Virginia Tech’s James Johnson faces another tumultuous offseason


“We’re gonna get picked last again, and if I’m looking at it, I don’t know if I wouldn’t, too,” Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson said of his team’s 2013-14 prospects. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Just one month removed from the end of his first season as the Virginia Tech men’s basketball coach, James Johnson didn’t need a reporter to finish the sentence. He has looked at his roster for next season and understands that the infusion of six freshmen and a transfer from the Colonial Athletic Association may not be enough to immediately offset the losses of two of his top three scorers.

“We’re gonna get picked last again, and if I’m looking at it, I don’t know if I wouldn’t, too,” Johnson said from his office last week.

If Johnson was hoping for some serenity since the Hokies ended the 2012-13 campaign as the ACC’s worst team, he hasn’t found much of it in Blacksburg. Instead, six years to the day after Johnson stepped foot on campus – his first day as an assistant under former Coach Seth Greenberg coincided with the April 16 shooting massacre at the school – he is dealing with a second straight tumultuous offseason.

First, shooting guard Robert Brown announced he would transfer to another school closer to home in Florida. A few days later, one of Johnson’s assistant, Mark Byington, accepted the head coaching job at Georgia Southern. Johnson also spent all of March watching several players who could’ve been Hokies right now — La Salle’s Tyrone Garland, Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell and Valparaiso’s Ben Boggs — play in the NCAA tournament.

Johnson, though, has refused to dwell on the negatives to this point, focusing his attention on how to improve a program whose rebuilding efforts will only get harder with the ACC adding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame next season.

He has taken a closer look at what Virginia Tech did well its first seven games a season ago, when the Hokies got off to their best start in 30 years. And it has brought him to the same conclusions he discussed upon first taking the job last May. Virginia Tech was better in transition, and the hope is a new man-to-man press next year will accentuate those strengths.

“I would prefer to have guards on the floor . . . but we need guys to make improvements like Erick Green did,” said Johnson, referencing how Green blossomed to become the nation’s leading scorer as a senior this past season.

Johnson’s six-member 2013 recruiting class could address that. On Monday, the Hokies received an oral commitment from Pittsburgh area prospect Devin Wilson, a 6-foot-4 guard who chose Virginia Tech over West Virginia, George Mason and Saint Joseph’s. Wilson also had scholarship offers to play football at North Carolina State, Temple and Ohio.

By Wednesday, Wilson and German-born point guard Malik Mueller are expected to sign their national letters-of-intent as part of college basketball’s late signing period. Johnson said last week there “may be a redshirt candidate or two” among the six incoming recruits. The Hokies will also welcome guards Donte Clark and Ben Emelogu, as well as forwards Trevor Thompson and Maurice Kirby to the fold next year.

As for filling Byington’s spot, Johnson is looking to upgrade the program’s recruiting efforts with his new assistant. Though he has no timetable in mind – director of basketball operations Andy Moore will be on the road recruiting when the April evaluation period begins this weekend – Johnson would like to hire a coach with ties to the Southeast.

The 2013-14 schedule is also beginning to take shape. Last week, the Hokies agreed to play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Nov. 22-23. Virginia Tech will play four games as part of the event: two preliminary contests at Cassell Coliseum and two games in Brooklyn, regardless of whether it wins or loses in Blacksburg. Michigan State, Oklahoma and Seton Hall are Virginia Tech’s potential Brooklyn opponents.

In addition, the Hokies will face West Virginia in Blacksburg after traveling to Morgantown, W.Va., this past season. The Hokies also play Virginia Commonwealth at Richmond Coliseum as part of the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic next December.

With an 18-game ACC schedule, Johnson said chances are the rest of Virginia Tech’s schedule would feature low-profile competition, although he did leave the door open to add one more major opponent to the team’s 2013-14 slate.

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