify a third season for a coach who has yet to actually show us what his system is and win with it.
Brian: Look, if I said that I could defend the way that this team has played throughout the entire season, I'd be lying through my teeth. It's been bad basketball, and the only time that the team has found even a shred of success was by making games ugly.
I know what my position is supposed to be. I know that I'm supposed to swoop in and defend JJ with an iron fist while looking past all possible flaws, but as someone who knows what basketball is supposed to look like I simply can't do that.
My defense for a third year for Johnson is two-fold: he was put in such a bad situation that it's impossible to know how good of a coach he actually is, and when thinking about the Virginia Tech job as a whole who would take it? Seth Greenberg was bought out over the course of four years, so they're still paying his tab. If they pay JJ to go away that'd be about a million dollars that you're paying guys to not coach.
With that kind of money off the table, are they really going to get a guy that'd be much better than the one they have now? They don't have the money or the prestige to get a coach from a bigger conference, and going to the ranks of a lower conference is a roll of the dice (remember Andy Enfield, the guy who took Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16? Yeah, he's 11-20 at Southern Cal with two conference wins).
Why not wait a year, gather more money and show a commitment to changing the program for the better? It's impossible to take a bigger hit financially (attendance dropped to under 50% this year), and I know this sounds bad, but how much worse could it get?
Pierson: Sure it was a bad situation, but how long do we continue to allow this wound to fester? Let's take a look at Ken Pomeroy's analytics for the Hokies, dating back to our last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007.
Though there's a bit of a dip from 2011 to 2012 (Greenberg's last season), it is within the deviation we see throughout his tenure. Looking at JJ's first season (2013), we see a slight rise in the Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and a dramatic leap backwards in the Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, all despite the strength of schedule getting moderately easier. The rise in the AdjO can be directly attributed to Erick Green's transcendent season, but the defensive metrics are troubling. Worse still, the offensive metrics dipped precipitously following the loss of EG to graduation. In my opinion, the improvement in the AdjD can be attributed more to the Hokies packing it in, and playing a conservative brand of the 2-3, and not to any drastic improvements in the overall defensive qualities of the team.
The metrics tell us what we already know about the past two seasons: this team is not performing to the level that they were prior to Seth's departure. We all hated Seth's brand of offensive basketball, but the one thing he could implement with great success was a hard-nosed defense. You're asking the fan base, which is already apathetic and dwindling, to buy stock in a third year for a team trending in the wrong direction and lacking any true identity. Forgive me for struggling to hop on board.
I absolutely agree with you that there is no guarantee that the next hire is any better than JJ. What is important is that if Whit chooses to go down this road, he needs to make the smart hire, and not the trendy hire. As you have pointed out, there is an exceptionally long list of flavor-of-the-month mid-major darlings that move up to a major conference program and fail miserably. Andy Enfield is still in his first year at USC. Keep in mind that he inherited a dumpster fire that was lit by Tim Floyd and his numerous NCAA violations, and made worse by his successor Kevin O'Neill.
But you are right: For every Bruce Pearl or Dana Altman, there is a Todd Lickliter. Looking back, it seems abundantly clear that Jim Weaver's firing of Seth Greenberg was done with little foresight. If it had been, the job search wouldn't have dragged on the way that it did. No offense to JJ, but that process was frighteningly similar to the Cleveland Browns' search this offseason. So while I am here voicing my displeasure with the current coaching situation, I understand (a) the realities of the profession; (b) the limitations and drawbacks of coaching a program in Southwest Virginia; and (c) that our financial situation limits our ability to attract the coaching talent we covet.
One of the qualities new AD Whit Babcock brings to the table is his ability to raise money and invigorate a fan base. If there was ever a moment where we needed that approach, this is it. Look, I'm not an expert in college coaching searches, but I would think that a cautious, pragmatic approach that utilizes back channels to gauge interest amongst potential candidates would be the logical first step. If it turns out we have the ability to make a splash and dramatically upgrade the perception and future of the program, Whit has to explore it further. We are getting perilously close to complete and utter apathy. I was a student during the Ricky Stokes years, and I hoped to never experience that garbage again.
