For 6:34 a.m., and for a rookie head coach whose program lost two key players this week, Virginia Tech’s James Johnson sure was chipper Friday morning.
And he wasn’t calling from his kitchen as the coffee brewed. He was at his desk, already having navigated the extra campus security accompanying Michelle Obama’s commencement address.
“You have to get up early to beat the Hokies,” he said with a laugh, probably not the first or last time he’s used that line.
Johnson was returning my call to discuss Tech’s latest defection: November signee Montrezl Harrell, a power forward from North Carolina and the MVP of the Capital Classic all-star game.
Harrell’s decision, and the transfer of freshman forward Dorian Finney-Smith, rob the Hokies of their most acclaimed recruits of the past two years. It leaves them with eight scholarship players for next season and represents a rocky start for Johnson, appointed less than two weeks ago to replace the fired Seth Greenberg.
Although athletic director Jim Weaver cited player retention as among his reasons for hiring Johnson, an assistant to Greenberg the past five seasons, neither departure surprised the new head coach.
He knew Finney-Smith had long been considering a transfer, and after meeting with Harrell the day after his introductory news conference, Johnson sensed trouble.
“When you’ve recruited as long as I have,” he said, “you can tell when a kid likes you. I could tell he was wavering.”
And recruiting is what Johnson and his freshly minted staff – Kurt Kanaskie, Mark Byington and Ramon Williams were announced Thursday – are doing as you read. Although most prospects are spoken for, Johnson hopes to add a post player and guard to next season’s roster.
“With the staff in place, I think that helps,” Johnson said. “We’re looking at all options. Foreign kids, transfers, graduate guys.”
A typical transfer would have to sit out a year. A transfer who has graduated but hasn’t completed his eligibility could play immediately.
The same day Johnson met with Harrell, he also huddled with Marshall Wood, Tech’s other signee. Wood elected to remain a Hokie, and his rapid development is imperative if Tech (16-17, 4-12) is to avoid a second consecutive losing season.
Johnson described the 6-foot-8, 210-pound Wood as a “stretch four,” a forward tall enough to play in the post but rangy enough to stretch defenses
“He’ll be one of the best shooters we have,” Johnson said.
Johnson projects Wood as the Hokies’ top frontcourt reserve next season. His likely starters: Erick Green, Robert Brown and Jarell Eddie on the perimeter, Cadarian Raines and C.J. Barksdale inside. Redshirt freshman Joey van Zegeren, the tallest Hokie at 6-10, will specialize in blocking shots, while Marquis Rankin brings a defensive presence off the bench at guard.
“Those eight guys are pretty good,” Johnson said. “We just don’t have depth and we can’t afford any injuries.”
Eddie is a big-league shooter who needs to improve his mid-range game. He shot 44.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc last season but only 40.2 percent inside.
Raines flourished late in the season after center Victor Davila was lost to a groin injury. Over the Hokies’ final seven games, he averaged 11 points, 4.4 rebounds and 32.6 minutes while shooting 57.4 percent.
Brown certainly wasn’t bashful as a freshman, hoisting nearly seven shots per game in just 22 minutes. But he needs to dramatically improve his 36.2-percent accuracy. He averaged 6.8 points, slightly more than Finney-Smith, and scored 16 on 6-of-9 shooting in a season-ending loss to Duke in the ACC tournament.
Barksdale may need to take the biggest jump. He averaged 11.8 minutes as a freshman, contributing 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. If he’s not ready to start, perhaps Wood will be.
For now, Johnson is incurably optimistic, at least for public consumption.
“We’ve got to plow on,” he said. “There will be times when I get down, but I can’t let it affect how I handle my guys. We’re going to be confident and loose and really defend. That’s how I was as a player. When I walk onto the floor, I want to be upbeat.”
Even before sunrise.
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