Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson has found a good night’s sleep to be almost as elusive as a win these days.
When he makes it to bed, he just tosses and turns. Often, he can only manage to doze off for an hour at a time, watching television and game film to fill the void insomnia has brought on. Mostly, though, that just leaves him more frustrated — at another last-place finish, his uncertain fate and what he believes could have been this season.
“The team I thought we had in September and October didn’t end up being the team we had in January and February,” Johnson said Tuesday morning in a telephone interview. “I’d like to have another opportunity to coach the team that I thought we’d have this year.”
The Hokies (9-21, 2-16) will once again be shorthanded Wednesday when they take on Miami in the first round of the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Forwards C.J. Barksdale (Achilles) and Cadarian Raines (ankle) are unlikely to play, and sophomores Adam Smith (calf) and Marshall Wood (flu) are questionable.
It’s a fitting conclusion to the worst season Virginia Tech basketball has experienced in 59 years, one that saw three of the team’s top five scorers miss a combined 31 games because of injury. But beyond this week, the disappointment on the court has also brought scrutiny about the future of the program.
These could be Johnson’s last days as the Hokies’ head coach after compiling a 22-40 overall record since replacing former Coach Seth Greenberg two years ago. The first-time head coach is just 6-30 against ACC competition, and new Athletic Director Whit Babcock has offered no clues about Johnson’s job security past this week.
Johnson noted Tuesday that he and Babcock have only spoken informally a few times, but understands there is mounting pressure from a disenchanted fan base.
With the program in the midst of its first 20-loss season since 1955, attendance at Cassell Coliseum has fallen by nearly 54 percent since Greenberg’s final campaign. After this season, Johnson will have three years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him approximately $680,000 annually.
“I’m sure he has been evaluating the program since he’s taken over the job and I’m sure he’ll continue to evaluate the program and me,” Johnson said of Babcock, who officially started at Virginia Tech last month and will be in Greensboro with the team Wednesday.
Expectations for this season weren’t high, as the Hokies were picked to finish last in the ACC’s preseason media poll. But much like Johnson’s first season, when he started out 7-0, things began to spiral once conference play got underway.
The Hokies enter Wednesday having lost 16 of 17, and both conference wins this year came against Miami. At one point, Virginia Tech lost four straight ACC games by at least 20 points, a stretch that persuaded Johnson to scrap his up-tempo offense in favor of a slower pace and more zone defense.
Since then, the Hokies have been more competitive, and point guard Devin Wilson (9.2 points and 4.8 assists per game) was named to the ACC’s all-freshman team this week. Freshman Ben Emelogu, when healthy, and center Joey van Zegeren also emerged as stalwarts for the future. Johnson expects a three-player recruiting class to add an immediate scoring punch upon arriving on campus in the fall.
His current players have tried to avoid the growing speculation about whether their head coach will be back next year.
“It doesn’t distract us at all,” Wilson told reporters Tuesday. “We have full confidence in our coaching staff, and right now we’re just focused on Miami and getting this win.”
As Johnson reflected on his tenure Tuesday, he admitted that changing the philosophy of the program and maintaining player discipline turned out to be harder than he anticipated, particularly among the team’s veterans. He conceded that losing Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith to transfer and watching former recruit Montrezl Harrell switch his commitment to Louisville after Greenberg’s dismissal left him behind the curve early on.
“My goal is to be a winner in this conference and make Virginia Tech into a program that people talk about on a national stage. It just hasn’t gone how I anticipated this year.”