Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Making Sense of Buzz Williams' Marquette Teams

As you all are well aware at this point, Buzz Williams is the new men's basketball coach at Virginia Tech.  In a rather astonishing move, he left a perennial NCAA tournament contender Marquette for a team that historically struggles to make the NIT (sorry Hokie fans, just being real here).  Buzz took over the Marquette Golden Eagles at the beginning of the 2008-2009 season after the much ballyhooed Tom Crean split town to coach the storied Indiana Hoosiers.  Buzz was fresh off of his first season as a head coach where he led the University of New Orleans Privateers to a 19-13 record.  It was considered to be a pretty shocking hire by Marquette at the time.

Buzz's teams at Marquette managed to make the NCAA tournament each year from 2009 through 2013.  Last season they had an uncharacteristic finish going 17-15 with no postseason play.  I noticed a couple of things about Buzz's teams at Marquette... one which is a good omen for the Hokies and one that is bad.

The Good
The biggest hurdle for this season's Virginia Tech team is the lack of depth in the frontcourt.  VT only has 3 big men on scholarship this season.  Christian Beyer has had as much playing time as just about any walk-on in the modern history of VT basketball, but I'm not sure how much Coach Buzz should be relying on him for serious minutes this year.  How can this be spun into a positive?  Buzz Williams' teams at Marquette were incredibly undersized.  All of them.  He often employed 3-guard and even 4-guard lineups, and he did this in the best conference for college basketball (at that time).  Looking at minutes played by each player for his Marquette teams, he never had a frontcourt player bigger than 6'8" in the top five, and several times he employed 6'6" Lazar Hayward as his biggest starting frontcourt player.  I originally projected the Hokies' starting five as Devin Wilson, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, Shane Henry, and Joey Van Zegeren.  Buzz Williams had a player similar in size and ability to JVZ at Marquette for six seasons (medical redshirt) named Chris Otule, and Otule was never a top five minute-receiver for Buzz.  It wouldn't be absurd to see him use Shane Henry as his tallest player in his main lineup playing alongside Wilson, Adam Smith, Hill, and Bibbs.  Buzz likes to have shooters on the floor.

The Bad
The other main deficiency of this Virginia Tech team is the lack of experience.  VT has two seniors (Will Johnston and Christian Beyer), and neither is likely to see more than a handful of minutes per game unless something goes terribly wrong.  Buzz's Marquette teams were almost always littered with starting upperclassmen... so much so that it feels like they were purposefully designed this way.  Care to guess how many of his teams employed freshmen as top-6 minute-getters?  Just one.  Vander Blue was the only player lucky enough to see that many minutes as a freshman with Coach Buzz.  That's kind of shocking.  Marquette is not Kentucky, Duke, or UNC.  You would think that highly-recruited high school seniors who committed to Marquette would come there with the understanding that they would be starting, but that didn't happen.  Buzz has a history of pulling in top-100 recruits, but he also scours the junior college ranks.  Some names you may recognize who were JC recruits: Jimmy Butler (2008), Dwight Buycks (2009), and Jae Crowder (2010).  Butler and Crowder are both currently playing in the NBA.  If Buzz pulls in a JC player, you can bet that he will start over a freshman at the same position.  So it seems obvious that Buzz Williams favors experienced players over inexperienced players with a potentially higher ceiling.  However, Buzz won't have much of a choice this season.  There isn't enough experience to go around and he will be forced to give big minutes to several underclassmen.  This will not be the case next season for incoming recruits Justin Robinson and Kerry Blackshear, Jr.  With transfers Seth Allen and Zach LeDay needing minutes, those fellas are not going to be able to contribute much in their first season as Hokies, and that seems to be the way Coach Buzz likes it.

The Conclusion
Expect more transfers.  Buzz will continue to build his team with the players he feels are the best fit... this could mean that an already thin team gets even thinner during the season.  I would not be surprised to see as many as three players transfer before the start of the 2015-2016 season.  High school kids always come in with an expectation of how many minutes they are going to play and how long they are willing to wait before they receive a starting job.  Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, and Jalen Hudson will all come in with the chance to win the two wing positions (shooting guard and small forward), which means there will be one odd man out.  I'd imagine whoever loses that battle will want to transfer to get starters minutes and continue his dream of being in the NBA.  I think Hill is basically a lock to win the shooting guard job as he is Buzz's recruit, but Bibbs and Hudson were recruited by James Johnson, and it's tough to tell which one will be the better fit for Buzz's schemes.

