On Thursday night, Virginia Tech basketball head coach Mike Young and redshirt freshman forward John Camden joined Zach Mackey and Mike Burnop on Tech Talk Live at McClain’s at First & Main. They discussed Camden’s improvements and the loss to Miami ahead of Saturday’s rematch with Virginia.
How difficult is it to improve and see your role on the team in the beginning when you aren’t getting as many minutes? On the other side, what’s it been like over the last few games?
Oh, I think it’s easy when you have a team culture like we have here. The coaches and my teammates are just super supportive. When everyone’s always lifting each other up, I got my coaches and teammates always telling me, “You never know when your number can get called.” Just telling me to stay ready. I just try to stay in the gym and control what I can control, and if the opportunities come, then they come.
You originally had an offer from Tech but chose Memphis. Walk us through the process of getting to Virginia Tech:
I was born in Richmond. Shortly after, my family moved up to the Philadelphia area. I played basketball my whole life. My mom played in college. I have three older sisters who all played as well. I’ve just always been around basketball. In high school, I started to take it more seriously. I had some good offers coming out of high school, chose Memphis, first time around during COVID so I didn’t get to take any visits or stuff like that. That was obviously tough, a tough decision, for sure. But I’m grateful that I ended up here.
What was the recruiting process like during COVID?
It was all zoom calls. I know everyone’s sick or Zoom calls. That’s basically what the recruitment process was, just phone calls, FaceTimes, Zoom calls. But like I said, you didn’t get to take any of those official visits or really see any campuses or meet face to face or anything like that.
So why was Virginia Tech the best fit for you coming back around?
Coming back around, I did get to take a couple of visits. I visited LSU and then Virginia Tech the weekend after, and I committed on my visit actually, after I got to be around the coaches and the team. Once I was around those guys for a full weekend, it was very clear to me that this is where I wanted to be.
You guys are a close group. Talk us through this team a little bit:
Yeah, I think it says a lot when you have teammates who hang out off the floor because we spend so much time in the facility. I think that most teams, once they’re away from the facility, they’re like, “Okay, let me get away from these guys for a little bit.” Our team will hang out off the court so much, that’s just how close this group is. It’s been great to be a part of that, make some true friendships and be able to play basketball with those guys too.
What is your favorite venue to play at?
Well, obviously Cassell [Coliseum]. I think my favorite game this year was when Duke came to town and we got that win. That was awesome. For an away game? I think playing at the [JMA Wireless] Dome was pretty cool, Syracuse, because of how big the arena is. I don’t think anything compares to Cassell and the way the fans pack this arena.
What’s it like when the free bacon contest is going on in Cassell and you’re watching from the bench?
It’s awesome because we know why everyone’s going nuts. They want the free bacon. Definitely a lot of fun.
What was going through your mind throughout the Syracuse game at home last Saturday?
Came out firing, had some open looks, couldn’t get them to go, come to the media [timeout]. Like I said earlier, the support system, everyone’s saying, “Just keep shooting, John, you’re good, you’re good, you’re getting comfortable out there.” Just having people who are telling me to keep shooting and to stay confident, that means everything.
Your defense has improved. Has that been a change to know that you don’t always have to score because you’ve got good teammates around you?
I think that’s been the biggest thing for me, just continuing to improve on the defensive end. The coaches have stressed that to me. Like you said, just trying to make an impact away from scoring because the ball can only be in one person’s hands and we have a lot of talented guys.
What is it like going up against all those guys in practice?
Oh, yeah, it’s tough. It can be some dark days during practice, especially when I’m guarding Darius Maddox, who I’ll guard in practice a lot. He can make me real stupid, but it only gets me better in the long run. Going against some of these guys in practice every day is really good for me and I’ve seen the benefits of that already.
The upcoming game against Virginia is a rivalry game. It’s also a top-10 opponent coming to town. Everyone must be fired up for this game, right?
Yeah, no doubt. This is one of those games that when I’m in middle school, I’m thinking about playing in someday. So having this opportunity on Saturday, going up against a really good Virginia team, it’s going to be a lot of fun. I know Cassell is going to be packed. I’m really looking forward to it.
What have you been told you need to improve on to get more playing time?
I think the key is just staying ready and controlling the things I can control. The defensive end is something I’ve continued to improve on all season long. My coaches have been super supportive and have helped me get better throughout this process. Just being ready and be being ready with my numbers called.
