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(Photo by Sara D. Davis, theACC.com)
Hokie Ben Emelogu fills rare role for freshmen
When it comes to sheer basketball talent, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s current 15 member schools have long histories of immediate impact freshmen.
First-year players such as Duke’s Grant Hill and Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony were difference makers on national championship teams. Others, including Virginia’s Ralph Sampson, Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, wasted no time in becoming All-America team fixtures. Seven freshmen have been named first-team All-ACC: Clemson’s Skip Wise (1975), Georgia Tech’s Anderson (1990), Maryland’s Joe Smith (1994), Georgia Tech’s Stephon Marbury (1996), UNC’s Antawn Jamison (1996) and Hansbrough (2006), and Duke’s Austin Rivers (2012).
But while 18- and 19-year-olds often blend in immediately on the court, a freshman with the maturity and confidence to step in as an all-around team leader is a rarer find. Virginia Tech second-year coach James Johnson believes ACC fans will be introduced to such a player when Ben Emelogu makes his collegiate debut with the Hokies against USC Upstate on Nov. 9.
Johnson recently named Emelogu, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Grand Prairie, Texas, as team captain for the 2013-2014 season. And Johnson did so without reservation.
“It takes a special individual to step right in and kind of have the team be his, and Ben has done that,” Johnson said.
Emelogu, a three-star recruit who was ranked the No. 56 shooting guard in the nation as a high school senior, is ready to take the reins.
“It was a great honor to be named captain,” Emelogu said. “Coach told me at the start of training that he needed a captain. He repeatedly told me that it didn’t matter if it was a freshman or a walk-on or a senior.”
Emelogu’s resume more than met the job description.
“Each team I’ve played on has put me in a leadership role, be it AAU or high school,” he said. “I sense that people look up to me, to put things in order and to organize things. This is a new team, so I have to get comfortable with that. But being in this role and knowing the tasks involved, I feel very comfortable with that.”
Emelogu will take charge of a team that finished with a 13-19 record last season and lost Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer, to graduation and professional basketball. But it is a team that should be deeper in terms of sheer numbers and one Johnson believes can be improved defensively.
“I want to motivate my team in the best way I can and lead by example,” said Emelogu, who led South Grand Prairie High to the Texas state 5A championship game last winter. “I want to help the other players and correct them when they need it, and I want them to correct me when I do something wrong. It goes all the way around the team in that we look out for each other and try to be the best team we can.”
Since practice began in late September, Johnson has seen Emelogu reinforce the trust placed in him.
“He's just done everything right,” Johnson said. “He's a natural leader. Coming in, I didn't have to put anything on him. He came in, natural leadership qualities, leadership abilities. He earned the respect of the guys right away from day one with his play, with his talking.”
Emelogu’s goal is to help transform the Hokies into immediate winners, but a now-veteran ACC player advises that patience can also be a virtue. Two years ago, Boston College’s Ryan Anderson was a freshman leader on a team that was in its second year following a coaching transition and lost 22 games.
“You really have to learn to deal with the growing pains,” Anderson said. “There are going to be times when things just don’t go your way. It takes a lot of mental strength to be able to fight through it. It’s easy to be a leader when you’re winning games, but it’s a lot tougher to be a leader after a loss. I think that is the toughest thing I had to learn as a freshman: When you’re losing games, how do you rally the team? How do you get the team back up to come to practice the next day?”
Quite the mental task for any player, but especially one that is used to winning.
“You want to win, and as a competitor you expect to win,” Anderson said. “That’s what makes it hurt so much when you don’t win. It’s tough to fight back when you face those types of situations, but I think it only makes you better in the long run.”
Boston College showed much improvement last season, and is now regarded as one of the ACC’s up and coming programs. If Emelogu can lead Virginia Tech through such a transformation – be it immediately this season or in the years that follow – Anderson said it will be worth any struggles that may ensue.
“Looking back on it, my freshman year was a great experience,” Anderson. “It was a very trying thing for me, losing 22 games, but in a weird way I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Emelogu says he is prepared for any early scenario, but he believes the Hokies can show immediate progress this season.
“Coach always tells us that we need to change the culture of this program,” Emelogu said. “I’m trying to adjust and change the mindset of everyone on the team, and each day we’re getting better at that. We have a lot of confidence this year. The players believe we are going to win the ACC Championship, and we have the talent to compete.
“We need to have fun,” he added. “I believe the team that has fun playing basketball is the one that can do the most damage.”