James Johnson was hired as Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball head coach to do something his predecessor could not: consistently reach the NCAA tournament.
If Johnson is to lead the Hokies into the “Big Dance” in 2013, things must change quickly.
Virginia Tech (11-10, 2-6) has dropped 10 of its past 14 games, and is currently tied for last place in the ACC, alongside Boston College and Georgia Tech.
For the Hokies to turn the season around, they must start Thursday night in Blacksburg against the Maryland Terrapins (16-6, 4-5). It will be the teams’ second matchup of the year, the first being a 23-point Terps victory at home in January. Johnson, however, believes that his team is better than it was a month ago.
“I think the team is playing better right now,” Johnson said. "I think defensively we've improved, I think rebounding we've improved."
The confidence stems from the team’s two most recent losses, in which Tech led both Miami and North Carolina at halftime of their respective games. Although the Hokies were unable to maintain their leads, their ability to make their opponents, who were both significant favorites, sweat for victories proved they could compete on a nightly basis.
Because of this, Johnson believes that the team has not yet lost hope.
“The fact that we're coming out and we're playing hard, we're getting off to good starts, we're competing and fighting, it also shows me that the guys still have confidence,” Johnson said.
Perhaps more importantly, the level of hustle and competition the Hokies are exuding has guaranteed that, even at 2-6 in the conference, they won’t be overlooked.
“The thing I see about Virginia Tech when I watch them play, they're a team that has a ton of fight in them, competing like crazy, got a first-year coach that's coaching every game like it's his last game,” said second-year Terrapins head coach, Mark Turgeon.
In order for the Hokies to win on Thursday night, they will have to be able to limit the success of 7-foot-1, 255-pound Maryland center, Alex Len. In the teams' first meeting, Len scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Len was neither the first, nor the last, big man to get to the best of the Hokies in 2013, but Johnson has increasingly been playing more zone-defense: not only to support his big men down low, but to help limit the fatigue of his players.
“I think it's part of the grind," Johnson said. "We’ve played a lot of games, we've played a lot of guys and a lot of minutes. I think that's just wearing on them.”
To be hopeful about the remainder of the Tech season is being optimistic; to be optimistic of their chances of making the NCAA tournament is being delirious. However, the Hokies have played better basketball of late, and a victory Thursday night is the first step, of many, to turn this season around.