8:02 PM PST, November 27, 2012
BLACKSBURG — The undefeated record was cool. So, too, the rapid-fire offense. But Virginia Tech's Hokies realized the obvious: Their early opponents were pedestrian at best. Anything less than a 5-0 start would have been an indictment.
Tuesday was different, an ACC-Big Ten Challenge visit from Iowa. Granted, the Hawkeyes aren't likely to be top-25 material, or even NCAA tournament worthy, but they certainly were an upgrade in competition.
"We were really looking forward to it," guard Robert Brown said. "We knew we were a good team. Playing against Iowa, another good team that's really big, gave us another hurdle to get over. We did it kind of convincingly, I guess."
Oh, there's no guesswork here. The Hokies wore out the Hawkeyes 95-79 at Cassell Coliseum to match their best start in 30 years.
And so as December beckons, Tech's basketball team (6-0) has won as many games as its football squad (6-6). How many of y'all had that parlay back in September?
Defeat awaits the Hokies, as it does every team, perhaps as early as Saturday when they host No. 15 Oklahoma State, conqueror of preseason favorite North Carolina State. How Tech and rookie head coach James Johnson will respond to said adversity, and even more challenging competition, is unknown.
But this much we know: Johnson's preseason chatter about making over the offense was not idle. The Hokies run like they haven't since Charlie Moir coached them during the 1980s, and while they lapse too often on defense, they are absolutely worth the price of admission.
Tech entered the game ranked ninth nationally in scoring at 85.4 points per game. The Hokies have cracked 95 three of the last four games, and they've scored at least 80 in four consecutive outings for the first time in 18 years.
"I try to preach confidence every day," Johnson said, "whether it be in practice or anything we do."
It shows. The Hokies play with a freedom, indeed a joy, rarely seen under former coach Seth Greenberg.
"It's fun, but it's also a lot of hard work," Brown said. "A lot of conditioning went into it. We're getting results, the fans are happy. It's fun playing for Coach Johnson."
Brown (18 points) and backcourt mate Erick Green (24) led Tech's offense combined to make 14-of-23 shots from the field and 13-of-14 free throws. But Johnson was most pleased with his front line.
C.J. Barksdale, Cadarian Raines and freshman Joey van Zegeren combined for 30 points and 16 rebounds as Tech outboarded Iowa 36-30.
"Unbelievable job," Johnson called it.
The Hokies' speed and freedom on offense emerged late in the half when they scored 10 points in 1:33, a binge that gave them a 46-38 intermission advantage. Green and Brown forced the tempo at every turn, forcing the slower Hawkeyes (5-2) to foul – coach Fran McCaffery's protests notwithstanding.
Tech's defense was sketchy – Iowa had four dunks in the opening 20 minutes – but the Hokies minimized the damage with rugged rebounding.
The Hokies were cruising at 55-38 after Green scored the first nine points of the second half. But Tech went cold against Iowa's 2-3 zone, and compounded the problem with tame defense.
Seven consecutive Hawkeye makes trimmed the deficit to 57-54 before Green and Brown pushed the lead back to double figures.
"We had a tired team at that point," McCaffery said.
That's what the Hokies want. They believe their conditioning can trump their inexperience and lack of depth.
"I don't think a lot of teams run like we run," Green said. "We're just playing great basketball right now."
Great is an overstatement, but after last season's 16-17 finish, Green's enthusiasm is understandable and welcome.
"It's terrific, it's terrific, van Zegeren said of Tech's pace. "The fun helps a lot with the grind every day in practice."
The Hokies have plenty of practice time to prep for their sternest test to date Saturday in Oklahoma State.
"That's a good challenge for us," Green said. "We're ready."
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