Fans of the Virginia Tech football team may be used to stability, but there’s a different word being thrown around Blacksburg as basketball season approaches: rebuilding.
After head coach Seth Greenberg’s controversial firing following a rough 16-17 season, the Hokies are starting fresh this year under new coach James Johnson, as the former Tech assistant attempts to breath new life into a program that suffered through a tough offseason.
“I think we can surprise a lot of people,” said forward C.J. Barksdale. “Coach Johnson has been pushing us every day, getting us in shape, and we’re back to having fun.”
Although players like Dorrian Finney-Smith and Montrezl Harrell bolted for other schools in the wake of Greenberg’s departure, many current players stress that there’s a sense of excitement about the change at the top of the program.
“We’re ready to play for Coach Johnson,” said guard Eric Green. “We’re all excited, we can’t wait for Saturday to hit.”
While Johnson was part of Greenberg’s old program, he’s committed to making some big changes, particularly to the offense.
“We run a whole lot more than we did last year, so we get up and down the court and there are fewer sets,” Barksdale said. “We don’t try to stop and set up an offense, we just try to play into our motion.”
Last year’s team often drew criticism for its stagnant offense, but Johnson has tried to implement a new, up-tempo offensive style to make the team more dynamic.
“It’s a different style, a different team,” Green said. “We’re going to play a lot faster and put up a lot more points.”
Johnson’s challenge is to make such a radical change in style work so quickly, yet he’s already starting to see some positive results.
“I think with picking up the offensive system and wanting to run and sprint to our spots every play, they were a little further along than I thought they would be,” Johnson said.
The emphasis may be on offense, but that doesn’t mean that defense has fallen by the wayside. The team is a little behind in installing Johnson’s defensive scheme, but the coach doesn’t seem surprised by this development.
“I think always the guys want to play offensively, and have the ball in their hands where they can score the basketball, so defense is usually behind when you start doing things in practice,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s an effort thing, I think it’s a scheme thing, just being in the right place at the right time.”
Accordingly, defense has been a major element of the team’s early practices.
“Coach Johnson says if you can’t play defense, you can’t play, so all of us have bought into that, and are focused on getting stops,” Barksdale said.
Given the team’s severe lack of depth, it’s critical the team can play sound defense without being forced to foul, since any hint of foul trouble would devastate an already thin lineup.
“Fouling negates good defense,” Johnson said. “We stress playing good defense and hopefully giving the opponent one shot, if one shot, and we don’t want to take ourselves out of a good defensive possession by fouling.”
This dearth of depth also means the five walk-on players the team has added will have to play a larger role on this year’s squad, and it’s crucial the Hokies can get some production out of at least one or two of the players in order to keep the starters rested.
“I feel comfortable with all the walk-ons; they’ve done a great job,” Johnson said. “They’ve come in, they’ve worked hard, they’ve picked up the scheme, and I have no worries about those guys.”
Will Johnston and Christian Beyer figure to be the two walk-ons that see the most playing time, due to Johnston’s shooting ability and Beyer’s 6’7” frame. While their status as non-scholarship players may come with a certain stigma, players insist that they’re all in this together.
“We all still hang out, we all still kick it,” Green said. “We don’t look at anyone as a walk-on — we’re all just playing ball, having fun, and enjoying each other.”
The walk-ons may be important, but the development of some of the team’s projected starters is even more crucial. Barksdale is one player that showed flashes of talent last year, but is looking to have a much more complete season.
“I’ve been working on my midrange and outside games, just trying to be a better player and doing everything I can to help us win,” Barksdale said.
Even Green, the ACC’s third-leading scorer and clear team leader, will have to step up his game, as the team continues to experiment with playing him off the ball and putting in sophomore Marquis Rankin at point guard.
“If (Coach Johnson) needs me to score I’ll do that, and if he wants me to step off the ball sometimes to loosen the defense, I’ve got a lot of confidence in Marquis — he’s a great point guard,” Green said.
Implementing some of these changes will take effort, but Johnson sees no lack of it on this team.
“This has been a great group of guys, coming into practice every single day, there’s not one day I’ve had to coach effort,” Johnson said.
Considering the team’s confidence in the coach, there’s little doubt that this will continue as the program tries to rebuild on the