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Johnson era set to begin

The Virginia Tech basketball program will begin a new chapter in its history when the Hokies take the court on Saturday afternoon against East Tennessee State. After nine years on the sidelines, Seth Greenberg is out. Former assistant coach James Johnson is in.

James Johnson makes his debut as Virginia Tech's head coach Saturday when the Hokies play host to East Tennessee State. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m.

That is not the only thing that will be different about this year’s team.

Dorenzo Hudson and Victor Davila graduated. Dorian Finney-Smith and JT Thompson transferred. Even though Allan Chaney may have never been able to play at Virginia Tech, he transferred as well, and is now a part of the High Point basketball program. Prized recruit Montrezl Harrell decided that he no longer wanted to be a part of a program where Greenberg wasn’t.

The personnel changes left the Hokies with seven returning scholarship players, only one incoming freshman recruit, and now, five walk-ons. Not your typical ACC lineup. But while expectations among the regional and national media are low for the Hokies this season, and even with the known lineup deficiencies and lack of depth, the general feel around the program seems to be much more positive than it was just eight months ago. You can sense it in both the players and the coaches alike. They are ready for the season to start and excited to show off something completely new.

Johnson, a first-time head coach with a job in the ACC, is obviously happy to be in his new position and the players are very happy that he is now their leader.

“I’m excited, I’m excited,” Johnson said to the media on Monday. “I don’t know if I will be nervous, or if it’s excitement for me. Hopefully it’s excitement for the guys to come out and start the regular season and get to play against some outside competition, but it is going to be fun.”

His players echoed his sentiments.

“It is more excitement, more anticipation,” junior forward Jarell Eddie said. “We are just ready to play. We have played well in our scrimmages and we have played well in practice and we really worked hard this offseason. We are ready to see what happens this Saturday.”

Practices have been crisp. Intensity has been amplified. Effort has been a constant. The first few months for James Johnson’s team went almost exactly as the coach wished that they had.

“Just how hard the kids have been working … this has been a great group of guys. Coming into practice every single day, there is not one day that I have had to coach effort, and I am pretty pleased with that,” Johnson said. “As a coach when you come out on the floor and you can just concentrate on what you have on the practice schedule and getting to the things that you need to get on and you don’t have to worry about coaching effort or getting guys to play hard … I think that is a big plus for this team right now.”

Learning a new system can be tough, and from the sounds of it, the system will certainly be different. The stand around half court offense that Tech fans grew accustomed to under Greenberg is going to be a thing of the past. “Up-tempo”, “intensity”, “pressure”, and “in your face” are all words and phrases that will need to become a part of Hokie fan’s vocabulary.

While at times Greenberg may have preached those things, Johnson seems set on accomplishing them.

“We are definitely (going to be doing stuff differently this year),” Eddie said. “We aren’t going to use as much time on the shot clock. There won’t be as much of guys standing around, waiting on the play to happen. It is more in transition, faster paced, and the set plays are faster plays, quick hitters. It is more just ‘play basketball.’”

“(Johnson) is much faster paced,” walk-on forward Christian Beyer said. “He wants to push the ball, transition, stuff like that, whereas Greenberg was more just play call, half-court versus actually pushing the ball. We have some great athletes. Coach Johnson is focusing on transition, running fast and playing a quick, up-tempo game (to take advantage of that).”

Johnson said that it took the team quicker to pick up on the offensive changes than it has the defensive changes.

“I think that always, offensively, the guys want the ball in their hands where they can score the basketball, and defense is kind of usually behind when you start doing things in practice. I think that now they have kind of picked up on the offensive game plan better than they have the defensive game plan but I don’t think the defense is far behind. We are getting better; there are just certain things that we are trying to do that are new for us, so we have to continue to work on it.”

In almost every facet, however, Johnson’s team of hard workers has surpassed the coach’s expectations that he had heading into fall practice.

