Virginia Tech men’s basketball Coach James Johnson figured his Hokies were bound to take some lumps this season. They were, after all, the consensus pick to finish last in the ACC.
He just never expected the bumps.
“I’m not sure what this team is really capable of yet because we haven’t had everybody together yet,” Johnson lamented Monday on the first ACC coaches’ teleconference of the year. “And I rarely have everyone together in practice.”
He will likely be shorthanded again Tuesday night when the Hokies welcome No. 2 Syracuse to Cassell Coliseum for the first time since the 1977-78 season. Johnson deemed starters C.J. Barksdale, Adam Smith and Marshall Wood “very questionable” with a laundry list of maladies.
Barksdale is battling knee and ankle injuries and came down with the flu since returning to the lineup in Virginia Tech’s 82-66 win over Maryland-Eastern Shore last week. He hasn’t practiced the past three days. Smith is dealing with a lingering calf injury that has forced him to miss three of the past five games, and Johnson admitted he’s beginning to wonder if it will become a season-long issue.
Wood, meanwhile, has also caught the flu bug in recent days and did not practice Monday.
According to the ACC, no team in the league has seen its players miss more games than the Hokies so far this season. With Smith sidelined, Virginia Tech (8-5) is down to just one point guard — freshman Devin Wilson — and it plagued the team in losses to Virginia Commonwealth and UNC Greensboro last month.
“It’s very difficult to kind of get a flow and get some continuity to an already young lineup,” said Johnson, who has also had to deal with guard Marquis Rankin’s decision to leave the program for personal reasons and an NCAA ruling that deemed freshman Malik Mueller ineligible before the season even began.
“The youth of the team is one [thing], but when you got a lineup on the floor and the guys get used to playing with each other, guys learn where guys are gonna be in certain situations, where guys are more comfortable scoring on the floor and what certain guys can do, and we just haven’t had that. We haven’t had it in practice, either.”
This latest wave of attrition couldn’t come at a worse time. In its debut season in the ACC, Syracuse (14-0) appears to be the favorite to win the league’s regular season title. The Orange is one of six teams in the country without a loss this year and feature weapons all over the floor.
Senior C.J. Fair, the ACC preseason player of the year, is leading the way with 17.2 points per game, but freshman Tyler Ennis has also been a revelation at point guard. He has 77 assists and just 17 turnovers through 14 games. Guard Trevor Cooney, a deadly three-point shooter, and forward Jerami Grant, an All-Met from DeMatha, are also averaging double figures in scoring for Syracuse.
Tuesday will also be former Virginia Tech assistant Adrian Autry’s first visit to Cassell Coliseum since leaving the Hokies to return to his alma mater, Syracuse, as an assistant two years ago. As for Boeheim’s return, his memory of the Orange’s 87-71 loss at Virginia Tech in January 1978 appears to be a bit hazy.
On Monday, he joked the Hokies “had a kid that could shoot by the name of Curry, I think it was. I’m not sure what happened to him or his sons, but he was pretty good.” Except Virginia Tech great Dell Curry didn’t get to Blacksburg until 1982.
Nonetheless, Boeheim hasn’t lost his touch on the floor. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone remains as long, and as active, as ever. The Hokies, who lead the ACC in three-point shooting this year, “are gonna have to be able to make shots,” Johnson noted.
They can also take solace that Miami, a team Virginia Tech beat on the road to start conference play last month, gave Syracuse fits in a 49-44 Orange victory this past weekend.
“What we prepare for is the best, their best,” Boeheim said of the Hokies. “We really don’t prepare for a team’s highs and lows. We expect a team’s going to play well against us. Miami had not played well in some games this year but they played very well against us.”