I could also see a situation where Devin Wilson or Malik Mueller ends up leaving because Justin Robinson is coming in 2015.  Wilson and Mueller are both bigger point guards who don't score well, but who can create plays for teammates.  Robinson is small, lightning fast, and offers a different dynamic as a scorer.  I could also see a situation where Adam Smith transfers (again), which would make me feel pretty bad for Smith, but I think there won't be many minutes available next season when Seth Allen can play.  Smith would likely become the third shooting guard behind Hill and Allen.  The caveat here is that there may be backup minutes available if either Hudson or Bibbs transfers, but that's not a lock.  Buzz could choose to go with a shorter rotation.  Regardless, Virginia Tech basketball fans have been through quite a bit of change over the past year and we should expect even more by this time next year.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Schedule

Virginia Tech's men's basketball team plays one of the most unholy, unconscionable out-of-conference schedules imaginable this season.  It seriously makes me angry just to look at it.  Let me walk you through the only teams even worth mentioning in our out-of-conference slate:

  • Northern Iowa - 11/25 - every high-major team plays in one or two early tournaments before hitting their conference slate.  This season the Hokies are playing in the abhorrent Cancun Challenge.  There are no decent teams in this tournament, including Virginia Tech.  VT plays two cupcakes, and then plays another cupcake (these UNI Panthers) in the "semifinal".  The Panthers went a yawn-worthy 16-15 last season with only one good win (home v. VCU).  If this team is conjuring up magical memories of knocking off 8-seed UNLV and 1-seed Kansas to reach the Sweet Sixteen, you can put that out of your mind.  That was 5 seasons ago, and this team stinks now.
  • Northwestern or Miami(OH) - 11/26 - The reward for getting to the "finals" of the Cancun Challenge will be the "privilege" to play the winner of this game.  Believe it or not, I have many friends who graduated from Miami(OH) and they probably won't like hearing this, but the Redhawks are a bad team.  They went 13-18 last season and lost to every quality team they played.  The more likely winner of this game is Northwestern.  Finally!  A team from a major conference, right?  Well the Wildcats are still a sorry team.  They went 14-19 last season and even though they had a couple of decent conference wins, there's really no reason to believe they won't do worse this season.  This tournament should be burned with fire... or really radiation would be even better so that no one can come near the site for years and years.
  • Penn State - 12/3 - Virginia Tech gets to take part in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this year!  That's the good news.  Through no accomplishment of the Hokies, the two conferences contain an even number of eligible opponents, so the Hokies will travel to Penn State to take on their equivalent in the Big Ten.  The bad news is that Penn State will likely finish even lower in the Big Ten than last season... there isn't much hope for the men's basketball team in State College.  The Nittany Lions went 16-18 last season and will likely be even worse this year.
  • West Virginia - 12/30 - Now this is finally a quality opponent, right?  The Mountaineers are seemingly always in the NCAA tournament over the past decade+ and should finally be a feather in the cap of our out-of-conference schedule.  Except that this WVU team is also in a rough patch.  They went a mediocre 17-16 last season with a couple of nice wins, but they lost to Virginia Tech of all teams (how embarrassing), and then they got hit with the transfer bug over the summer.  They lost their 2nd and 3rd leading scorers in Eron Harris and Terry Henderson.  They have a solid PG in Juwan Staten, a 4-star redshirt-freshman in Elijah Macon, and an exciting JUCO transfer in BillyDee Williams (!! let the Colt 45 flow!!), but I don't anticipate them finishing the season with a winning record given their losses.
So that's it everybody.  4 teams on the schedule to supposedly whet our appetites for the ACC schedule, but it's really a barren wasteland.  And this is where I start to get angry again.  This is the best you could do?  Was it deliberate?  I know that it's absurd to think that the Hokies could make the NCAA tournament this first season with Buzz Williams as the head coach, especially after the transfer of C.J. Barksdale, but don't you even want to give your players hope?  The way the NCAA selection committee works, you get absolutely nothing for beating bad teams, but if you lose to a bad team it's a gigantic pock mark on your resume.  Likewise, if you play a top-50 team and lose, it is not seen as a bad thing necessarily, but a win against such teams is counted as gold.  Why would you schedule a non-conference slate composed entirely of cupcakes?  What does that give your team?  You've killed any dream of theirs to make the NCAA tournament before the season begins, and you are not challenging your young players to improve until they reach the quality opponents in the conference slate.

So for next season, I am imploring you Buzz Williams and Whit Babcock, put some good teams in the non-conference schedule.  Let your team and your fans have dreams, regardless of how silly they are.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Let the Buzz Williams Era Begin!

