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.

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