By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. — Click here for video
For years the ACC was the best basketball conference in the nation.
Thanks to the addition of four Big East schools in the next two years, Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson feels like those days are back again.
Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame will be part of the ACC next season, with Louisville following for the 2014-15 campaign.
“It is definitely going to be the number one conference,” Johnson said. “It has made my job harder, but your players want to play the best, the coaches want to coach against the best so I am excited about it.
“I know my team is excited about it. We are talking to incoming recruits and young kids and everything is about this league.”
Johnson, who just completed his first season in charge of the Hokies’ basketball team, was at Fincastle Country Club on Thursday night as part of the Virginia Tech Orange & Maroon Tour.
He was greeted by more than 100 members of the Bluefield Hokie Club, an event the former Ferrum College standout was excited to attend. Johnson was at Ferrum at the same time as former Tazewell and Major League pitcher Billy Wagner.
“I am a people person and definitely getting to know our alumni and our supporters and the people that back the program is very, very important to me,” Johnson said. “They mean a lot to me, they mean a lot to our guys and what they are able to do.
“Their support helps us to do some of the things we are able to do for these young men.”
Shane Beamer, Virginia Tech’s associate head football coach and running backs coach was expected to join Johnson in Bluefield, but was ill and unable to attend.
It was just days after the same event last April when Johnson was hired to replace Seth Greenberg, a position he accepted after briefly leaving the Hokies to accept an assistant’s position at Clemson.
“Definitely a dream for me to get the head coaching job at Virginia Tech,” said Johnson, who served as an assistant for five years with Greenberg with the Hokies. “I grew up in Virginia, I watched ACC basketball growing up when it was Raycom Sports and you had a game of the week on a Saturday at 1 o’clock.
“I went to Ferrum College which is not too far from a legend from this area, Billy Wagner. For me to come back and be the head coach at the state university, three hours from where I grew up, in the ACC, I am extremely excited about that and being the leader of the program right now.”
It was a trying first season for Johnson, whose Hokies finished with a 13-19 record and a 4-14 mark in the ACC. However, the Hokies were hampered by having just eight scholarship players and more than its share of injuries and illnesses that eventually at least had some fault in a nine-game losing streak late in the campaign.
“As the season goes on, it is the grind and you are playing top-level competition every night, you have got to practice and prepare and the bodies kind of wear down a little bit,” Johnson said. “As you go on and you get into games in the ACC, the bodies become a little bigger and stronger and faster and more athletic.”
Virginia Tech did start 7-0, and that had Hokies’ fans excited, as evidenced by the raucous crowd that filled Cassell Coliseum for a win over then No. 15-Oklahoma State.
“If you read the quotes from (Oklahoma State head coach) Travis Ford, and he talked about how great the crowd was and it was a tough place to play,” Johnson said. “The crowd was always behind these guys through 7-0 and when we lost that nine in a row, the crowd was still with us.
“I think they understand where we are coming from and what we have got to do and what we are trying to do.”
Despite having to use walk-ons and inexperienced players for an extended period at times, Johnson did feel like his club played hard throughout the season, even taking North Carolina to overtime, and falling at N.C. State by just four points.
“I was really pleased with the way we competed, we came in and practiced hard every day. Preparation for the games was great by my coaching staff and by the players and in the games,” Johnson said. “We competed in every single game.
“Sometimes we weren’t able to put the ball in the hole or we wore down a little bit, but as far as the competitive standpoint, we did every night.”
Especially senior guard Erick Green, who led the nation in scoring and earned ACC Player of the Year honors and third-team All-America recognition.
“He had a special year...,” Johnson said. “He deserved it, no one was more deserving than that young man and how hard he worked. He went from averaging 2 points a game to leading the nation in scoring, that is a special year.”
Johnson, who will lose Green to graduation, will still have a young team next season, but at least there will be more of them. He has added six freshmen and sophomore transfer Adam Smith from North Carolina-Wilmington.
He will add them to such holdovers as lone seniors Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines, and junior C.J. Barksdale and Marquis Rankin.
“We addressed a lot of needs, we got some guards, we got some size, we got some athletic ability, it is a deep group, it is a talented group, but it is a young group,” said Johnson, who also lost starting guard Robert Brown when he decided to transfer elsewhere. “You are talking about six freshmen and one transfer. We are really going to be young, even with the six freshmen we have got and transfer in Adam Smith as a sophomore and Marshall Wood as a sophomore...
“We are going to be young, but I like what we have coming in. I like how hard the guys are working right now in the postseason, I am excited about what is to come for Virginia Tech basketball.”
Johnson is hoping strength in numbers will help alleviate some of the issues from this past season when ailments of various kinds left the Hokies short of manpower in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
“We couldn’t afford a kid to have a flu or a cold..that is tough to do and that happened to us on multiple occasions and hopefully next year with 13 full scholarships and the walk-ons we have, we are able to overcome that,” he said. “Things are going to happen with every team in the league.
“It is just a long season, it is just a grind and hopefully we have some depth to overcome that a little bit.”
The ACC promises to be a monster league in the future, which is fine with Johnson, who knows there isn’t much he can do about the realignment that has confronted college coaches in recent years.
“At this point that is the lay of the land with the conferences,” Johnson said. “It is not every day where something isn’t changing, there is not much we can do about it as coaches and I try to control some of the things that I can control and the things I can’t control, not really worry about them.
“It is what it is. I think Virginia Tech is in a good situation with our fan base and our geographical footprint, I think we are right where we need to be and happy to be there.”
While Johnson’s focus is basketball, he is a Hokie at heart. He has attended softball and baseball games in recent days, and will be at the Hokies’ spring football game on Saturday.
“I will be at the spring game, I was at football practice yesterday,” Johnson said. “Coach (Frank) Beamer and I are real close, I like going out there.
“I learn stuff from his practices from him and I carry some of those things over to my practices and my program.”
It is that type of close-knit atmosphere that Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver tries to cultivate in its athletic program, and Johnson is definitely glad to be part of that family.
“I am a Hokie and I try to support everybody on campus and they do the same for us, it is a family atmosphere there,” Johnson said. “It is definitely a family atmosphere from the top on down and he sets the tone.”
—Contact Brian Woodson