I know we're in the heart of Virginia Tech football season, and honestly I have enjoyed this season so far with Michael Brewer at the helm, but I also got really excited today when I realized that the Buzz Williams era is less than a month away!  I think Coach Buzz would roll his eyes at a potential depth chart at this point in the year, but hey I'm no coach, so let's put one out for the fun of it:

PG: Devin Wilson, Malik Mueller
SG: Ahmed Hill, Adam Smith, Will Johnston
SF: Justin Bibbs, Jalen Hudson
PF: Shane Henry, Christian Beyer, Greg Donlon
C: Joey Van Zegeren, Satchel Pierce

The first thing you might notice is that there are a ton of new faces on this roster.  Mueller was on the team last year, but is an unfamiliar face because he was academically ineligible (nicely done NCAA!  We can't have students transferring from Germany without having any basket-weaving credits).  The redshirt will come off and Mueller will back up James Johnson's best find in sophomore point guard Devin Wilson.  RS-Junior Adam Smith missed half of last season with injuries, but he will return as the primary backup at shooting guard to offer some electricity off the bench.  Senior Will Johnston will see some minutes as our three-point specialist, but the majority of the minutes on the perimeter will go to freshmen.

Coach Buzz managed to lure two of his recruits from Marquette over to Virginia Tech, and the best of those two is shooting guard Ahmed Hill.  I am really high on this kid, I think he's going to be fantastic if his work ethic matches his raw talent.  Hill is 6'5" and crazy athletic.  He can handle, pass, shoot, slash, and finish at the rim with a monster dunk.  He can defend, get steals, and lead a fastbreak in transition.  I was pretty bummed about the transfer of Ben Emelogu until I got a chance to check out Hill.  He can really do everything you want at the guard position.  Hill is ranked #54 in ESPN's Top-100 recruits for 2014, but I honestly think that's too low.  He's a top-25 talent for sure, but I think the fact that he stayed at his local high school instead of going to one of the top prep academies is what hurt his rankings.

Tech adds another top-100 freshman in small forward Justin Bibbs.  Bibbs is not the freak athlete that Hill is, but the kid is a gamer.  Whether he is shooting (lefty) or driving to the hoop (either hand), he is a quality scorer and has really good size at 6'5" 210 lbs for a freshman perimeter player.  I am expecting that he will be the starter at small forward, but there's certainly a chance that freshman Jalen Hudson could claim that role.  Hudson is a bit undersized for small forward at 6'5" 195 lbs, but ESPN is high on him as a 4-star recruit (they're also high on Bibbs, ranking him 70th in their final Top-100 recruits for 2014).  Hudson is more athletic than Bibbs and can really get up in the air.  His jump shot looks great, but his handle may not be good enough to be more than a set shooter and fastbreak finisher right away.  Hudson is a graduate of St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron (LeBron James' alma mater).

I feel pretty safe in saying that the Hokies will outperform their 2-16 last-place finish in the ACC last year simply by upgrading coaches from James Johnson to Buzz Williams, but I don't think they will be quite as successful as I was originally expecting.  I knew Coach Buzz would shake things up and bring in some of his own guys, but I was pretty shocked when CJ Barksdale announced that he was transferring.  He has one year left of eligibility and he was the clear starter at power forward this season.  I don't think he transfers unless Buzz nudges him out the door, and that freed up a scholarship that was offered to and claimed by 2015 point guard recruit Justin Robinson.  The loss of Barksdale leaves our frontcourt paper thin... expect to see a healthy number of minutes going to walk-on power forwards Christian Beyer and Greg Donlon this season.  I am expecting that JUCO commit Shane Henry is going to be our starter at power forward.  He's (this has to be the third time I've said it) super-athletic, springy, rangy, active... a nice compliment to the less mobile centers on our team.  Henry is a talented shot-blocker and weak-side helper, but he also has some ability to finish around the basket and a nice looking jump shot that should only get more consistent with time.  If Henry comes in with a JUCO-level work ethic (and frankly I'm not expecting this), he may lose that starting job to a walk-on.  Christian Beyer is not a special athlete, but he's consistent.  He knows how to box out and grab rebounds.  He knows where he's supposed to be in the offense.  He knows how to keep his body in front of an offensive player and limit scoring opportunities.  He got better as a finisher around the rim as last season progressed, but he's really not much of a scoring threat.

