Anybody expecting new Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson to channel the emotional sideline tirades that were a given with his old boss, Seth Greenberg, will likely be disappointed this season.
At the Hokies’ first intrasquad scrimmage Sunday afternoon, Johnson entered Cassell Coliseum surreptitiously, taking a seat along the baseline as his assistants coached each team. Outside of calling a timeout when he was unhappy with shot selection, he simply jotted down notes or took players to the side during a stoppage in play when he saw something he didn’t like.
That is, unless it involved a fast break. Because if there was one word that summed up Johnson’s teaching style Sunday, it was “go.” The Hokies may have just eight scholarship players this year, but their new coach isn’t backing off his assertion that Virginia Tech will up the tempo at all costs going forward.
“We got some guys that are athletic that need to get out in space and have some opportunities to score,” said Johnson, when asked why he decided on this style.
“Robert Brown, letting him get out in transition, have the basketball in his hands and make plays. Jarell Eddie, getting him out in space where he can spot up and hit some threes. . . . I think we got athletic post players that can run. So I think it plays into our strengths and what we have with our personnel.”
Johnson reiterated this is the way he played as a scrappy guard at Division III Ferrum College, and added that he also coached a similar style during his days as an assistant under Old Dominion’s Jeff Capel and former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. It’s easy to see that the fast break has been a point of emphasis in the first two weeks of training camp.
Sunday’s scrimmage featured more transition offense than half-court sets, with the Orange team taking 76 shots and the Maroon team launching 70. Keep in mind, Virginia Tech averaged about 54 shot attempts per game last year under Greenberg.
When I compared it to the Phoenix Suns’ philosophy under former Coach Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash a few years ago, several players agreed there were similarities. But whether it’s sustainable to play this way in the regular season remains to be seen, and the end of Sunday’s scrimmage got quite ragged as players grew winded from the hectic pace.
“I feel like it’s realistic because we conditioned for it in the offseason,” forward Jarell Eddie said. “Coach Johnson, that’s what he wanted early. He really tried to implement that early. He was like, ‘We’re gonna run fast, so y’all better be in condition for it.’ He got us in the right shape for this style.”
Added point guard Erick Green, “I think we got all the pieces to make it happen, but we just got to stay healthy.”
It should be noted, though, that neither team shot better than 42.9 percent. Forwards Cadarian Raines, C.J. Barksdale, Marshall Wood and Eddie all finished with double-doubles, and Green led all scorers with 22 points and six assists. Redshirt freshman big man Joey van Zegeren did not play after tweaking his knee in practice last week.
And when the Hokies weren’t able to score on the fast break, their half-court offense looked like a work in progress, which should be expected under a first-year coach. It seems, though, that Johnson has focused his scheme on putting Green in pick-and-roll situations and feeding Raines in the post.
But it’s obvious this is just the beginning of what promises to be a new, faster era of Virginia Tech basketball.
“Year in and year out, that’s how we want to play,” Johnson said. “We’ll recruit to that style and hopefully as times goes on we’ll continue to get better at it.”