BLACKSBURG – As the calendar flipped over to 2014, and Virginia Tech turned its attention to conference play like the rest of its ACC brethren, coach James Johnson needed to know how his overworked freshman point guard was feeling.
Through Tech’s first 13 games, Devin Wilson was averaging a hefty, but not unreasonable 32.2 minutes per game, which was second on the team to senior forward Jarell Eddie’s 32.9 minutes per game.
With Wilson representing the only healthy point guard on Tech’s roster as it headed into its second ACC game, Johnson asked Wilson how his body was holding up. The answer wasn’t unexpected, but it couldn’t have been the greatest confidence-booster for Johnson, either.
“He said, ‘I’m tired, coach,’“ Johnson said. “He does a good job of taking care of his body and using the training room for ‘pre-hab’ and using the cold tub and using the hot tub and getting proper rest. He understands the importance of what taking care of his body means to himself and the way he plays and to our team.”
With junior Marquis Rankin leaving the team after not dressing out for any of its first 11 games because of “personal reasons,” and sophomore Adam Smith struggling with a calf injury that plagued him in December and into early January, Wilson became Johnson’s only option at point guard.
Having a freshman point guard may not be the most direct formula for success in the ACC, but at least the 6-4, 185-pound Wilson has a bigger frame and might be able to handle some abuse if he ventures into the lane.
His football background could also help his mentality going forward. He was offered scholarships to play wide receiver by N.C. State, Temple, Ohio and Akron.
“I’m definitely concerned about it,” said Johnson about the potential of Wilson wearing down. “You talk about toughness. That’s one tough kid. That’s that football toughness.”
After the Hokies’ 20-point loss to Syracuse on Tuesday, Wilson, is averaging 7.1 points while shooting 45.6 percent from the floor, 3.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists (fourth in the ACC as of Jan. 7) and 3.2 turnovers per game. Smith’s return from injury against Syracuse dropped Wilson’s playing time down to 27 minutes on Tuesday, but the freshman ball handler may have to get used to the idea of continuing to log extended minutes. Tech doesn’t have much in the way of point guard assistance coming in the 2014 recruiting class.
Fall signees Justin Bibbs and Jalen Hudson will join Tech in August as freshman backcourt options, but both are 6-5 and better suited for scoring guard or wing roles.
As far as the 2015 class is concerned, Tech is pursuing highly regarded Bryant Crawford, a 6-2 point guard from Gonzaga High in Washington, D.C., but the Hokies are likely longshots for his services. In addition to an offer from Tech, he also has offers from Indiana, Georgetown, Maryland, Seton Hall, Rutgers, South Florida and Nebraska.
Tech is also going after Kevin Dorsey, another promising point guard who is from Paul VI in Fairfax, Va. The 5-11 Dorsey is looking at offers from Tech, West Virginia and Florida Gulf Coast.
As Smith works to get back to full strength so he can split time at scoring guard and backup point guard, Wilson is being backed up by 6-5 freshman Ben Emelogu. Point guard is far from a natural position for Emelogu, who has played mostly on the wing in the first 13 games, but Johnson doesn’t have any other viable options.
Injuries and foul trouble have already limited what Johnson had hoped to do this season. He wanted to feature more press in his defensive plans, but those plans have been scrapped.
“We’re not even playing close to how I envisioned how I wanted to play,” said Johnson in the first week in January. “When (Wilson) isn’t in the game, our offense is not as efficient and execution is not as good. We’re trying to be a little creative with getting him breathers, but it’s hard. This isn’t something I planned on coming into the season.
“You’re thinking you’ve got three point guards and you’re going to press and do a lot of different things. Then, you come out, and you’ve got one point guard.”
To try to preserve Wilson’s legs, Johnson has cut back on his team’s practice time – getting more done in shorter bursts. He’s also tried to get Wilson out of games right before media timeouts to give him an extra minute or two of rest.
It’s the best Johnson can do at this stage. With Smith out, Rankin gone and starting forward C.J. Barksdale in and out of games and sitting out practices because of a knee and ankle injuries and a stomach virus, Tech is already teetering on the edge of injury and illness-driven disaster heading into ACC play.
Inconsistent Early Efforts
All of the youth and unsettled nature of his roster has forced Johnson to remain patient while his team endures inconsistencies.
During a three-week span in December, he saw his team take a 61-60 overtime victory at Miami in which Tech bounced back from a nine-point deficit with less than eight minutes left in regulation, look completely overmatched in an 82-52 loss to Virginia Commonwealth and suffer a particularly demoralizing 55-52 home loss to UNC-Greensboro.
Johnson knows it’s part of rebuilding, but the process doesn’t get any easier in conference play, especially with a depleted roster full of guys that have never been through the ACC ringer.
“I think we’re going to have some ups and downs, especially with how young we are,” Johnson said. “Until we really get healthy – I mean, it started out this season with C.J. and the three-game suspension (for a violation of team rules), then we had Emelogu with the concussion symptoms, then we went to Adam Smith with the calf and C.J. with his injuries. We really haven’t been together like I’ve wanted us to be.
“I can still see with two freshman guards in the backcourt how there can be some growing pains there, but when we’ve got everybody together, I kind of like some of the pieces that we have. We’re still young, but I like some of the pieces that we have.”