Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tenets of Tech are intact

BLACKSBURG If you liked where Virginia Tech basketball was heading before this month, you're in luck.

Very little will change under new coach James Johnson. Not the players, not the style of play, not the recruiting base or philosophy.

Oh, there will be tweaks. Though he didn't get into specifics, Johnson did say there are some little things he will do differently than Seth Greenberg did. But the basic on-court tenets of Tech basketball for the past nine years - play hard defense, try to find easy baskets, run when you can - remain.

How many times have we seen that? Ever? Think about it: A guy gets fired, and the man replacing him wants, essentially, to continue on the same path the program was on before. No radical speeches about a "new era." No grandiose predictions of future glory.

"We're just going to keep grinding away," Johnson said, when asked about trying to take the team to the next level.

That's even a Greenberg word "grinding."

Guys who replace their former bosses typically don't borrow their idioms. Think back to a few years ago in Charlottesville, when ex-Al Groh assistant Mike London took over the football program at UVa. Do you remember that news conference? Do you recall how many times London said he appreciated Groh's tutelage but wants to be his own man, carve out his own legacy, do things his own way?

Johnson made no major attempt to draw that line of demarcation. There are classy ways to say "I want to be nothing like that other guy," and he never uttered them.

And the difference is that there isn't as much broken with Tech basketball as there was for UVa football at the time London took over.

People can see the recruiting classes improving - something Johnson played a key role in. They watched the Hokies take Duke to overtime in Cameron Indoor Stadium last season, even in a rebuilding year. They know this team isn't that far from being an NCAA tournament participant.

"I think this team's got a chance to be pretty good," Johnson said. "We've got a veteran guard in Erick Green coming back - an all-league player. We've got a post player in Cadarian Raines, who came on strong at the end of the season. And we've got a good group of young kids that grew up a little bit last year."

And all of them were advocates for Johnson, which held more clout than anything.

If we needed any confirmation that Greenberg's firing wasn't about on-court performance, it came in the form of Johnson's news conference Tuesday. Tech sacrificed experience for the sake of a different personality, but not a different kind of strategist.

"It had nothing to do with wins and losses," Tech athletic director Jim Weaver said after the presser, repeating a statement he made last week.

For all parties involved, though, the winning needs to start now. What would have been Greenberg's make-or-break year now becomes Johnson's opportunity - and his burden.

The players who heavily influenced the hire have an obligation to give Johnson every ounce of sweat to make it look good. Johnson has to show he's equipped to handle the bigger responsibility. Weaver needs his see his hunch - that the team was heading in the right direction, so retention of players was paramount - confirmed.

"I would hope that the transition would be a little less than normal, but to define that in terms of games or wins is very difficult," Weaver said. "But I think hitting the road running because coach knows players and players know coach, and understands expectations - will help."

While Tech lost some positives when it fired Greenberg - a nationally recognized and vocal advocate for the program foremost among them - there are things Greenberg did that can be done better.

The plays he drew up late in late-game huddles rarely seemed to work, leading to a slew of close losses. We'll see what Johnson's got with the pen and whiteboard.

The Greenberg-led Hokies had a tendency to play to their competition level, leading to magnificent upsets and debilitating defeats at bad times. We'll see if Johnson can foster more game-to-game, week-to-week consistency.

But most of all, we'll see if Tech really was one year away. It's the same bunch, really - right down to the way they'll be led.

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