There was a time not that long ago — heck, maybe even a week ago — when Virginia Tech point guard Erick Green was the best-kept secret in the ACC. Chances are, though, West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins is well aware of Green heading into Saturday’s matchup between the Hokies and Mountaineers.
After all, he’s the second-leading scorer in the entire country right now, and his 28-point outburst against then-No. 15 Oklahoma State earned him praise from several national outlets. But when asked about teams game-planning against his star, Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson pointed to his up-tempo approach.
Not only are the Hokies averaging more points and more possessions per game than they ever did under former Coach Seth Greenberg, such a tactic can also give Green space to maneuver even when he’s the focus of an opposing defense.
“If we have to grind it out and walk the ball up the floor every single play, then everybody is gonna know where number 11 is,” Johnson said.
“Everybody, that’s how they practice to stop him. But if we get out in transition, I can hide him in certain places there. I think we’ll be able to loosen him up a little bit there.”
The tempo battle will be key in Saturday’s game, which is also Virginia Tech’s first foray into a raucous opposing arena. Though West Virginia has topped 80 points twice this season, it’s safe to assume Coach Bob Huggins doesn’t want to run with the Hokies.
The Mountaineers seem to have a deep roster, with 10 players receiving more than 11 minutes per game and eight averaging at least five points per contest. They also try to play with the brand of physicality Huggins’s teams have been using for decades now. Just this past week, four West Virginia players were ejected from the team’s rivalry win over Marshall after a Thundering Herd player kicked Mountaineers guard Juwan Staten in the groin.
Bruising 6-foot-9 forward Deniz Kilicli leads West Virginia offensively, averaging 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through six games, and he’s joined inside by 6-10 center Aaric Murray (9.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks). Staten, Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds, all of whom are listed at 6-1 or shorter, complement the duo on the perimeter.
But West Virginia is hitting just 23 percent of its three-point shot attempts this year and in all three of its losses thus far (Gonzaga, Davidson, Oklahoma), it has allowed an opponent to shoot better than 47 percent. So the Hokies are preparing for a defense-first approach from the Mountaineers, especially because they now have seven games to study from in regards to preparing for Virginia Tech’s fast-breaking tendencies.
Green expects the Hokies will need more secondary scoring, and not just from Jarell Eddie and Robert Brown
“Now that we’re on film, now that people have seen us play, they’re gonna take away a lot of things from us now,” Green said. “They know that we can score the ball, so they’re gonna try to make other people score and take the ball out of our hands and we have to adjust.”
But the biggest reason behind Virginia Tech’s surge to begin the year has been Green, and it showed last week against Oklahoma State. With Green on the bench early in the first half due to foul trouble, the Hokies were outscored by 12 points.
There are two main factors contributing to Green’s success: Nobody in the country has been to the free throw line more this season and he’s hitting shots like never before. Green is currently shooting a career high 51.6 percent from the field, including 37.5 percent from the three-point range, and it has forced opponents into a pick-your-poison scenario given his natural slashing abilities.
Green talked this week about the work ethic behind his improved shooting, how he still comes to Virginia Tech’s practice facility at 7 a.m. most mornings to get up more shots. Johnson said when he hears a ball bouncing in the building at random hours, he sometimes just assumes it’s Green because he’s there so much.
But both men are curious if Green can maintain this current pace in games now that he’s the center of everyone else’s scouting report.
“I think the way Coach Johnson has [us] playing, getting out in transition, I think you can’t focus on one person in transition,” Green said. “I’m getting to the foul line and my teammates are getting me the ball. … As long as I keep hitting my shots and just not forcing things, I think I can keep this up.”