User ID: Password:

October 7, 2013

Johnson era enters second season

By: Jimmy Robertson

Despite seeing Erick Green graduate, Tech coach James Johnson finally has a full roster and is optimistic about the Hokies’ 2013-14 chances in his second year at the helm

The Hokies will need for Cadarian Raines to improve on his averages of 6.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game of last season, but his leadership to a young team will be just as important.

A couple of weeks before practice started for the upcoming 2013-14 men’s basketball season, Tech head coach James Johnson looked at a new glass exhibit in the Hahn Hurst Practice Center that commemorated Erick Green’s accomplishments last year.

As Johnson walks to his office every day, he goes past that exhibit – and it will serve as a reminder of what he needs to replace heading into this season.

“I may have to go in a different way,” he said, laughing.

Green was the major highlight of last season, becoming the first Tech player ever to lead the nation in scoring and to win the ACC’s Player of the Year honor. Behind Green, the Hokies won their first seven games – their best start in 30 years. But injuries and a lack of depth on the roster caught up with Tech, and the Hokies lost 13 of their final 15 games en route to a 13-19 record in Johnson’s debut season as the head coach.

Johnson dealt with numerous issues once he got the job and throughout the season. Talented recruit Montrezl Harrell decided to transfer. Prominent players Marshall Wood and Marquis Rankin missed games with injuries. Rankin and Robert Brown missed games with the flu. Johnson held C.J. Barksdale out of a game as a disciplinary measure. Finally, a brutal ACC schedule took its toll on a team that, on a couple of occasions, went into games with six scholarship players.

“I learned that you need depth in this league and throughout the grueling season,” Johnson said. “There were so many things that happened with injuries, sickness and foul trouble. You need depth and consistency.

“We weren’t consistent enough on the defensive end of the floor. Then we didn’t have guys stepping up on the offensive end. Defensively, we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We didn’t get the stops we needed at certain times. Offensively, we had Erick Green and we had other guys here and there, but we didn’t have enough on the same night. The depth came into play at Clemson [a 77-70 loss], in overtime at NC State [a 90-86 defeat], in overtime at North Carolina [a 72-60 loss] and late in the game at Duke [an 85-57 defeat]. Our consistency on both ends of the floor is something we’ve got to tighten up this year.”

Now, Johnson faces a preseason without Green, who graduated and took his 25 points per game to the professional ranks. Johnson also saw Brown, a 25-game starter a year ago, transfer after last season.

Despite that, Johnson remains optimistic about the 2013-14 bunch of Hokies. At the very least, he will have more depth at his disposal, as he and his staff brought in five freshmen, a group that represents the future of Tech basketball as it heads into a bigger and more talented Atlantic Coast Conference.

The freshman class includes two post players and three perimeter players, and Johnson also gets to use guard Adam Smith this season. Smith, a redshirt sophomore, sat out last season after transferring from UNC Wilmington.

So with the additional players and three returning starters at his disposal in the form of Jarell Eddie, Cadarian Raines and Barksdale, Johnson at least figures to be able to play a style that more fits into his coaching philosophy.

“It starts with competition in practice,” he said. “It’s wide open now. We’ve got guys competing at every spot now. Competition is a healthy thing.

“We want to play a little more the way we’d like to play. We want to be more up-tempo on offense and attack more on defense. We want to be more attacking on both sides of the floor. Having bodies in practice similar to what we’re going to see in the league is going to help. Our walk-ons did a tremendous job last year, but our depth is going to help us in practice with the competition we’ll have, and hopefully we’ll be able to play a little different.”

Johnson’s first task is to find someone, or multiple people, to replace Green’s immense production. In addition to averaging 25 points per game, Green also led the team in assists at 3.78 per game, and he averaged four rebounds per game. For good measure, he led the team with 42 steals.

Leading the battle for the point guard job is Rankin, a junior from Charlotte, N.C., who started seven games last season. He got off to a slow start a year ago because of a knee injury, but he finished strong, scoring a career-high 15 points against Wake Forest in the regular-season finale and eight against NC State in the ACC Tournament. He has the skills to be a solid point guard, but needs to stay healthy.

Devin Wilson is also in the mix. The native of McKees Rocks, Pa., averaged 16.4 points per game last season and earned the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Player of the Year honor.

Johnson and his staff suffered a loss when the NCAA ruled freshman Malik Mueller ineligible for the season. The native of Germany burst on the scene at the 2010 Jordan Brand Classic International as a 16 year old, scoring 21 points and hitting four 3-pointers while playing for the German Under-18 squad.

Mueller, who will be eligible to play next season and have four years left, was vying for time as the point guard this season. So Johnson desperately needs for Rankin to stay healthy and for Wilson to develop.

“He was definitely a guy who was challenging for playing time and challenging for a starting position,” Johnson said of Mueller. “We’re looking at Marquis and Devin at that spot. Marquis has the most experience playing the position, and Adam Smith may swing over to point guard in certain situations.”

Smith can score, as evidenced by his 13.7 points-per-game average as a freshman at UNC Wilmington. He scored 20 points or more on six occasions that year, including a 32-point outburst against Wake Forest.