Brian: A bit of a dip in Greenberg's last year? They went from 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency to 100th. ONE HUNDREDTH. That's like saying the Titanic hit a little bit of ice, or that Lindsay Lohan has a minor drug problem!
To say that this team was cresting downward is an understatement. Getting both less talented and younger usually doesn't bode well for any college basketball team. I do find it curious, however, that you make very similar excuses for Enfield (mostly underclassmen, unbalanced roster) that can be used for JJ. Not calling you out on it, in fact I feel that there's a similar feel among most fans out there. People are just done with JJ and think that they'd be better served by nearly any other coach, even though I think you'd be hard pressed to see anyone turn this team around this year.
(Also, please don't compare recruiting in Los Angeles to convincing a kid to come live in Blacksburg, Va.)
I know this will sound cynical, but let's say you're Whit Babcock. You fire your head coach, which commits you to pay two guys to not coach your team. Given the recent financing of the program (another problem entirely) you only have money to "take a shot" on a guy who's coaching in the lower levels of DI. What are the odds that that guy works out? 50-50? 60-40 at best? Do you really want to set your program back 2-3 more years for a 60% chance that the new guy is the one to help the team turn the corner?
Also, if by some magical chance you do get a good coach, how long would he stay if the program is in the current shape it's already in? Maybe two years, and then it's back to the drawing board?
If you're ready and willing to make a change, don't you do it when you have everything aligned to succeed? Build a better culture, you get a better coach. Get a better coach, he gets better recruiting classes who then win tons of games. That's the formula. Get a guy who can see that the basketball program as a whole is on the rise, which is not something Tech has been able to do. Remember, when they got Greenberg it's not like he was a top name.
Greenberg went 108-100 with South Florida, 15-14 this season. Under Greenberg, the Bulls lost all 20 games against teams ranked in the Top 25. Their average attendance dropped to 4,045 this season, the lowest in 17 seasons.
No one has wanted this job for a long time, and if you fire JJ right now that trend's going to continue.
Pierson: Okay, maybe it was more than a dip, but after dropping from 7th to 100th in the same metric from 2008-09, all Seth did was follow it up with a rise in efficiency in consecutive seasons to 31st and 26th. Look, we can argue the intangibles of these statistics until the cows come home, but the proof is in the pudding and unlike the much maligned Seth Greenberg, JJ has yet to show us what he would give us in year three. This is evidenced by the fact that outside of the financial argument, you have yet to provide a compelling reason as to why we should keep him from a basketball perspective.
Of course improving the culture around the program is paramount to success, but there are a number of factors that are involved in that, many of which you previously outlined. It's an uphill battle to attract both coaches and recruits to Blacksburg, no doubt. But we have proven that we can lure the talent in other sports, and I see no reason why we cannot do the same in basketball. Blacksburg isn't for everyone, but we are not asking for everyone—only someone. After the 2012 season, aside from our coach's personality, we had a lot of the tenets for a successful program. The Cassell Guard was a force, Montrezl Harrell was going to be a Hokie, we had just had a recruiting class with 4, FOUR!, Top 100 players, and we were extremely competitive in the ACC. Were we struggling to get over the hump? Sure, but at least we were in the conversation. Today we are nothing more than an afterthought.
The financial caveats you outlined are compelling, and frankly, they scare me. I do not want to see our program become what we have grown accustomed to seeing elsewhere in the professional and collegiate ranks. At the same time, I struggle with that as the sole justification. How does that help our perception, both this year and in the future? Who is to say that if JJ struggles next year, our situation will be any different? Whit may need to open the purse strings to justify firing JJ. But the truth is, in addition to the items you outlined in your column, this program needs an identity. It is what helped put our football team on the map and it can help lay the foundation for the future of our program.
