Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Basketball coach James Johnson's goal is to bring joy to Hokies

BLACKSBURG -- James Johnson's message to his Virginia Tech basketball team, essentially, is to approach each day with a mindset of gratitude.

Give thanks, in other words. Even when the sweat is pouring off your brow in practice, give thanks. Even when the game isn't going quite the way you want, give thanks.

In the first-year coach's mind, basketball is a lot better when you approach it as an opportunity to be cherished.

"That's one of the things we've talked about: having fun," Johnson said Tuesday, a day after his Hokies improved to 4-0 with a win at UNC Greensboro. "Playing hard and having fun. Enjoying the game. Enjoying being at Virginia Tech. Enjoying playing for Virginia Tech and playing in the ACC.

"That's a big thing for these young men, and they need to really enjoy doing that. You don't get every day to play basketball in the ACC. รข? You need to take advantage of that every time you step on the floor."

So far, the Hokies have, albeit against a less-than-formidable quartet of East Tennessee State, Rhode Island, VMI and UNCG.

But hey, we don't need to get too picky around here. Not when the football team is suffering through its worst season in two decades. Not when the basketball team is coming off a 16-17 (4-12 ACC) season last year and needs only to beat Appalachian State at home on Friday to complete its first 5-0 start since 1984-85.

Besides, if recent blog traffic is any indication, people are ready to talk about this team much earlier than usual. Maybe it's the new coach. Maybe it's the new up-tempo system. Maybe it's the lack of an ACC championship opportunity in football.

Maybe it's all of it.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that Johnson's Hokies have been long on excitement and short on regrets so far. They're averaging 85 points per game.

They entered Wednesday tied for 10th in the nation (and first in the ACC) with 42 3-pointers made. More importantly, they've connected on 46 percent of their shots beyond the arc - good for seventh in the country.

Is that sustainable when Tech plays better competition? Probably not. But it's a good start to a new way of thinking in Blacksburg.

"If it's a good shot for them, a shot that I've seen them work on, a shot that they've been in the gym working on that we consider a good shot for them, take it," Johnson said. "Take it. Take it.

"If they miss it and the shot comes again? Take it again. I don't want them out there thinking and passing up shots. I want them confident. If it's there, take it. And that's been good, because we haven't forced a lot of shots and we've been unselfish."

Point guard Erick Green has been predictably strong, averaging 23.8 points per game and making half his 3-point attempts. But the best news is three other players - Jarell Eddie, Robert Brown and Cadarian Raines - are averaging double figures in scoring, too.

"I'm starting to think we've got some guys that can score the basketball," Johnson said. "It's just happening that we're getting some open looks from 3 and we're knocking them down, but we do have some guys that can score the basketball in different ways."

Johnson already has noticed teams starting to adjust to his new offense - they'll shout out calls in response to things they've seen on film, for instance - so he's going to tweak things accordingly to keep it unpredictable.

The full-speed, shoot-early style of play that Green recently compared to his old AAU days is looking much like Johnson envisioned when he took over.

"There's a little method to our madness there," Johnson said. "We have certain spots that guys got to get to on the floor. There's certain spacing we have to have to make certain things work, make the ball-screen action work, make the post-up options available. So it's not just running up and down the floor and they can do whatever."

But freedom is key. And for Johnson, who knows the team represents him and his way of thinking for the first time in his career, the stomach is churning a little more during the games.

"Yeah, it is," he said with a smile. "Before the game, during the game, it is a little bit. It's fun. It's different, but it's fun."

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