What has been the single biggest thing that is different from what you had imagined coming to Virginia Tech?
I would say the one thing is there are no free games. There are no free games. People might think, “Oh, when we go up to Boston College, we will win that game,” no, there’s none of that. Every possession matters. That’s what I go to say a lot. It’s very true. Because if you give an ACC team any opportunity to get back into a game, they’re going to take it. So I think it’s just taking every little thing seriously, knowing that everything matters and we have to play hard every single possession.
What is it like having David Jackson as your strength and conditioning coach?
Oh, it’s awesome. He’s the best, super tough guy and he’s worked with me through my injuries and through the things that I’ve overcome just since I’ve been here. He’s a pleasure to work with.
You guys are stretched to the max between classes, practices and lifts. How do you manage all of that?
It can definitely be difficult, for sure. I think time management is super important, and prioritizing. There are certain things that you have to do. But this is also what we signed up for. We love every moment of it. Doing it together as a team is also one of the things that makes it really enjoyable.
What are you majoring in and what are you looking forward to in life after basketball?
I’m majoring in Business Management. I’m not sure exactly where that will take me. I know it will leave a lot of a lot of doors open for me. I’m majoring in that because I just have a passion for business in general. Wherever that takes me after basketball, that’s where I’ll go.
Does your family come down to see you play?
My family was actually at the past few games. My dad was able to make the trip down to Miami. It’s been awesome to play some minutes in front of them and accomplish a dream and have them be there to witness it.
How has life been in Blacksburg?
I’ve loved it. The student life here is amazing. Just being something a part of something bigger than yourself, I know all the guys on our team fully embrace that student life aspect. There are just great people here. I’m very excited to be a part of this community.
What will it take Saturday to beat UVA?
It’s going to take discipline, it’s going to take grit. We have to be smart, can’t have those little mistakes that we had down in Miami. Then we’re also going to have to be the tougher team, so it’s going to be a good game for sure.
It took you a while to get back from Miami I heard:
I get my tail whipped, it’s a tie ballgame with 3:34, and we hurt ourselves. So we get to the airport, that’s a bit of an adventure, but we get there, we’re ready to go. And the pilot comes out and says, “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get into Blacksburg, we’ve got a chance.” About halfway home, he comes out and says, “The storm came in quicker than we anticipated. We’re either going into Charlotte or Charleston.” I said, “You do realize Charleston is six hours southeast,” and we couldn’t go into Roanoke, couldn’t go into Lynchburg, Charlotte is iffy. We did get into Charlotte.
Well, as good as Stephanie [Ballein] is, she can’t anticipate that sort of thing. We have no bus, we have no hotel. No food, nothing. We’re in the terminal for two hours, no one will answer the phone. Now it’s 2:30 in the morning. Long story short, we got the kids into a hotel close to the airport. The coaches, we had two Ubers. We Ubered from Charlotte back to Blacksburg, we got in at 6:45 a.m. Our Uber driver was a nice fella, a very nice fella. He did not go above 60 miles per hour the entire way, I kid you not, I cannot make it up. It was foggy, it was raining.
Again, I go back, I just got my ears pinned back. A night to forget. You get a little bit older and that thing takes a real toll on you. I couldn’t think a lick [on Wednesday], I wasn’t worth a whole lot yesterday, but we gave the kids a day off, they needed it. They got back about one o’clock. They bussed back, left down there about 10:30. But we were together today, we had a great day and a good day of preparation for UVa.
There were 17 lead changes at Miami. The game was tied nine times. It was just a back-and-forth ballgame:
They have statistically, in the analytics, the 10th-best offense in the country. I’d like to see the other nine, holy cow. Those guards in Miami, they lose [Kameron] McGusty and Charlie Moore, here comes Nijel Pack. [Isaiah] Wong, he’s been down there every year I’ve been at Virginia Tech, I think he’s as good as any guard in our league. A three-headed monster Wooga Poplar, number four [Bensley Joseph] and number five [Harlond Beverly], those three kids are big and strong and good-looking people.
Up five at the under-eight media, Coach Larrañaga calls timeout, we mishandled some things. Shot selection was good during that. We had two bad turnovers, and turnovers and bad shots lead to transition opportunities for the other team. If you’re doing that against Miami, it’s one thing to do it against Virginia, they’re not as apt to step on the gas and try to stick it to you in transition. Miami, the floor is broken and the thing is flying all over the place and eventually it’s going to hit somebody’s hands who can really shoot it. Pack, it’s like he doesn’t miss shots. I mean they are really, really good. We had our look, have to win that game, and we didn’t do it.