Smith and freshman Ben Emelogu are the best bets to fill that shooting guard role, though Johnson said Wilson could swing over to that spot. Also, Will Johnston, a former walk-on, will get a look. Johnston started four games last season and played in 29. He gave the Hokies solid minutes, averaging about 10 minutes per game, and for his efforts, Johnson put him on scholarship for this season.

Emelogu, though, may be the most intriguing of the group. He led his South Grand Prairie High School team to the Texas 5A championship game, scoring 13 points in a losing effort. He averaged 14 points per game for the season.

“Emelogu gives us a bigger body there,” Johnson said. “He could play the 2 or the 3, which I’m calling a wing guard. A lot of times, we’re going to play with three guards on the floor. Jarell is really the only small forward we have in the program, so a lot of times, we’ll have a three-guard look. Ben is a bigger guy at [6-foot-5], 205, and gives us a bigger 2-guard and can give us size at the wing guard, if we move him over there. We’ll have some flexibility on the perimeter.”

At the small forward spot, Eddie returns after an up-and-down season. The senior from Charlotte, N.C., finished second on the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game last season, and he also averaged 5.6 rebounds per game. But he shot just 39.6 percent from the floor and went through his share of struggles during ACC play.

In the post, Raines anchors things. He gives the Hokies some size at 6-9 and nearly 240 pounds, and he averaged 6.6 points per game and a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game a year ago. He also led the team with 34 blocked shots.

Johnson wants both Eddie and Raines to fill the leadership void created when Green departed.

“Erick was a leader by example and doing it on the floor,” Johnson said. “I think these guys [Eddie and Raines] got to do both. They’ve got to lead by example, and we need for them to be vocal. We’ve got a young group. We’ve got five freshmen and a transfer, and they haven’t played an ACC game yet. We’ve got to have those guys ready to go. They’ve [Eddie and Raines] got to take ownership in this team. I think they’ve shown in the preseason that they’re poised to do it. We have some others who have shown leadership, but it’s going to come down to those two seniors.”

Barksdale, a junior, could assume a leadership role, too. He averaged 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, and he led the regulars by shooting 52.3 percent from the floor.

After a one-game suspension, Barksdale started playing better, and he played well down the stretch, scoring in double figures in four of the final seven games. The Hokies went 6-3 in games in which Barksdale reached double figures.

Both Barksdale and Raines, though, will be challenged. Sophomore Marshall Wood returns after a broken foot sidelined him for a chunk of last season. But the 6-8, 230-pounder possesses the ability to knock down 3-pointers and was averaging 6 points and 6 rebounds per game before getting hurt.

Joey van Zegeren, Christian Beyer and Greg Donlon return as well. Van Zegeren, a 6-10 redshirt sophomore, started four games and played in all 32, averaging 3.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. Beyer, a walk-on, played in 23 games and gave the Hokies some solid minutes as a reserve. Donlon played in nine games.

Two incoming freshmen hope to be able to help this season. Trevor Thompson, a 6-11, 210-pound center from Indianapolis, Ind., and Maurice Kirby, a 6-9, 235-pound forward/center from Chandler, Ariz., give the Hokies length and size in the post.

“I think we’re definitely improved in the post,” Johnson said. “C.J. Barksdale ended ACC play at a high level, and his confidence is high right now. I think Marshall Wood is back healthy right now.

“This is the deepest we’ve been up front and we’re probably as big as any Virginia Tech team has been in a long time around here. We have Cadarian Raines, Joey van Zegeren and Maurice Kirby battling at the center spot. Then you’ve got Trevor Thompson, who could play the 4 or 5, and he’s 6-11. We’re deep up front. I think that’s where our strength lies. We’re 6-11, 6-10, 6-9, 6-9, 6-8 and 6-8.”

Johnson hopes the added size up front and the overall depth of the team will result in better play on the defensive end. The Hokies ranked last in the ACC a year ago in scoring defense (74.8 ppg) and ninth in field-goal percentage defense (43.6). They also ranked last in steals at 4.3 per game.

Tech gave up 80 or more points in 11 games last season. Its record in those games was 2-9, including 0-7 in ACC games. So improving the defense is a must.

“That was probably the most disappointing thing about last season,” Johnson said. “We have to improve on that. I’m not making excuses, but I think depth had something to do with that.

“But we’ve got to be a better defensive team, and part of that is rebounding. A lot of times, we did a good job of getting the initial stop, but we’d give up a second shot. I thought we got better as the season went along, but we’ve got to be a better rebounding team. That ties into defense.”

Though they finished six games under .500, the Hokies weren’t far off last season. They lost five games by seven points or less, and another one – at UNC – by 12 in overtime when they had a shot to win it at the end of regulation. A bounce or two here and there, and the Hokies make postseason play.

Johnson hopes his young squad gets those bounces this season. But he also knows that teams create their own bounces. In a tough league, this young team will need to grow up quickly and be tough from the onset.

“I’m excited about the team, excited to see where we are and what we can do,” Johnson said. “Last year was tough, but I can honestly say those guys gave me everything they had. There were nights when the ball wasn’t going down and nights when we didn’t defend the way we needed to, but the effort was there. There were times we didn’t have it, whether we couldn’t make the play or we were too tired to make the play. We just didn’t have it. But the effort was there. That was one of the things I never had to coach last year.

“I see that with this group here. They’re working hard. How good will they be? I don’t know. But we’re working hard.”