When the preseason rankings came out and Virginia Tech men’s basketball was picked to finish in 10th place by the ACC’s reporters and coaches, first-year Coach James Johnson told his team it didn’t matter. The games, he emphasized, still had to be played.
So when his Hokies pulled off their biggest upset to date over then-No. 15 Oklahoma State last weekend, improving to 7-0 this season, Johnson scoffed at the notion he had proven skeptics wrong. He then declared that Virginia’s Tech early success has been “all about the team.”
“They’re playing together. They’re playing for each other. It means something to them,” Johnson said emphatically.
Hokies basketball is also starting to mean something nationally again. Virginia Tech received 170 votes in the latest AP poll, but its best start in 30 years isn’t simply about cohesiveness. There are three main factors at play, aside from Johnson’s new up-tempo philosophy, that have the Hokies soaring to heights few expected.
Simply put, there may not be a guard in the country playing at a higher level than Erick Green to start the season, and people are starting to notice. For the second straight week, Green was named co-ACC player of the week and after his 28-point, seven-rebound performance against Oklahoma State. Sport Illustrated’s Seth Davis named him the national player of the week.
Through seven games, Green is No. 2 in the country at 24.9 points per game. He’s also dishing out 4.4 assists per game and has still maintained a 2.2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He has yet to be held below 20 points in a game this season. But it’s his efficiency that has been truly remarkable given how much he’s asked to do for the Hokies. Green is currently shooting a career-high 51.6 percent from the floor, including 37.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think he’s one of the top five [guards] in the country, for what he does, what he means to his team,” Oklahoma State Coach Travis Ford said.
One of the key ingredients to Green’s success is that no player in the country has attempted more free throws than through Tuesday night’s action. In fact, only four teams in the entire country (New Mexico, Villanova, Colorado and Charlotte) are averaging more free throws per game than Virginia Tech this year.
It’s no wonder, then, that there are just two teams averaging more points per game than the Hokies this season. The free throws are a direct result of Johnson’s attack-first mentality, and it has allowed Virginia Tech to get easy points the few times opponents have managed to slow them down. In addition to getting to the line a lot, Virginia Tech is also shooting 78 percent as a team from the charity stripe.
“That’s a part of not just our half-court offense, but our offense,” Johnson said. “We’re a good three-point shooting team, but I don’t want to settle for the outside shot. We got some guys that can get to the basket. Again, these are strengths for this team. Guys that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to the basket, so we don’t have to settle for outside shots.”
The power of confidence
During Ford’s postgame news conference last weekend, he noted that Virginia Tech is largely running the same plays it did a year ago under former Coach Seth Greenberg. “I just think they’re making more shots,” said Ford, who has faced Virginia Tech four times over the past three seasons.
This is just the latest example of how Johnson has empowered Virginia Tech this year. He has told every player that they have the green light to shoot as long as he has seen them make it in practice. As good as Greenberg was as an X’s-and-O’s coach, his manic sideline persona seemed to inhibit the Hokies at times.
Players like guard Robert Brown and forward Jarell Eddie were constantly looking to the scorer’s table, wondering if they would be pulled from the game after a bad shot or a bad pass. Now they’re having career years as complementary pieces to Green. Johnson has let them play through mistakes and eschewed dramatic sideline histrionics for the most part. The result has been a team hitting better than 48 percent of its shots with largely the same cast as a year ago, when the Hokies made just 42 percent of their shots.
“Us having fun, combined with having a good coach, a positive coach on our side, has been really good,” Eddie said. “We’re not gonna short-change ourselves. We’re going into every game thinking we’re gonna win.”