Originally Published: December 9, 2012

Virginia Tech's infusion of 'fun'

By Robbi Pickeral

Basketball practices at 6 a.m. aren't usually considered "fun."

But somehow in Blacksburg, Va., first-year head coach James Johnson has made them so.

"When he walks into the gym, he'll start singing Biggie, Kanye West, just different songs that you wouldn't think a coach would sing,'' senior guard Erick Green said, chuckling during a phone interview last week. "He'll sing a verse, then another player will sing a verse, and then it goes back and forth for a little while. It just makes you laugh, it makes you smile. ... It's been a while since we've had this much fun."

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Kyle LaFerriere/US PresswireJames Johnson has introduced a new hoops culture to the Hokies.

Or this many wins, this early.

The Hokies lost 68-67 at West Virginia on Saturday to drop to 7-1, halting their best beginning since the 1982-83 season. But they still have wins over Iowa and then-No. 15 Oklahoma State on their résumé.

Not a bad opening for a team picked to finish 10th in the 12-team ACC during the preseason.

Or for a first-time college head coach who boasts only eight scholarship players on his team.

"No, no, I couldn't have imagined this, couldn't have dreamed it,'' Johnson said in a phone interview with ESPN.com last week. "A 7-0 start, beating a nationally ranked opponent -- the 15th-ranked team in the country -- I couldn't have dreamed it. Again, it's a tribute to the kids that are here, the type of guys I have in the locker room. They've made the transition smooth."

But then again, so has he.

Johnson, 41, was an assistant coach under Seth Greenberg in Blacksburg for five seasons when he left to become an assistant at Clemson last April -- only to return in the head job three weeks later when Greenberg was fired.

Forward Dorian Finney-Smith opted to transfer and top recruit Montrezl Harrell asked for his release in the wake of the change, but the coaching choice solidified Green's decision to stay (he was recruited by Johnson).

"I didn't know they were going to give him a chance, since he's never been a head coach,'' Green said. "And coming into the ACC, I thought it might be someone that had experience, just an older guy. But then, when he got the job -- I found out by Twitter, actually -- I was excited. ... I thought there would be a new energy."

And there is. When individual workouts began July 1, Johnson quickly put an energetic theme into place: work hard, play hard, have fun. He sang in practice. He chest bumped his players. He made them laugh as they ran and sweat and ran some more.

"I don't know if they were changes or not, but I wanted this group to take pride in being at Virginia Tech," Johnson said. "I wanted them to have a positive attitude and a positive outlook every day, whether it be positive about going to class, positive about the weather, positive about going to practice, positive on going to the weight room."

And positive about what they could become this season.

For years, Johnson knew if he ever became a head coach, he wanted to instill a fast-paced attack; that's the way he played at Ferrum College, and that, in his experience, is the way most athletes like to play, as well.

Hokies players grumbled about the extra conditioning at first. But after years of playing a slower, more grinding offense, they started buying in once they realized the freedom that Johnson's up-tempo approach (and upbeat personality) would bring.

"When we make a mistake, he doesn't say nothing -- he's really calm, he just encourages us to make another play,'' said Green, whose team entered Saturday's game leading the ACC in offense (86.1 ppg). "'Do the same thing: drive to the hole' -- it may bounce off your leg and you turn it over, and he'll tell you, 'Go again.' And I think that builds confidence, beyond if someone is just yelling."

The approach has made for a tighter, more trusting team, Green said. Although he entered Saturday's game among the top scorers in the country (and tops in the ACC, with teammate Jarell Eddie ranked third), the senior guard said he is no longer thinking about his individual numbers, but his squad's stats. And he credits his coach for the change.

"For years, he talked to me about leadership, and it's finally clicked,'' Green said. "I honestly, for the first time, am not being selfish. I don't care about my points, I don't care about anything that has to do with me. I'm putting the team in front of me, and making sure these guys are happy and making sure I do whatever I can for these guys, just being a leader.

"I'm just having fun, I'm smiling, I feel like a whole new person. And a lot of that is because of [Johnson]."

For his part, Johnson deflects praise, crediting his team for buying into his style. He said he's picked up a potpourri of philosophies at assistant coaching stops that included Old Dominion, Elon, College of Charleston, Penn State and George Mason. And he is happy that the way he's meshed them has been successful, so far.

"They're playing with a lot of confidence, they're playing unselfish, they're playing together, they're playing for each other," he said of his players. "And just as important: they're having fun out there."

Losing, as the Hokies did Saturday night in Morgantown, won't be considered "fun."

But somehow, expect Johnson to get his team back to it.