The center position is locked up by Joey Van Zegeren.  Joey doesn't move quickly, but he does move decisively on defense and he is a very talented shot-blocker.  His presence around the rim affects three times as many shots as he blocks.  JVZ's offensive game is still improving, but it's not terrible.  He's not a great rebounder considering his size and leaping ability, and this is an area that could use some attention.  Backing him up, Buzz Williams brought in a traditional center in 7'0" 255lb freshman Satchel Pierce.  I'm already predicting that he gets called "Satchel Paige" over 50 times by TV announcers this season... it's bound to happen.  Mike Patrick, I'm looking squarely in your direction as the worst offender.  Pierce is a big body who will cause some trouble for offensive players who wander into the paint without a plan.  On offense, he has a nice array of moves around the hoop and a solid jumper that he can hit regularly (guessing his max range is about 15 feet away).  He moves pretty slowly and I don't anticipate he will be much of a factor on the break.

As you can see, the Hokies depth in the backcourt is young and their depth in the frontcourt is non-existent.  Coach Buzz will be looking towards the future.  Next season the Hokies will have the services of a big-time transfer from Maryland, SG Seth Allen, a decent PF transfer from South Florida, Zach LeDay, and two quality freshmen recruits in PG Justin Robinson and PF Kerry Blackshear, Jr.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Let's Meet Your 2013-2014 Virginia Tech Hokies

Yesterday I wrote a post focused on the entire Virginia Tech basketball team and their play up to this point in the season.  Today I'd like to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players.  Nothing does this better than bullet points (I'm way into bullet points).

