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February 18, 2014

Biding His Time

By: Jimmy Robertson

The NCAA forced Malik Mueller to sit out this season, but the German native is making the most of a difficult situation

Malik Mueller was relegated to the role of team cheerleader and scout team player after the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the 2013-14 season.

The Virginia Tech men’s basketball team is immersed in a deep slump, and interestingly, no one feels worse about it than a player who hasn’t played a minute all season.

The NCAA shackled freshman Malik Mueller to the Hokies’ bench for the 2013-14 campaign because of issues related to his transcript from his school in Germany. That, in and of itself, is tough enough for the young man, but watching his teammates struggle makes the situation that much more difficult.

“I love to play, but more importantly, I hate to see my team lose and suffer,” Mueller said. “I’m sitting on the bench, and I’d love to help my team out right now. You see so much on the bench, and the experience you gain sitting on the bench and watching the team play could help a lot.

“I’m just wishing I could play, but I’m not letting anyone see how frustrated I am. I try to be hyped and get the guys going. But it’s definitely frustrating after a loss. There’s so much that you’d like to do for the team, but you can’t.”

Tech coach James Johnson expected Mueller to play an integral part on this season’s squad. He loved Mueller’s size at 6-foot-3, 220-plus pounds, and he loved Mueller’s experience. The young man’s German team had played in the United States before, winning the Arby’s Classic in Johnson City, Tenn., in December of 2012. Before that, Mueller played in the 2010 Jordan Brand Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City, scoring 21 points and earning Most Valuable Player honors.

Johnson signed Mueller last spring, along with Devin Wilson, and the school accepted Mueller. But the NCAA called into question two of Mueller’s classes and ultimately ruled him ineligible for this season. He will have four years of eligibility left starting next season.

The news of his ineligibility devastated Mueller, and he contemplated staying in Germany and competing professionally over there.

“Every 16-, 17-, 18-year-old boy thinks about playing and making money and having a place to live and having my own car,” Mueller said. “But my dream was always to play in the States. Every player wants to get to the league [the NBA], and the best way is to play college basketball.

“So when I made the decision to come to Virginia Tech, it was pretty definite. Even after the [NCAA] decision came down and I couldn’t play, the coaches gave me all the options. So I took one day and thought about it. I was frustrated. My mom was here, and I was talking with her and going through the options. But at the end, I knew I wasn’t quitting. That’s not me. I’m not a quitter, and I decided to stay here. I’m glad I did it, definitely.”

Mueller has spent the season working on the Hokies’ scout team and going up against Wilson every day in practice. He arrived last fall a little overweight, but under the careful watch of strength and conditioning coach David Jackson, he has lost 30 pounds.

Though he needs Mueller now – injuries to Adam Smith and Ben Emelogu, and the decision by Marquis Rankin to give up the sport have decimated Tech’s backcourt – Johnson must wait until next fall to get Mueller’s services. Then he will be getting a 20-year-old combination guard with international experience and the ability to score and make others around him better.

Until then, Mueller impatiently waits.

“I can’t wait until November,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to get better in practice and prepare for the summer when I play for the [German] national team. When I come back, I’ll be ready to get going. I can’t wait to step on the court with my classmates and with the incoming freshmen and the returning players. It’s going to be great. I can’t wait.

“This is a year that it takes sometimes to get a program going, but I think it’s going to be worth the wait.”

Tough season for Eddie

Jarell Eddie opened this season by scoring in double figures in the Hokies’ first 11 games and in 12 of the first 13. But ACC opponents have clamped down on Eddie, and the senior had scored in double figures just three times since the start of the new year.

Heading into a game at Pittsburgh, Eddie had shot just 26 percent from the floor in the Hokies’ previous nine games, including 25 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He averaged 8.9 points per game in that span.

“He’s having some clean looks,” Johnson said. “I think he’s just trying a little bit too hard and wanting to get things going so bad. Defenses are doing a decent job on him, but I think he’s missing some baskets that I’ve seen him make in the past. He’s got to relax and let the game come to him. Hopefully, he’ll get going soon.”