When Coach Johnson was hired, I was extremely excited after he discussed his vision for the program and the system he wanted to implement—a high intensity offense that wanted to push the ball up-court and wear down opponents over 40 minutes. After the fan base had been subjected to far too many years of Greenberg's motion offense that spent the first 25 seconds of the shot clock running around outside the three point arc, Johnson's pitch grabbed my attention. Two years later and I have yet to see this offense. Last year the story was, "Well we're short on scholarship players, so we can be more effective controlling our sets and getting the ball into Erick Green's hands as much as humanly possible." EG's ability to create buckets and finish off the dribble carried the team, but so many sets involved EG setting up near half court, running off a high screen and assessing the defense. If the defense collapsed, 9-out-of-10 times the offense would reset and try the same high screen again. It grew tiresome and was a far cry from the "intensity" we had expected. Nevertheless, when you have such a talented finisher as Erick Green, you can get by.
This year was supposed to be somewhat different. JJ would have a full recruiting period to restock. Sure we'd be young, but hell, we would be deeper, healthier and would have a full offseason of conditioning to prepare for the higher pace of play. But injuries to guys like Adam Smith and Ben Emelogu, Malik Mueller's ineligibility, Marquis Rankin's absence and JJ's famous doghouse forced the Hokies to play with just 7 scholarship players in ACC play with less-than-ideal lineups. I agree that this would be a daunting task for any coach, regardless of experience level. A young team with limited numbers and a lack of a true leader can only go so far. The only problem is that I cannot figure out WHO we are as a basketball team. What is James Johnson's identity for "Hokie Basketball?" So far all we seen is "survival mode" and all that we have heard is an idealized philosophy to be implemented at a later date.
I think we can all agree on two things: (1) Devin Wilson has the potential to be a really special player when all is said and done; and (2) JJ is doing a good job of building a team full of athletic wings to run his system. The problem is, who is going to give Devin Wilson a blow next season and still run JJ's system? We learned Adam Smith can't be trusted running point. Malik Mueller is the likely, candidate, but his game isn't run-and-gun. Is Ben Emelogu or one of the incoming freshmen going to be counted on? Outside of Emelogu, what other wing has proven to us that they have a true face-up game? Marshall Wood has shown glimpses, but he has been a shell of himself this season (I blame it on the loss of the hightop fade). Are the pieces there to successfully run JJ's system? Or will we be having the same discussion next offseason: "We're almost there, we just need one more season to bring it together."
Seriously, have you ever heard of a basketball coach being unable to implement his offensive and defensive systems until Year 3? Are we in the Twilight Zone? Whit is a new AD with zero allegiance to JJ, and one has to wonder if he is willing to tie his horse to that cart. If his introductory presser is any indication, anything could happen.
I can appreciate the heritage and traditions of what makes Virginia Tech so special. We will respect those traditions while also working to build a culture of continuous improvement and dynamic growth. Now is certainly not the time to fall back or plateau. It will take all of us, all of the Hokie family pulling in the same direction, to accomplish that. I'm confident we can do it together, keep achieving, keep improving together.
Playing in the most competitive basketball conference in the nation provides Virginia Tech with an incredible platform to showcase what being a Hokie is all about. The longer we fade toward irrelevance, the harder it will become to recover. In the end, all that I want is future success for this basketball program. Whit is faced with a difficult decision shortly after taking the job. But I have faith that he will ultimately do what is best for the program and the University.
Brian: We've burned through a lot of words here, so I think I'm going to keep my final counter brief. I feel that Tech can be a "two-sport school" like Florida or Tennessee, but it's going to be a 2-3 year process full of hard work both on the court and off of it. It's going to take exactly the right coach to finally put the Hokies over the top, and do you really want to rush that process with bare coffers? If they fire JJ right now, but make another bad hire from a pool of less qualified candidates, what was once a 2-3 year process immediately becomes a 4-5 year ordeal. Do you really want to rush into something with any doubt as to whether or not it would work? I sure don't.