  • SF Jarell Eddie - I think that if you're going to start talking about the players on the VT basketball team, then you need to start with Eddie.  In the past, he was known as nothing but a shooter, and you only wanted to see him jack it up in catch-and-shoot situations.  Putting the ball on the floor usually spelled disaster.  To his credit, he's worked on that part of his game and has become a pretty good offensive threat from just about any spot on the floor.  His game is starting to resemble AD Vassallo in his senior year, except that he's been more efficient at shooting up to this point.  His numbers will almost certainly take a dip during ACC play, but he's a legit offensive weapon who you love to see open on the 3-point line.  He's become borderline automatic in those spots.  Jarell still likes to dribble a bit too much in situations where he needs to pass and can be prone to turnovers, but there's much more to like about his game this year than not.
  • SG Ben Emelogu - What a find this kid is!  As a freshman, he sure looks like the complete package.  In fall practices, he was showing such leadership and tenacity on both ends of the floor that James Johnson decided to make him captain of the team.  As a frosh, that's a huge accomplishment.  Emelogu was only a 3-star recruit on just about every major scouting services' listings, but he's already shown that those services were wrong.  He's an excellent and disruptive defender who can steal the ball, block shots, and shut down opponents.  He can knock down 3-pointers with a beautiful jump shot.  He can drive and finish around the rim.  He can find teammates and rack up assist numbers (had nine the other day against Maryland - Eastern Shore).  He even makes julienne fries!  Okay that's an old and terrible joke, but he's really looked good.  As a freshman, he makes his share of dumb passes and missed defensive assignments, but his future is incredibly bright.
  • PG Devin Wilson - Another impressive freshman who seemingly came out of nowhere.  He decided late in the recruiting process that he didn't want to be a college football player as most were projecting and decided he would rather play college basketball.  I think it was a smart move... his skill set reminds me of long-time NBA player Andre Miller.  I talked a little about his skills yesterday, but to recap: he can drive the ball & finish or draw fouls, he can pass the ball, he's got good size, and he plays excellent defense... he cannot shoot a lick.  Like Emelogu, he can be prone to making freshman-esque mistakes and will turn the ball over when facing big time pressure.
  • C Joey Van Zegeren - I would like to toot my own horn in saying that JVZ has turned into the type of quality ACC-caliber center who I thought he could be.  +Richie Stockholm and I made comments to each other a year ago on this very blog saying that we both thought he could be something special.  His offensive post game has been disappointing, he fouls way too much, and he can't hit a free throw to save his life, but he's been very impressive blocking shots, rebounding, and cleaning up around the basket.  I said yesterday that I think he's the best shot blocker I've seen on the team since I started classes at VT in 1998, and I still feel that way a day later.  He's added a little bulk to his athleticism and will surprise a lot of teams in the ACC.  He took over the starting role from super-senior Cadarian Raines, and I can't say it wasn't the right move.  He really does need work on his post game, though.
  • PF C.J. Barksdale - Remember J.T. Thompson?  Barksdale reminds me a ton of him, right down to having two letters as a first name.  Barksdale works hard for rebounds and can score inside and out.  His jump shot extends to one full step inside the 3-point line and he's even an excellent free throw shooter.  His biggest bugaboo is the injury bug, which bugs me (yup).  He's been in and out of the lineup all season with various ailments, and I don't see that changing.  When healthy, he essentially provides Virginia Tech's only offensive presence in the post.
  • PF Marshall Wood - When Barksdale is healthy, Wood basically splits the power forward minutes with him 50/50.  Wood is much more polarizing in his style of play, though.  He's really stepped up his 3-point shooting this season and is a real threat to hit open shots from just about anywhere outside of the paint.  Inside the restricted area is a different story... Wood has been utterly awful at converting shots there.  He also has a knack for being lazy on defense, often spacing out for a moment before trying to catch up to the play.  He has excellent size and athleticism... the only things that are truly missing from his game are toughness and hustle.
  • C Trevor Thompson - A talented freshman, he is JVZ-lite.  I'm not sure I really have to say much more about him, as every single strength and weakness that JVZ has are also common to Thompson.  Thompson will be an excellent shot blocker (he's already good), but he needs to add bulk in order to battle with the big guys in the ACC.  He has supplanted Cadarian Raines recently on James Johnson's depth chart, but part of me wonders if that was just to get him some play this season while the Hokies took on lesser competition.  I don't believe he has the bulk yet to be a factor in ACC play, but he does rebound and block shots... two things that Raines has not been able to do.
  • SG Adam Smith - He's that streaky bench scorer that every team needs.  He's small for his position and doesn't have the handle to play PG except for in short doses while spelling Wilson, but he can light up the scoreboard when he's on his game.  His shooting has improved since his freshman season at UNCW, and he makes the offense more dynamic when he's on the floor.  His defense can be brutal at times, and we knew this about him coming into the season.
  • SG Will Johnston - Another guard who can be brought off the bench when JJ needs some shooting.  Johnston is a very good three point shooter who can get his shot off quickly.  Unfortunately there isn't much else that he does well.  Johnston is a former walk-on and I do think that he earned the scholarship that he's playing with this season.  He's a useful contributor in the right scenarios, however injuries and the losses of Rankin and Mueller have forced him to play much more than I'd like.
  • PF Christian Beyer - A walk-on, but with more talent than your usual walk-on.  I'm not just saying that to be a homer, either, as I've seen tons of walk-on players during my time as VT fan.  Beyer is right up there with Paul Debnam in usefulness.  He plays tough and he rebounds the basketball.  He can't really score, but he's not completely devoid of ability in that area.  He's a nice player to have.
  • PF Greg Donlon - At 6'8" and 230 lbs, he has great size for a walk-on.  However he rarely ever gets into the game, and frankly that's how it should be.  I've been extremely disappointed with him as the end of the bench guy.  He needs to be waving that towel much faster and making sweet 3-goggles when the Hokies bury a deep one.  I'd love for JJ to bring in Paul Debnam to teach a crash course.
  • C Cadarian Raines - I'm going to finish up with Raines because he may be the most interesting story of the season.  A 6th-year senior, Raines was really being counted on by JJ at the beginning of the season to bring leadership and stability to a young team.  However, I think the years of injuries to Raines' feet have left him timid on the court.  He's mentioned in interviews that he has a bit of a mental block when it comes to going for rebounds outside of his area because he's worried about what will happen to his feet as he moves into other players' zones.  Due to these issues, Raines has been little more than a body to foul other bodies.  The promise that he showed on the offensive end a couple seasons ago is gone and never to return.  He hasn't been able to score, rebound, or block shots consistently, and I think this is why James Johnson has dropped Raines from his rotation in spite of his ability to provide a veteran presence on the court.  Will size alone be enough to get Raines minutes against ACC opponents?  I'm really not sure about that.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Catching Up with the Hokie Basketball Team

It's been a while since I've written anything on my blog, but with the VT football season coming to a close (rather disappointingly I might add), I figured now is as good a time as any to talk some VT basketball.  The Hokies are sitting at 8-5 on the season, haven't beaten anyone of substance, and have a couple of pretty bad losses (including UNC-Greensboro and SC-Upstate).  I'm still not sure if coach James Johnson can ever find success at VT, but I'm willing to wait a while longer to find out.  Why?  Because even though his teams have been mired in injury and strange situations, I've liked his recruits for 2013.

Let's start with the injuries.  Once again (this is becoming an annoying recurring theme), the Hokies have been bit by the injury bug.  VT's best rebounder and interior scorer, CJ Barksdale, has already missed several games (3 disciplinary, 3 injury... don't count VCU and UNCG, he played a combined 13 minutes and was really hurting out there).  VT was also missing a key scorer in Adam Smith for 4 games (he too was playing injured against VCU).  Freshman captain (yes, I said captain) Ben Emelogu has also missed 3 games with concussion-like symptoms.  It's been par for the course for the Hokies, who have seen injury issues for as long as my feeble brain can remember.