“Different parts of the game, as far as picking up the system, effort wise, and working hard every day, they are further along than I thought,” Johnson said. “I think that picking up the offensive system and wanting to run and sprint to our spots every play, I think we are further along that I thought we would be right now. Defensively, I think we are right where I thought we would be with the way we are going to play and how we want to change and do some things with our scheme. We aren’t where we need to be but we are where I thought we would be at this point and we still have a week to prepare for game situations.”

Johnson stated that his starting lineup will be Erick Green, Robert Brown, Jarell Eddie, CJ Barksdale and Cadarian Raines, as expected, with freshman Marshall Wood being the team’s sixth man. Obviously, with only having eight scholarship players, the team needed some walk-ons to step up in practice and provide some playable depth at certain positions.

This was an issue that Johnson was hoping to answer before the season started. Johnson needed one or multiple of Joey Racer (Sr.), Will Johnston (Soph.), Christian Beyer (Soph.), Marcus Patrick (Fr.) and Greg Donlon (Fr.) to show that they could provide him some minutes when needed. He feels like he has been given those answers.

“I feel comfortable with all of the walk-ons; they have done a great job,” Johnson said. “They’ve come in, they’ve worked hard, they’ve picked up the schemes, and I have no worries with those guys. Will Johnston is a guy that, you know, he was with us for most of the year last year, and he is a guy that has shown he can shoot the basketball in certain situations.
Christian Beyer gives us another body up front, a 6-foot-7 athletic kid who can stretch the defense with his shooting ability. Those two guys have had some really good practices and they may or may not get an opportunity.

“If I put them in the game, I am expecting them to play the way that we want them to play. I am not expecting them to just go in and spell guys minutes. If they go in the game, whoever goes in the game, I want them to be ready to play Virginia Tech basketball the way we want to play. Whether it is scholarship or non-scholarship guys, I expect them to execute the game plan and do what we want done.”

East Tennessee State is Virginia Tech’s first opponent. On Monday, Johnson hadn’t really begun looking at film of the Bucs’, but he and his staff plan on hitting it very hard over the next few days.

The 2009 and 2010 Atlantic Sun conference tournament champions, from two hours down I-81 in Johnson City, Tenn., could easily pose an early threat to the Hokies.

“We haven’t been able to do a whole lot just yet; it is still just basically concentrating on ourselves and trying to get better,” Johnson said. “We took yesterday (Sunday) and we will take today (Monday), the guys will have off Tuesday and then really dive into East Tennessee State on Wednesday. Murry Bartow is a great coach. He had a lot of success at UAB and he has had a lot of success at East Tennessee State. They have been to the NCAA tournament, so they are going to be a well-coached team, we know that.

“They have a couple of guards back from last year and they had a very good recruiting class, with a couple of junior college kids, some older kids with experience playing college basketball. It’s going to be a tough game for us, opening game, new system, new coach, our guys are probably going to have a little bit of jitters. We’ll get to the nuts and bolts of East Tennessee State on Wednesday, and we’ll start as a staff Tuesday, we have already started breaking down some of it but with the guys being off we will be in the office just grinding away.“

It is always interesting to hear players and coaches takes on expectations for their team heading into a season. Johnson wants to see his team get better every day. The players feel like they have something major to prove.

“I want to see this team continue to get better,” Johnson said. “I want to see this team continue to learn and get better every day whether it is practice or game situations, and that is one of the things that I have been really pleased with. I can’t say that we have come in and taken a day off, I can’t say that we have come in and taken a step backwards. There were days where I thought we came in and maybe stayed the same, but for the most part we have been getting better every day and that is what I expect from this team every day throughout the entire season.”

“We are going to surprise a lot of people,” Eddie said confidently. “I know that the media hasn’t given us a lot of credit and they are counting us out. I feel like we are going to surprise a lot of people.”

Tip-off at Cassell Coliseum is set for 2 p.m. Saturday.

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