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.