Now what about these "strange situations" that I said?  Let's start with former point guard, Marquis Rankin.  Rankin was assumed to be the favorite to win the starting point guard spot coming into the season simply due to his seniority.  While battling with Devin Wilson for that job, freshman Malik Mueller was ruled ineligible by the NCAA (for no real reason whatsoever), which seemed to almost gift the position to Rankin since Wilson was a very late addition to the team from a recruiting perspective.  As it turned out, James Johnson announced that Wilson had won the starting job, and after that point Rankin would never don a Virginia Tech jersey again.  He sat on the bench in plain clothes for half of the season until deciding to hang up his high-tops.  No one really knows why... the best explanation I heard was that he wanted to prioritize other things in his life over basketball.  He's still at VT and is expected to complete his degree on scholarship there.  I've never heard of anything like that before... definitely a strange situation.  In addition to Mueller and Rankin, senior center Cadarian Raines has basically been benched.  He's played sporadic minutes with Johnson favoring redshirt-sophomore Joey Van Zegeren and freshman Trevor Thompson over him.  It's very strange for a senior leader like Raines to lose his spot like that, but I wouldn't say it was the wrong move.

After getting our negative points out of the way, there are plenty of reasons for optimism with this Virginia Tech team.  They are the 8th best 3-point shooting team in the nation right now... a very strange feeling for Hokie fans who are used to only have one or two decent three-point shooters on the team.  Virginia Tech boasts 5 this season - SF Jarell Eddie, SG/PG Ben Emelogu, SG/PG Adam Smith, SG Will Johnston, and PF Marshall Wood.  All 5 players are shooting over 40% on their threes.  VT also blocks a lot of shots, which is also not something we are used to seeing.  The team averages 6 blocks per game (tied with UNC for 29th in the nation) and Joey Van Zegeren is the best shot-blocking center I can remember VT having (going back to 1998 or so).  He's averaging 2 per game, but could easily average 3 if he weren't in foul trouble so often.

So if this is the case, then why is VT only 8-5?  Shouldn't they be rolling opponents?  Not when you're 293rd in the nation in turnovers.  The Hokies give the ball away far too easily, and their turnovers are often the worst kind... live turnovers that lead to a run-out basket on the other end of the floor.  This is not a surprise when the team only has one true point guard and he's a freshman.  With that said, Devin Wilson has done a pretty admirable job in his role as point guard.  He sticks to what he does best and doesn't try to be what he isn't.  What isn't he?  He's not a shooter.  He may only take 1 or 2 jump shots per game, if that, and you cringe when he does it.  What can he do?  He can drive to the basket and either dish the ball or finish w/ contact (both left-handed and right-handed).  At 6'4", he has excellent size and strength that is not typical of a freshman PG for Virginia Tech.  He's been a quality defender, another rarity for a frosh.  He has a surprisingly nice skill set given his late addition and I hope we'll get to see him for many years in Orange and Maroon.  Given the amount of great shooting VT has been able to put around him, his lack of shooting ability has not been a big hindrance.

Virginia Tech is a young team with the typical problems of a young team.  They often play out of control or make bone-headed decisions with the ball.  However, this is a team that has more talent than most people in the nation would know or care to know.  Will they find that out on Tuesday against Syracuse?  Well no because CBS buried the game on a smaller network, but even if they hadn't, it's still not likely.  But is it possible we could see an upset over the unbeaten Orange?  Sure.  Syracuse (h/t to info from Jeff Rendell) is not a team who likes to press you full court.  They're going to let you set up your half-court offense.  The full court press is Virginia Tech's kryptonite due to their youth and ball-handling deficiencies at the point guard and wing positions.  We saw this against VCU as they repeatedly poked the ball away and were able to get easy transition buckets.  Coaches who rarely press have done so against VT this season, including Miami's Jim Larranaga, simply because it makes too much sense not to do it.  Will Jim Boeheim show hubris in ignoring this simple recipe?  I don't know, but even if he does, VT needs a few other things to go right.  They need to hit their 3-point shots, and they need to take a lot of them.  They need to drive into the 2-3 zone that Syracuse runs and kick out to open shooters without having those balls tipped away starting fastbreaks.  They need to keep the battle on the boards respectable and they need to play good defense and take care of the basketball on offense.  That's a lot of requirements, but could they all happen?  Sure, why not.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Saved by the Bell: The New Class

This post's title is partly obvious and partly not so obvious.  "The New Class" is obviously in reference to the Virginia Tech basketball 2013 recruiting class.  Wednesday was Signing Day and all 4 of our verbal commits have signed a Letter Of Intent with VT.  Why "Saved by the Bell"?  Because James Johnson and his staff really had to scramble in finding some quality players with such a short amount of time since they took their new jobs.  The result is a class of players who are not very highly rated by the national recruiting services, but who could end up surprising us.

