Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: New, high-speed Hokies deserve national ranking

BLACKSBURG - Go ahead, rank 'em. Even if the voters don't this week. Even if there aren't enough teams at the bottom of the Top 25 that fall, creating space for a 7-0 interloper from Blacksburg that was supposed to do next to nothing this year.

Rank these Virginia Tech Hokies in your mind, because they deserve it. New coach James Johnson deserves it. Point guard Erick Green deserves it. Jarell Eddie and Robert Brown and Marshall Wood and Cadarian Raines and all the rest - they deserve it.

The Hokies are good. They proved it Saturday by beating No. 15 Oklahoma State 81-71 to punctuate their best start in 30 years. They cemented it by playing through foul trouble to Green, by holding their composure when things got heated, and by limiting a future NBA first-round pick to 5-of-15 shooting.

Most of us have taken a wait-and-see attitude with this group, and for good reason. The Hokies were picked to finish 10th in the 12-team ACC by the media and coaches in the preseason. They finished tied for last in the conference last year with mostly these same players. The defections of Dorian Finney-Smith and top recruit Montrezl Harrell following the coaching change didn't inspire confidence.

The Hokies opened this season with five straight wins, but hadn't played anybody. Then they beat Iowa on Tuesday night - better, but still no jaw-dropper.

Saturday was the one that removed the "buts."

"I think we've put it to rest," Green said, after scoring 28 points in 26 minutes. "I think people can now see that we can play with anybody. We've just got to keep it up, man. Consistency is the key in this league."

Confidence, too. And if there's one huge difference between this year and last, it's confidence.

That starts with the coach. Johnson exudes confidence in everything he does.

"He always comes to practice with a positive attitude," Brown said. "He always has too much energy maybe sometimes, but we feed off of that. He comes in there loud, clapping, yelling, and the team picks up on that."

In effect, Johnson swept all the eggshells off the Cassell Coliseum floor. Players don't have to watch their step like they did under Seth Greenberg, fearing the big eruption. They're just playing.

Rank 'em, because it's working.

On the day the Tech football team normally would be playing in the ACC title game in Charlotte, a boisterous crowd of more than 7,500 showed up to spur on the victory. They booed star OSU point guard Marcus Smart every time he touched the ball in the second half. They roared during Tech's 14-4 run that gave the Hokies the lead for good.

"I was really impressed with the environment," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said.

"I was really impressed with the student section, the crowd. That was an impressive crowd for early December."

And when it was over, Johnson could be found walking down the hallway with his arm around director of football recruiting Jim Cavanaugh.

Think things have changed around here a little bit?

Johnson insisted that "I'm not proving anything," but he is. He's proving that he can steer these guys through adversity against quality teams. He's proving that his offense, which has averaged 87 points a game, can work with these athletes.

Ford pointed out that the Hokies are running many of the same sets they did when they played Oklahoma State last year. The difference, he said, is that they're playing faster and making more shots.

There's another difference: They're not whining. They're not begging for calls from the officials. On that, too, they are taking their cues from their leader.

"I want the guys to play through," Johnson said. "Those officials have a tough job. My guys, their job is to go out there and play basketball. Their job is not to coach the team. Their job is not to officiate the game. Their job is to play basketball and to execute offensively and defensively."

There's a long way to go in this season. Tech still needs to show it can beat a quality team on the road. Tech still needs to experience the intense pressure of ACC play. Any injuries to this depth-shy group could be disastrous for the Hokies.

But for now, you can rank 'em. They've earned nothing less.

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