Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson didn’t have his in-state rival in mind when he decided to remake the Hokies into a team at the other end of the basketball spectrum from Virginia.
When Johnson was hired to replace former Hokies Coach Seth Greenberg last May, he ignored a depleted roster and immediately began implementing a program built on fast breaks and offensive freedom. Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett couldn’t be different. He preaches patience and defense, and admits only three players on this year’s team have a “green light” to shoot.
“Tony, basically all his coaching career, that’s the way he’s played and that’s the way I envisioned when I became a head coach,” Johnson said this week. “I did not have any thoughts about how they played up the road there. We’re just trying to play the way that I would like to play, and try to play to the strengths of what we have here on this team.”
But the contrast between the programs has added a fascinating new story line to the Hokies’ first meeting with the Cavaliers this season Thursday night in Blacksburg. The two teams have split their past 12 meetings. Each sports identical 2-2 records in ACC play this season, with encouraging wins and surprising setbacks that currently have them on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament conversation.
Johnson’s approach has allowed point guard Erick Green (Paul VI Catholic) to lead the nation in scoring (24.6 points per game) thus far. Bennett, meanwhile, has the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, currently on pace to allow the second-fewest points per game (50.4) in ACC history.
“We haven’t been scoring too well ourselves, so we better play good defense,” Bennett joked this week.
The Cavaliers have held four teams below 40 points this year, most recently limiting Florida State to 36 this past Saturday, the fewest the Seminoles have scored since 1979. The impressive victory continued a roller coaster season for Virginia, which has won at Wisconsin and beat North Carolina, but went 0-3 against Colonial Athletic Association teams in nonconference play.
But offensive efficiency has eluded the Cavaliers at times, a detriment excaerbated by their methodical pace. They average fewer than 60 possessions per game, which ranks 344th out of 347 Division I teams, and haven’t shot better than 40.4 percent in all five of their losses this year.
“When we’re locked in on both ends of the floor, we’re a very hard team to beat,” said Virginia point guard Jontel Evans, who will likely draw the assignment of slowing down Green.
Few have had success doing that through 17 games. Green has been held to less than 20 points just once this year, even though the Hokies have increasingly seen opponents break out new defensive strategies to stop him as the season progresses.
Recently, opponents have elected to double-team the Winchester native whenever he comes off ball screens, forcing him to trust his teammates. Johnson equates it to football, where Green has to read blitzes like a quarterback, noting that “he’s doing a good job of picking his spots when he can score, picking his spots to get his other teammates involved, too.”
As a result, forward Jarell Eddie, guard Robert Brown and even backup point guard Marquis Rankin have each knocked down late baskets as Virginia Tech reeled off two close wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest after beginning the conference season 0-2.
“Well, he learned from a good one in [former Virginia Tech guard] Malcolm Delaney, how to score and get to the free throw line,” Bennett said of Green this week. “He’s just complete. You can’t say, ‘Well, if we take this thing away from him, then he’s in trouble.’ ”
Which only makes the latest installment of this rivalry all the more intriguing.