As the calendar turns more toward basketball, we take aim at our next hoops opponent, who just happens to be a familiar face: the Virginia Tech Hokies.
These Q&As are a little more sporadic during basketball, as the quantity of games and familiarity of opponents helps water down much of the content. But thanks to the Virginia Tech SBNation blog Gobbler Country who reached out about Saturday's sold-out game, we have an excellent rundown of what to expect from the Coliseum against our old Big East nemesis.
Country Roads: The 7-0 start, capped by a recent 81-71 win over the Big 12's Oklahoma State, ranked 15th at the time, has been a surprise for many folks around the country. Has it been as big of a surprise for Hokie fans?
Gobbler Country: Yes, it has been an absolute and complete surprise, and any person outside of the locker room saying otherwise is a liar. Very many people had abandoned this team, and I had soured on them as well. I had picked them being anywhere from a 10-15 win team. It's not I didn't believe that the players that the Hokies have aren't good ones, it's that I didn't believe they had enough players that could contribute regularly. It's still going to take a lot of minutes from those top guys, and the team went pretty much dead without Erick Green on the floor (despite what Coach Johnson said), but knowing that guys like Will Johnston, Joey Van Zegeren and Marshall Wood have stepped up their play is a big reason that this team is 7-0 and I feel much more confident in the Hokies than I did at the beginning of the season.
CR: Erick Green has been ridiculous in leading VT to that hot start, pouring in almost 25 points a game. Obviously he's going to be the focus of the WVU defense, but who else should the Mountaineers be worried about?
GC: They should worry about Jarell Eddie and Robert Brown from deep. Eddie is shooting 53% from deep and Brown is just south of 40%. Both are dangerous, but Eddie is the more polished shooter, and often hits shots of the "are you kidding me?" variety. Brown has a penchant to chuck it from deep, even when his shot isn't going for him, but he has improved his overall game and it has showed over the last couple of weeks more than ever. He is great in the lane with a floater or to go to the rim to throw it down. Also, when Cadarian Raines gets deep in the post, you can almost mark it that he's going to score, something entirely different than early in his career when finishing was a monumental task for him. He's a big body, and when he gets on the boards he's even more dangerous. He provides a lot of second-chance opportunities for the Hokies offensively. Also, don't forget Will Johnston. He hasn't taken any shot other than a 3-pointer yet, but has hit 60% of his 3-point shots.
CR: The hiring of James Johnson, a former Hokie assistant under former coach Seth Greenberg who had just taken a promotion at Clemson before accepting the head gig in Blacksburg, is a bit of a curiosity to outsiders. What is the feeling among Hokie fans on his hire, and what else besides the 7-0 start gives you confidence that he can take you to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis?
GC: I've gone on ad nauseam in the past about the circumstances of Greenberg's firing, and I'll still stick to that. But I never wished any ill will on him or wanted him not to succeed just to prove a point. I just wasn't sure it was going to happen. It's too early to be anointing Johnson the saver of Virginia Tech basketball, but the early returns have been positive. Extremely positive. As for him taking the Clemson job, it actually wasn't a promotion, just more pay (Tech had been criminally underpaying their assistants, and least from a competitive standpoint), and the exodus of assistants was one of the reasons Greenberg was supposedly fired. As far as his hiring, I liked it. Obviously when several players vowed to transfer if anyone else was the hire (some in secret but later professed it to be the case), he was the only choice they really could have made. And given the timing of the firing, that was even more so the case. Tech fans loved the hire, but most Tech fans, most of which had not been to a basketball game prior to his arrival on campus, had so much vitriol against Greenberg that they would have accepted a mass murderer over him. I think that regarding the NCAA Tournament question, this year feels different because the Hokies have a true quality out of conference win, something the Hokies could say maybe once or twice under Greenberg. That has been one of the Achilles heel's (supposedly) that has kept them out in previous years. But there's still a long way to go, and even with the great start, this could all fizzle out, and past this year, who knows what will happen. I like what I've seen so far, but it's way too early to be talking about future NCAA tourney bids for this team.
CR: Can we put the Black Diamond Trophy on the line? Please? Syracuse doesn't want to risk losing the Schwartzwalder Trophy in the Pinstripe Bowl and our trophy case is looking a little bare. And after not playing Pitt for the first time in like 100 years, we're in need of a good rivalry. Do Tech fans miss playing WVU at all in football? Does this basketball series provide any nostalgia?
GC: Hell yes. I have wanted to have games with West Virginia ever since we last left it in 2005. That is among the games I miss the most, and in the last 10 years or so, the basketball program at WVU has elevated to the point where it would always be a quality win if the Hokies were able to pull it off. And yeah, plenty of Nostalgia there. I think I enjoyed the 2003-04 series the best. It was Greenberg's first season at the helm, and the Hokies swept the Mountaineers in close, grind-it-out games.
CR: Cop-out here: how about a prediction? The Mounties stumbled out of the gate but have looked better in wins over VMI and Marshall. This one is in Morgantown, and in front of a sold out WVU Coliseum crowd. Do the Hokies keep rolling?
GC: It's going to be tough given that this is the Hokies first true road test of the season, but most of the guys that are playing now played big minutes a year ago and experienced hostile road environments, so it should be nothing new. I think the Hokies will win simply because of their pace. I think they'll out-shoot the Mountaineers, who have not been great in that department early on, but things like depth and home court advantage will keep it close.
Thanks again to chicagomaroon from Gobbler Country for taking a minute to answer our questions. Be sure to head over there for my answers to their questions, requisite smack talk, nostalgia, and all your Hokie needs.