Pack had 17 points in a five-minute span and you guys missed seven shots down the stretch:
I think we held Pack scoreless in the first half. We did a very nice job on him. 17 in the second half. Wong had at typical Wong first half and we limited him to two in the second half. Hunter [Cattoor] guarded Wong, I just think that it’s the most critical matchup. Sean [Pedulla] is a good matchup on Pack. Not all of those 17 points in the second half were on Sean. At least six, maybe nine of those, were in transition. We just didn’t get matched up and we have to be better with it.
Pack hit three 3-pointers in a minute. When someone gets that hot, what can you do to stop them?
You better locate him, and you better be ready to guard him as he comes into the frontcourt. The problem with him is he can blow your doors off and create an opportunity for somebody else. You want to pick him up in the NBA arc, we picked him up a little high on a couple of occasions. He is a threat to shoot it from beyond the NBA arc, 30 feet.
I’ve seen him make a handful of those shots and it’s effortless. You try to corral him in transition, as we did a pretty good job of throughout most of the game, the trail big – Lynn Kidd, Mylyjael Poteat, Justyn Mutts is really good at it. You have to chase him off everything and you have to be there on the catch, you have to be ready to fight. Those two kids, Wong and Pack, are needless to say very, very impressive scorers.
Norchad Omier was a tough matchup too, wasn’t he?
He is a man. He’s a good player. 21 points, we have to be better than that. We’ve got to do a better job of throwing the ball into the post when we see them here in a couple of weeks. We did a pretty good job. Lynn had a couple of nice post moves. Mylyjael had a couple of easy baskets off of nice post feeds from Justyn. That has to be more consistent.
Grant Basile has to be a presence around the basket night-in, night-out. He’s always going to be a threat from three. He’s always going to be one that the opposition has to be leery of and run with him when he spaces out of things. But we saw in the Duke game, we’ve seen many instances where Grant is very effective around the basket. We have to do a better job to getting him in there.
Sean Pedulla scored twenty points but had six turnovers against Miami. I’m sure you’d like to see lower?
That’s not typical of Sean. I mean, he’s sure with the ball. Now, they speed you up a little bit. We can’t play an AAU game, we can’t play a game up and down. That’s not who we are. It’s a test of wills. They’re going to do some things defensively that speed you up. They don’t want you to slow them down so they’re going to try to speed you up. They did a better job with it than we did slowing them down, obviously.
We had a segment in the second half from the sixteen-minute mark to the eight-minute mark where the pace of play was exactly where we wanted it. We defended quite well during that stretch. As we all know, that’s a 40-minute affair. We didn’t have enough of those stretches over the course of the game. Sean got into a couple of bad places. But he shot the ball well, I thought he picked his spots well. But that is not typical of Sean Pedulla.
Justyn Mutts only took one shot in the first half, did not have a rebound. Did you have to give him a little push at halftime?
We’ve been together a long time. I know him, we know one another. I know who he is, I know how important it is to him. We need a heck of a lot more than that, he understands that. I thought he came back and did well in the second half. I can always count on Justyn Mutts. He had a bad first half, but those are few and far between, he’s a really good player.
What about MJ Collins? He’s playing good ball but was hit hard in the middle of the game:
I’m going to describe it to you and if I upset your stomach during dinner… I’ve had this happen before. 2005, my third or fourth year as a coach, we’re playing East Tennessee in the Southern Conference tournament. An East Tennessee State player is driving the ball toward the basket and my defender is on his hip. Inadvertently, his elbow comes back and hits him, who also has braces, and the braces went up into his gum line. MJ had much the same thing. The dentist and orthodontist have told us had he not had braces, it would have taken a couple of teeth out.
Bless his heart. I thought it was his lip. He had a terrible gash right in the middle of his bottom lip. I don’t know his status, he’s in the locker room. Is there someone there to stitch him up? Does it need a stitch? It did not. But here he comes back. I’ve commented to our team a couple of times. That kid, to put a mouthpiece in and come back and do everything he could to help our team, I think that says all we need to know about MJ Collins. He’s one of us, he’s about the right things. He’s a tough guy and I absolutely love coaching that kid.
How valuable has John Camden been?
