CHARLOTTE — It started earlier this month as Virginia Tech’s Malik Mueller left practice one day. He just started singing on a whim, and fellow freshman Ben Emelogu couldn’t stop from joining in. Soon, the rest of the Hokies’ five-member 2013 recruiting class let their voices be heard.
“A lot of people like to hear us sing even though we can’t,” Emelogu said with a laugh.
But this wasn’t anything from the catalogs of Kanye West or Jay-Z, which Coach James Johnson often breaks out as a pick-me-up during early-morning practices. Instead, Emelogu and company were singing Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
It seemed appropriate for a group of players who adopted the motto, “No ordinary freshmen.” None, though, can compare to Emelogu.
The true freshman from Grand Prairie, Tex., was named the team’s only captain by Johnson before preseason practices began. That he was in Charlotte on Wednesday representing Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball program at ACC media day, just a few months into his tenure in Blacksburg, spoke volumes.
“I’m trying to get him ready for, not just this year, but he’s gonna be the leader for the future of the program,” said Johnson, who originally planned to bring forwards Jarell Eddie and C.J. Barksdale to the event. “I felt, ‘You know what, what better way to get him ready for it than now.’ ”
Emelogu has been thrust into the spotlight by the Hokies, who were picked to finish last in the ACC. The team is hopeful he can provide glimpses of what could be in years to come with a roster thin on experience this season. Armed with a college-ready physique (6 feet 5, 205 pounds), Emelogu’s lists of goals includes winning ACC rookie of the year honors, a feat Johnson suggested was possible.
But even Emelogu was caught off-guard by all the responsibility Johnson has put on his shoulders before ever playing a college game.
“It was kind of a shock, but when they named me captain, I had a feeling I’d come down here,” Emelogu said about representing the program instead of program staples like Eddie and forward Cadarian Raines. “I might feel [pressure] sometimes, but my teammates remind me it’s an honor and I’m learning to embrace it. . . . I remind my team that they picked us last and we have to prove everybody wrong.”
Emelogu chose the Hokies last October over scholarship offers from Washington, Marquette, Texas A&M and Weber State, intrigued by the chance to play in the ACC, which he considers the best league in the country.
He wasn’t originally on the radar of Johnson and assistant Kurt Kanaskie when they went down to Texas last fall, largely because Emelogu did not participate in the summer basketball circuit before his senior year of high school because of a broken hand.
But Johnson had recruited players from the Dallas Mustangs AAU program in the past and “immediately fell in love with his competitive nature and his ability to put the ball in the hole.” Emelogu said he went by the nickname “Be Easy” in high school because “one game I went off for 30-some points and they told me to be easy on them.”
Once Johnson got to know more about Emelogu’s background — his parents are separated and he hasn’t seen his father, who currently lives in Nigeria, since his freshman year of high school — he realized the Hokies had stumbled upon a player with both the physical brawn and mental make-up to weather the rigors of the ACC.
Johnson did not, however, expect Emelogu to become his captain right off the bat, an honor that left the freshman “stunned.”
“He demanded and earned his teammates’ respect right from Day One,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of Ben’s respect started with the freshmen and being that there’s so many of them, it carried over to the rest of the team. They kind of said, ‘All right, let’s fill in with Ben.’ Had he come into a class where it was just him or maybe him and another guy, it may not have been this way. But he kind of started out leading the freshmen and then it kind of trickled down.”
Emelogu has even helped Johnson’s 2014 recruiting efforts, serving as the campus host for prospects Antonio Lang and Jalen Hudson before they orally committed to Virginia Tech over the past month.
“He just has those natural leadership qualities,” sophomore guard Adam Smith said last week. “Most recruits that come in, he’s the host and he gets them to commit. That doesn’t surprise me. Ben, it’s just natural for him. He talks a lot. He wants to be that leader. He doesn’t shy away from it, so I’m happy for him and I’m looking up to him.”
And if Emelogu seemed intimidated by the lights and cameras in Charlotte on Wednesday, he didn’t show it. As he prepared to return to Blacksburg, a day full of interviews complete, he made sure to stop by Johnson’s table to say, “Thanks for taking me.”
The coach couldn’t help but flash a grin, the first of what he hopes will be many milestones in the rearview mirror.