Other fast-starting first-year college coaches around the nation

• John Groce, Illinois: After the Illini lost 12 of their last 14 games last season, it was hard to know what to expect in 2012-13. But under new coach Groce, they are Maui Invitational champions and ranked in the Top 25, and they staved off some close calls before beating Gonzaga on Saturday to move to 10-0. At least one factor in the turnaround: Groce's combination of positivity and accountability.

"He's a really, really positive guy, and I think his team feeds off of it," Gardner-Webb coach Chris Holtmann, who was a member of Groce's staff at Ohio, told The Associated Press. "His kids are going to play with great confidence, they're going to play really loose and aggressive, they're going to be in attack mode."

• Johnny Jones, LSU: The Tigers lost five of their eight top scorers from last season, but are 5-0 -- including a 16-point rally against Seton Hall. The competition ratchets up beginning Friday, when they hit the road for three games. But Jones, a former LSU player, wants to build the Tigers back to their Final Four glory days. It will take time, but this is a good start.

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Geoff Burke/US PresswireLarry Brown likes the direction and potential of his team at SMU.

• Larry Brown, SMU: The 72-year-old Hall of Famer -- the only coach in history to win both an NCAA championship and an NBA title -- has his Mustangs off to an 8-1 start. This from a team that won only 13 games last season.

"They better get us this year, because we're gonna be pretty good pretty quickly," Brown told ESPN.com last weekend after his team routed Hofstra 73-47.

They already are.

• Bruce Weber, Kansas State: After last year's late-season letdown at Illinois (see above), 7-1 has got to feel pretty good for Weber, whose lone blip on the schedule at his new school so far has been a 14-point loss to top-5 Michigan. The Wildcats returned an experienced roster that lost only one starter, so they're probably right where they should be. But Weber has helped make sure of it.

• Kevin Ollie, UConn: Taking over for legendary coach Jim Calhoun was bound to be a challenge. Taking over for Calhoun when the Huskies are ineligible for the postseason because of APR penalties -- plus losing Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, who opted to transfer -- was bound to make it even tougher. Yet Ollie and the Huskies have risen to the challenge, notching a 7-2 record that includes a win over Michigan State. After two previous seasons as a Huskies assistant, the solid start has some already pushing for UConn to extend the former NBA player's single-season contract.

Michigan slashing through early foes

By Michael Rothstein

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's LaVall Jordan will turn to his fellow assistant coach, Bacari Alexander, during practices and say he is making a list.

Every time one of the Michigan players does something unexpected, Jordan makes a mental note, and it is becoming a pretty long list.

This Michigan team is unlike any other in John Beilein's six-year tenure at the school, and really, many of the teams in his career. The Wolverines under Beilein used to shoot 3-pointers by the dozen, a bunch of shooters who understood their coach's system.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein has tailored his system to UM's array of talent.

Which is why this season may be so jarring. Michigan, now 9-0 for the first time since the national-title season of 1988-89, has evolved from a 3-point-reliant team to a group of slashers with the ability to find their shots inside and out.

"That's a strength of ours, taking 3s," Michigan point guard Trey Burke said after Saturday's victory over Arkansas. "But last year we obviously took too many 3s. Now we have guys who can put the ball on the ground and get to the rim."

That starts with Burke, whose advanced understanding of Beilein's offense has boosted his efficiency with the ball this season. It continues with an improved Tim Hardaway Jr., a wing who can find his own shot and added a better handle to his game.

Then Michigan added a gaggle of freshmen, including one of the top shooters in the country who can also drive to the basket (Nik Stauskas), a high-energy big man (Mitch McGary), a remarkably efficient wing with an offensive rating of 128 and a true shooting percentage of 62.6 (Glenn Robinson III) and two emerging players in point guard Spike Albrecht and wing Caris LeVert.

"[Former Michigan guard] Zack Novak could tell you straight up, there's a lot more talent," Hardaway said. "Got freshmen coming in that are playing a lot of minutes and are playing like vets out there. That's very key, freshmen are playing a lot of minutes and not making too many mistakes.

"That really helps our team out."

That talent overhaul -- the team also has three legitimate Big Ten big men in McGary, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford -- has taken Michigan from being an almost exclusive ball screen team to one with more offensive versatility as well.

The ball screen is still there and used often, but Michigan, between its new players and coaching staff seeing new things every day, is still evolving.

"We're discovering new things each week with our players," Alexander said, "that we had no idea they could do."

Which goes back to Jordan's mental list. And to another scary thing: As good as Michigan is now, there's a chance the Wolverines could be even better by March.


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