Eddie did record two 20-plus point outings in that span, scoring 20 points in Tech’s 83-78 loss to Wake Forest and scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Hokies’ 76-52 loss at BC. The BC game marked his fourth double-double of the season and the seventh of his career.

Eddie did go over the 1,000-point milestone for his career on a 3-pointer early in the Syracuse loss. He became the 44th player to do so, and he ranked 39th in career scoring at Tech heading into that Pittsburgh game.

Smith injury hurting Hokies

After continually trying to get Smith back on the court, Tech’s sports medicine staff decided to shut him down for a two-week stretch after he re-aggravated a calf injury in the Notre Dame game. Smith, who suffers from a fracture in the fibula of his leg and from the strained calf, played just 15 minutes in that game.

Smith has missed eight games this season with the injury, including five straight heading into a game at Pittsburgh. In this same stretch, C.J. Barksdale has missed three straight because of a groin injury. And of course, Emelogu has missed five games this season with various injuries.

“It just seems we’ve been banged up all around,” Johnson said. “This time of year, injuries are a part of the game. Look around the league, and everyone probably has someone banged up or injured.

“It is what it is. We’ve got to find a way to play with what we have. We’ve been in some games. We’ve just got to find a way to finish it.”

Johnson hoped to get Smith back for the Miami game on Feb. 15.

Raines sets career high

It has been a roller coaster season for senior center Cadarian Raines, who has seen his minutes decline after the emergence of redshirt sophomore Joey van Zegeren. But Raines enjoyed a career performance against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 19.

Johnson subbed Raines in at the 9:32 mark of the first half. Eighteen seconds later, Raines got the ball, scored and was fouled. He made the free throw and that propelled him to a career evening.

Raines scored 20 points, surpassing his previous career of high of 17, which came in the season opener against USC Upstate. He made 8 of 15 from the floor and 4 of 7 from the free-throw line in 22 minutes.

“He had been practicing hard and been trying to move forward on the depth chart,” Johnson said. “His attitude has been great. He kept his head in the game and in practice. I kept telling him, ‘Your opportunity is going to come. Be ready when it comes.’ I thought Joey got off to a slow start offensively, and we went in there with Raines and he came through. That was good to see.”

Raines, whose field goals made and shot attempts also set career highs, had not played in the previous two games leading up to the Notre Dame game – losses to Clemson and Boston College. He has played in every game since then, a span that included a 13-point performance in the Hokies’ 70-50 loss to Florida State on Feb. 5. He hit 6 of 11 from the floor in that game.

Wilson with back-to-back career nights

Like Raines, Devin Wilson also had a career game against Notre Dame. The freshman point guard scored a career-high 20 points against the Irish, surpassing his previous career high of 16 points, which came in wins over West Virginia and Maryland-Eastern Shore earlier in the season.

Wilson made 7 of 10 against the Irish and 5 of 7 from the free-throw line. He also dished out seven assists and grabbed four rebounds. Wilson leads the Hokies in assists this season.

“Devin has come on extremely well,” Johnson said. “He’s getting better every minute on the floor. I’ve demanded a lot from him from day one. I need him to be a leader and a coach on the floor. He’s always had that toughness in him. He’s a winner. His teams win every drill in practice.

“I was hard on him early about leading the team and running the team and seeing certain things on the floor. He’s just getting better every day, every day in practice and every minute on the floor.”

Playing all 40 minutes because of injuries to Smith and Emelogu, Wilson continued his scoring binge in the Hokies’ next game, a home game against Wake Forest on Jan. 22. He scored a career-high 26 points, with 25 of those coming in the second half and 17 coming in the final 5:35 of the game. He scored Tech’s last 10 points in an 83-77 defeat for the Hokies.

Wilson made 6 of 10 from the floor against the Demon Deacons, including 3 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc. He also hit 11 of 14 from the free-throw line.

Rookie records double-double

Trevor Thompson got extensive minutes in the Hokies’ loss to Wake Forest, and the freshman made the most of them, scoring 10 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. It marked his second double-double of the season and the second time this season in which he has scored in double figure.

Thompson’s previous double-double came against Western Carolina on Nov. 15 when he scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.