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Posted at 11:37 AM ET, 10/17/2012

Virginia Tech basketball begins James Johnson era with uncertainty


“We can’t play this year the way we want to play on the defensive end,” Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson said. “But that’ll come when we have more bodies.” (Dave Knachel - AP)
New Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson knows what he wants to do this season. He’d like to push the tempo early and often, with the sort of frenetic fast breaks and manic defensive pressure that were the hallmarks of his playing career at Division III Ferrum College.

Johnson just doesn’t know if he can do them this year, the biggest unknown for a Hokies team that has plenty of question marks and few expectations.

“What we try to do this year is gonna be a small amount to what we want to try, what we want the program to be built on,” Johnson said last week when preseason practice got underway.

“Right away, we’re gonna try to play offensively as fast as we can. Then we’ll kind of see what we are, and that’s something I’m gonna learn in preseason practice, a couple of intrasquad scrimmages and a couple scrimmage games that we have also.”

Johnson at least has a good idea of what pieces he has to rely on. After all, there’s only eight scholarship on the roster this year after the Hokies lost two players to graduation (Dorenzo Hudson and Victor Davila), another to transfer (Dorian Finney-Smith) and saw their best 2012 recruit (Montrezl Harrell) back out of his commitment after former Coach Seth Greenberg was fired.

But the ACC’s coaches, who conducted their first-ever preseason poll this year, don’t think much of what Virginia Tech brings back. They picked the Hokies to finish in a tie for 10th place in the conference this year, and didn’t vote point guard Erick Green onto the preseason all-ACC team. Expect something similar Wednesday afternoon when the conference announces its preseason media poll at the league’s media day in Charlotte

Perhaps they see how one injury could prove cataclysmic for this thin roster. Then again, even Johnson isn’t exactly sure what to expect from this group if they stay healthy. And he certainly wasn’t ready to anoint them ACC contenders last week.

“I think every time we take the floor we want to win,” Johnson said. “In practice it’s all about getting better every day and getting as good as we can possibly be. How good that is? We don’t know yet. . . . As far as where we’re picked, it is what it is. People are looking at the team, at the numbers, what we have coming back and they can say whatever.”

Johnson says his practices will be more competitive and fast-paced than his predecessor, Seth Greenberg. He’ll also emphasize conditioning because “the guys that are playing, I want to make sure they’re in really good condition to be able to play an extensive amount of time.”

“We can’t play this year the way we want to play on the defensive end,” he added. “But that’ll come when we have more bodies.”

Green will be the team’s leader once again after earning second-team all-ACC honors a season ago, when Virginia Tech finished with a 16-17 record. He averaged 15.6 points and 2.8 assists per game, but he’ll be asked to do more than ever both as a distributor and leading scorer. Green will likely be joined in the starting lineup by big man Cadarian Raines, shooting guard Robert Brown and junior Jarell Eddie, who will play exclusively as a small forward after being used as a power forward at times last season.

At power forward, training camp will determine whether sophomore C.J. Barksdale grabs hold of the starting spot or if freshman Marshall Wood can make a push for extensive playing time. The 6-9 Barksdale is more of a traditional option, while Wood has impressed Johnson with his shooting range in offseason workouts.

Johnson is also considering using a three-guard lineup in which Green would move off the ball with sophomore Marquis Rankin and Brown on the floor.

But whenever Virginia Tech’s new coach begins talking about the possibilities of this season, a reminder of the realities he’ll have to confront aren’t far behind. Last week, for instance, Johnson said one of the main tasks before the season begins is identifying a walk on or two that could contribute off the bench.

Just another wrinkle in a preseason that should feature its fair share of them.

By Mark Giannotto  |  11:37 AM ET, 10/17/2012

 
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