The Washington Post

Virginia Tech basketball vs. West Virginia: Hokies blazing new trail under James Johnson

“We practice so that those guys, when they get on stage, it’s Broadway. It’s their time. Go play,” Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson said. (Daniel Lin/Associated Press)

Before every practice begins, Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson gathers his players in a circle near midcourt. It’s not quite a huddle, but close enough for Johnson to look into their eyes and try to get a read on what could be troubling them.

Only seven games into his head coaching career, Johnson has worries that run the gamut, from shooting slumps to missed classes to “they thought they were gonna get a phone number from a girl and didn’t get it. How are they gonna respond to that?” he said this week. “So yeah, I’m curious.”

What Johnson doesn’t concern himself with, though, is the growing curiosity surrounding Virginia Tech basketball after the Hokies beat then-No. 15 Oklahoma State last Saturday to cement their best start (7-0) in 30 years.

He won’t talk about how Virginia Tech could be ranked in the top 25 with a victory over West Virginia on Saturday in its first real road test of the year. He won’t discuss the fact that since 2006, the Hokies have gone 2-7 in games immediately following a win over a ranked opponent. He has barely even brought up the rivalry between Virginia Tech and West Virginia, who used to face each other annually in football for the Black Diamond Trophy.

None of that matters to a coach that has taken a “one day at a time” approach since watching critics blast his hiring last April as two high-level recruits left for other schools.

“This is a new team. New guys. New coach. New style,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to carve out our own niche.”

If the Hokies have proven one thing, though, it’s that they have an elite point guard. Senior Erick Green is currently No. 3 in the nation at 24.9 points per game while also dishing out 4.4 assists per contest. He has been named co-ACC player of the week the past two weeks.

He’s also not the only one benefiting from Johnson’s up-tempo methods, which has the Hokies averaging more points and more possessions per game than they ever did under former Coach Seth Greenberg. Forward Jarell Eddie is third in ACC at more than 17 points per game and guard Robert Brown isn’t far behind at 13.4.

But so far this season, none of them have faced the sort of atmosphere they’ll encounter Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va. This will be the first meeting on the hardwood between Virginia Tech and West Virginia since 2004, and the 14,000-seat WVU Coliseum has been sold out for a week.

Eddie is already predicting “by far the most hostile environment we’ve played in.” But sticking to his overall message, Johnson claims not to be worried about how his troops will react to such circumstances.

“We practice so that those guys, when they get on stage, it’s Broadway. It’s their time. Go play,” Johnson said.

That sense of freedom has helped Green burst onto the scene nationally following another breakout performance last weekend against Oklahoma State. But unlike his coach, Green was already concerned about the future, moments after that resounding upset.

The Winchester native stood among a few reporters in the locker room and, unprompted, reflected on how “we can beat this team and lose to West Virginia like we’ve done in the past.” He then spent the rest of the week talking with Eddie, his roommate, about how good it feels for Virginia Tech basketball to be back in the spotlight.

Neither want it to end.

“We already know, man, how it feels to be an underdog. Never get attention. And we always talk about, we don’t want to go back that route,” Green said. “Everything’s good now. We’re winning. People come to see our game, supporting us, loving us. I kind of want to stick to that route.

“We’re staying hungry. 7-0? That’s not good enough. We’re not even in the top 25. I want to try to be a top 10 team.”

Mark Giannotto is a Montgomery County native who covers high school sports for The Washington Post. He previously covered Virginia and Virginia Tech football for five years.



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