Very valuable. And now he has an opportunity with a couple down, and he’s doing well with that opportunity. I thought the pace of that game was a little fast. Let’s keep it in mind, he’s a freshman. He got hurt last year, saw the need to leave, his dad is a Virginia Tech graduate, Tex, we got him. He visited us, LSU and a couple others. He’s a great person, he’s a really good teammate. He is a hard worker.
He went through a stretch of games there when he wasn’t playing, he wasn’t in our plans. We didn’t think that this stretch of games he was going to help us play. But your number is going to be called, your opportunity’s coming. Well, if you begin your preparation to play at that time, it’s not going to work. You got your lips stuck out because you’re sad. It doesn’t work. That kid doesn’t miss workouts. He works on his game. He does a great job in the weight room with David Jackson.
When his number was called vs. Syracuse, I tell you what now, I love him. He never saw a shot he didn’t like. He missed his first three. I think I would have backed off a little bit. He shot it, he kept on going. You got a three down, he had a loose ball kind of kicked out to him short corner, he made that shot. He did a very good job on Justin Taylor and [Chris] Bell, who didn’t play a lot against us that particular night.
He’s doing great, very good progress throughout his freshman year. John is going to continue to get better and better. He said it, he knows it, which is a big deal. He has to get stronger, foot speed has to get better. I’ve always felt that those two kind of coincide with one another. The stronger you get, the more abdominal strength you get, the better your foot speed becomes, and the game will slow down for him a little bit too. So, he’s doing great, we’re proud of it.
What were those fans saying in Miami?
Here’s the deal: it is February. All nerves are on edge. Have to win. Officials have had a lot of games. They’ve had enough of the fans and their chippiness, the name calling. The fuse is a little short now. Roger Ayers is as good as there is out there. He told me what the guy said, it wasn’t vulgar. But I can’t share with you what he called him.
Virginia is obviously a well-coached team surging at the right time:
They are really good. Not a glaring flaw. Good players, they run good stuff, well-coached, obviously. So, we’re going to have them ready. We’ll be chomping at the bit, excited to compete on Saturday at noon. Let’s get it on.
Kihei Clark triggers everything for that offense, doesn’t he?
It makes them go. He’s done it at a high level. He started on that national championship team in 2019. He has just continued to get better and better. Great defender, great floor leader. He’s a dandy.
Reece Beekman has a lot of pro scouts looking at him too:
We were talking about it in the office today, I think he’s their best pro prospect. His ability to defend, has good positional size, 6-3, 6-4, he can guard points, twos, and Reece is having a good year for them. [Armaan] Franklin’s having a good year, but I think it’ll be a great matchup. I know our team is really fired up to play UVa again. We’ll look forward to it.
Ben Vander Plas has been a big part of their surge:
His ability to come out of actions and space away and shoot that ball is impressive. Not a lot from Ben around the basket. He will offensive rebound some, but he’s been a significant addition to the roster. [Tony Bennett] has the opportunity to play him and [Jayden] Gardner together. They’re playing Ryan Dunn more and more, who has helped them. He’s 6-8, he’s got length, he’s tough, does a good job for them on the offensive glass. So, again, not a lot of flaws. We’re going to have to be on top of it, and we expect to be.
Cassell is going to have a buzz inside of it yet again:
Always does when the Cavaliers come to town. Typically does when anybody comes to town. I am so appreciative all of all Hokie fans, the Cassell Guard, it will be a wonderful atmosphere in there on Saturday.
The sneakers you wore for the Coaches vs. Cancer game were a big hit, and I know you got to talk to Chase O’Brien, who painted them. Can you give an update on your conversation?
I had to arrange with the Carilion folks to call him at noon on Sunday, I did. I spoke to his dad, Eric, and Eric put me on the phone with him. Chase was in the middle of a treatment. The dad said that he was feeling better already, that after that particular treatment, it always helped him and he felt a lot better and his energy was a lot better. I think he came home after that treatment on Sunday. I think he was back in school on Monday.
I’ve texted with the dad a couple of times since then, I’ll text with him again tonight. But it sounds like our boy Chase is doing great, we fully expect to have him and his family in the Cassell against the Pitt Panthers here in a couple of weeks. And as I said after the Syracuse game, that family’s going to have pretty good seats and they’re going to be taken care of.
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This team is going to be just fine – I think we’ll go on a big string of wins starting this Saturday against the hoos – GO HOKIES!
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