Currently, the highest rated player in the class is 6'5" combo guard Donte Clark from Charlotte, NC.  Donte was rated as a 4-star recruit by both ESPN and Rivals.  ESPN puts him as the #89 player in their top 100.  James Johnson expects to play him at both point guard and shooting guard.  He has good length and athleticism being classified more as a scorer than a shooter right now.  He has a lot of potential on the defensive end as well.  He had offers from Missouri, Miami, Georgia, Tennessee, Memphis, and Oklahoma State among others.

6'11" center Trevor Thompson is a 3-star recruit according to the major services, but his scholarship offers do not reflect that.  He had offers from USC, Purdue, Tennessee, Kansas State, Xavier, Mississippi State, and Arizona State.  So there is obviously something about this kid that the high major schools wanted and I think you'll see him shoot up to a 4-star recruit by the end of his senior season if not sooner.  The bill on him is that he's a little skinny, but is long with good bounce and good speed.  He runs the floor extremely well, he can finish with both hands, rebounds well, and blocks shots well.  He should fit right in with JJ's offensive and defensive schemes.  Thompson is from Indianapolis, IN, but originally hails from Reston, VA.

An interesting pickup for VT was Maurice Kirby, a 6'9" PF/C who decommitted from Arizona State after verbally committing to them as a sophomore.  Kirby took a big step back his junior season and supposedly put on a lot of weight that slowed him down and sapped his energy.  However from what I have read, Kirby has greatly reduced his weight for his senior season and could be primed for a big comeback.  He's a face-up player on offense with poor post moves, but he can hit the jumper out to 15 feet.  He's supposedly a good rebounder and shot-blocker.  There is a lot of talent here, but it needs to be developed.  His only other offers currently are from Loyola, Brown, and Northern Arizona.  Kirby is from Chandler, AZ.

The final member of this year's class is 6'5" shooting guard Ben Emelogu from Grand Prairie, TX.  Right now he projects more as a "3-and-D" player.  He can hit the long jumper with consistency and he's got the ability to be a defensive stopper.  He needs to work on driving to the hoop and handling the ball as well as rebounding his position, but he can be a useful player coming off the bench for the Hokies (although it's not a given that he will see court time as a freshman).  Ben chose VT over offers from Washington, Marquette, and TCU.

All in all, I think James Johnson and his assistant coaches did an excellent job recruiting for 2013 given the amount of time he was given to get these players to commit.  He went after players who weren't necessarily on the national radar, but who all have the potential for big jumps in their senior season.  I would prepare myself for the fact that we might only get 1 or 2 players out of this class that will be solid starters going forward... there's potential for better, but I think that's more of a reasonable projection.  Personally, I think it'll be Thompson and Clark who end up with the best careers at Virginia Tech.

JJ was known to be solid recruiter before he was hired as a head coach, and I am very intrigued to see what he does with the 2014 and 2015 classes.  For 2013, this really did not need to be a big class with a lot of studs.  Robert Brown has SG locked down for another 2 years.  Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines have both SF and C locked down for one more year, and I think Joey Van Zegeren will improve enough in 2 full seasons to be able to take over center at that point if needed.  The only position that appears to be thin is point guard, and we'll have to expect that position to be addressed either in the 2014 class or with a 5th scholarship offer in the Spring.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


You can take the title of this post from either Braveheart or George Michael, whatever fits your lifestyle.  Either way, I am sure that the VT players have been shouting/singing this word since James Johnson took over as head coach.  Let me add to that by saying that I am not a Seth Greenberg basher.  I really appreciate the tough attitude he brought to our program and I think we're all very thankful for that NCAA tournament team in 2007 with Dowdell and Gordon running the show.  Seth Greenberg's teams were hardly ever out of a game and that was his design.  Keep possessions down and keep opposing offenses uncomfortable.  Make them work hard and work the clock for every bucket.  His teams brought us some moments we will appreciate for our entire lives ("T-Bag Paulus!" and the pantsing of #1 Wake Forest both come to mind).  However, that system required a lot of rules to be successful, and frankly it couldn't have been very fun for the players.  Ultimately, I think it created an environment where players were constantly second-guessing themselves.

