Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chit-chat with Kenny Brooks, coach of the 25th ranked team in the nation

With Virginia Tech back in the Top 25, we figured it was time to check in with Kenny Brooks, whose winning percentage in Blacksburg is hard to argue with. Central Connecticut State, since you asked, is on tap for Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Cassell Coliseum for the 8-0 Hokies.

An early aside, we like Brooks' candor, a rarity in an era of coach-speak (Jeff Walz not among that crowd). It's nice to ask a coach about being ranked in the AP poll and not have him dismiss it with an "only-poll-that-matters-is-the-final-poll" answer.

"It validates the hard work these kids have put in," Brooks said. "It's an honor. It's a surprise to be there this quickly; I never thought it would happen this quickly."

Regarding personnel, we know about Chanette Hicks, espnW national player of the week last week and third in the NCAA in steals, but as for the others --

"Any given night we have four kids, probably five kids who can score 20 points," Brooks said. "A lot of it is go with the flow of the game and see who has the hot hand." That marks a change in style for a coach who is used to running sets for specific players, a la Jazmon Gwathmey last year.

A few Brooks thumbnails on the mainstays behind Tech's terrific start:

Regan Magarity: "As advertised and then some. " For those JMU readers out there, here's high praise from Brooks about Regan: "Meredith Alexis with a jump shot with the basketball IQ of a Nikki Newman."

Samantha Hill: "She does so many things for us that are so important." Not shooting a great percentage, but making the plays that don't show up on a stat sheet.

Sidney Cook: "Almost a walking double-double," says Brooks, who told the 6-2 senior he needed consistency, and she's delivered.

Now as for Chanette: "When I first got  here, it was not smooth sailing. She had some things she needed to clear up," Brooks said. That said, "I was frank with her and I wasn't being overconfident when I told her, 'I could be the best thing to happen to you because the one position I do know is point guard."

Brooks asked for buy-in from Hicks, and it took time, but she's all in, not just on the floor but off it in terms of being a role model and leader for the rest of the team. "I had to gain her trust by being mean, not coming in and letting her do what she wanted to do."

The results speak for themselves; Hicks has doubled her point total from a year ago while refining her game-changing ability to create turnovers.

"Some of the things she's done -- I've never seen in my life, male or female," the coach said. The break on the ball, the way she steals it, I've had to change my philosophy."

Brooks' JMU teams were in the cellar of the Colonial Athletic Association regularly in the steals category as his approach was to protect the lane. "With her I had to ask myself, 'Do I want to continue doing what I've been doing or let her play?' We've let her play. Sometimes you have to step out of a kid's way and let them play."

Diandra DaRosa: In a boot -- again. An ankle sprain in Nebraska will keep her out Wednesday, but she could return Sunday for Bowling Green.

Kendyl Brooks: He said she'd redshirt, but her results in the weight room -- 10 pounds of muscle -- allowed her to belong among this group of Hokies from the go. "We took the redshirt off because she was getting acclimated to the system better than the other freshmen. She added an element we needed. I knew she belonged when we put her out there against UCF and she had 11 points in a three-point win in a very physical game. She stepped up without an conscience."

The Hokies have also benefited from the recent breakout by senior sharpshooter Vanessa Panousis, who followed up a season-high 17-point effort against Nebraska with a 14-point performance versus Gardner-Webb. Panousis made just eight 3-pointers in Tech's first six games but has six in her last two.

Much-needed depth is on the way as 6-4 senior center Tara Nahodil, who left the team during the offseason, will rejoin the Hokies at the conclusion of the first semester. And Tech is still awaiting word from the NCAA on the status of transfer forward Erin Garner; Tech applied for a waiver that, if granted, would allow Garner to join Nahodil in the Tech lineup at the end of the current semester.

It's all added up to Tech's best start in 11 years. But strong non-conference records are nothing new in Blacksburg. Just last year, the Hokies went 12-1 in November and December with a win at Tennessee.

The question now is, is this the year Virginia Tech also becomes a factor in the ACC?

Not surprisingly, Brooks likes this team's chances.

"This is the kind of year when I put up my Netflix account and watch only basketball," he said. "I've watched a lot of basketball and think there's a lot of teams we can compete with. Why not us? These kids have a different philosophy, a different mindset. Why not us? What happened in the past happened in the past."

Finally, while the coach is clearly laser-focused on his Hokies, he did happen to notice the 46 points Precious Hall dropped on Rutgers Monday night in a double-overtime JMU victory.

"They way she went down (with an ACL injury prior to the 2015-16 season) I never knew how she was going to be able to bounce back," Brooks said. "I'm very happy for her and she deserves it."

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