Since James Johnson has arrived, he has taken a lot of the restrictions off of the players.  If you shoot three-pointers well in practice, you have the green light to shoot any time in the game.  Shoot whenever you have a good look at the basket, regardless of the shot clock.  If you think you have a good chance at a steal, then go for it.  I just see a lot more trust between the coach and his players, and so far his players are rewarding him for it.  Are we seeing the middle of the pendulum swing before it flies over to the other side?  Possibly.  As players get used to this style and as new players come in who never played for Seth Greenberg, we could see situations where players get wild and out-of-control on offense, jacking up shots whenever they want.  However, I think this is where recruiting comes into play... JJ has been going for high character guys who really want to be at Virginia Tech and play for him.  He seems to be creating a sense of family where he is the father, and I think that is the coaching style that always gives the best results.  You are going to bust your ass for your brothers and you're going to work hard to get praise from your father.  That kind of unity can't be discounted, and that's the unity I feel when I watch this year's basketball team.

Through 2 games, I think we can all say that we're pleasantly surprised with our team.  I think everyone thought we would beat ETSU and URI, but I don't think we expected the team to come out playing as well as they have.  This team can SHOOT IT!  I would not be at all surprised to see Erick Green, Robert Brown, and Jarell Eddie all over 40% from the 3-pt line this year with Eddie being closer to 50%.  Even walk-on Will Johnston is looking to be a dangerous outlet at the 3-pt line.  If Marquis Rankin and Marshall Wood can shoot around 33-35%, our squad will be absolutely devastating from deep.

I would add Joey Van Zegeren to the list of pleasant surprises, but I've already touted him on here before the season started.  It was a hunch at the time and it's still an unproven theory, but when I watched videos of him and when I watched him in the first two games, I noticed a very athletic 6'10" player who absolutely has the tools of a high-major center.  At this point he is only averaging 1 block per game, but the thing I have noticed the most is that you are not going to get a cheap "and-1" when he's on the floor... JVZ is going to block it.  I have seen this happen at least 3 times so far where JVZ comes flying out of nowhere to insure the shot doesn't go in on a shooting foul attributed to a teammate.  A lot of guys stop playing after the whistle blows, but shot-blockers should not... a shot can still go in and count after the whistle.

This post could run on for a really long time if I wanted to do it, but I won't.  Instead I'm going to hit up a couple more thoughts in bullet points and then ball out.

  • Erick Green is playing like a star player.  He's doing just about everything you could ask from a senior point guard.  He's leading, he's scoring, he's passing well, he's playing great defense, and he needs to stay confident.
  • Robert Brown is on the track I expected... this guy is an explosive scorer with an array of moves.  Next year will be his breakout year.
  • Jarell Eddie has shown that he really did work on shooting off the dribble.  Not necessarily hitting jumpers after dribbling full-speed on the break (right now he's flying forward and isn't getting his feet under him), but when the 3-pt line is guarded, he's added a nice shot fake where he fakes the shot, dribbles once or twice moving forward, and nails the long 2-pointer.  Very effective.  He's also looked better driving to the basket.
  • I like Marshall Wood a lot more than I thought I wood (punny).  You can tell from his form that he's going to be a good 3-point shooter, but he's not hitting them yet.  I'm pretty sure all of his 3-point shots against URI hit the rim twice before coming off... they'll fall eventually.  The thing that has been the best surprise is his intensity.  He goes hard for rebounds, he covers distance to block shots, and he can finish with contact around the rim.  He's going to be a better player as a freshman than Dorian Finney-Smith was last year.  I have no doubts.
  • Cadarian Raines is looking to be in the same form as when he finished last season... had a bit of a stinker against ETSU and then put up a much better showing against URI.  I am still shocked at his offensive game.  He was recruited as a defender and rebounder, but it's the offensive side of the ball where he's shown some fantastic abilities.  My theory: he was out so much time redshirting for 2 years that working on post moves is about all you can do when you're by yourself.  My guess is that he spent 2 years working on that and we're seeing the fruits of his labor.
  • CJ Barksdale is supposedly playing in spite of injury.  I don't know what injury, but it seems to make sense to me.  He has shown an improved jump shot, but I haven't seen a lot of toughness out of him and he's not rebounding as well as last year.  I hope he gets some time before the ACC slate to get his body and mind in the right state.  I like him though... he can be as good as any of our post players on the right night.
Overall, watching this team has been extremely fun.  They are showing a lot of joy out on the court and their confidence is sky-high.  I am excited to see what they can do against Iowa in a couple weeks as that should be their first real test.