How far from your
memory is last year's six-point white-knuckler over a bad St. Francis
team in the home opener? Or the dreadful trip to Charleston? Perhaps you reserved a special place in your stress cabinet for the six-point exhale at VMI two seasons ago. Or losing, in a very ugly fashion, to UAB that year.
Maybe it's giving up a double-digit lead to Western
Michigan and losing by 16 early in the 2009-2010 season that serves as your Maalox Moment. No? Well the 2008-09 loss to a fairly bad East Carolina team will suffice. Or losing to Hampton in November of the year before that.
Notice an early-season trend for VCU basketball? Sputtery play is the norm.
year, the RamNation is gnashing its collective teeth at a narrow loss to #1
ranked Duke. A two-point loss to Wichita State, who hovers on the fringes of the top 25. And a three-point
loss to top 10 Missouri.
The closest escape: probably the 13-point win over 17th-ranked Memphis, or the 13-point snoozer over Old Dominion.
Notice the difference?
For all its February and March brilliance, VCU has, historically, been a November chemistry experiment; more Frankenstein plodding down city streets being chased by citizens with fiery torches than Roger Federer whipping a cross-court passing shot.
Not this year. The Rams have begun building the havoc swell earlier, and more devastating, than in any previous season.
The numbers are, quite frankly, hilarious. My two favorites:
- Troy Daniels has made 61 three pointers on the season. VCU opponents–all of them combined–have made 62 three pointers.
- Over the past six games, VCU has been tied or in the lead for 99.03% of the game minutes (237:40 of 240 game minutes). This includes being ahead or tied for the last 158:10, or nearly four complete games.
But this isn't about numbers. I'm
here to say that the VCU nonconference schedule, from a strategic
standpoint, was built perfectly. Think about it.
The Rams had a closed scrimmage against an ACC team. Then an exhibition against a D2 team. VCU opened the regular season with a tune-up against a FGCU team with a loosey-goosey sophomore point guard. You can liken that stretch to starting your car after it's been sitting in the driveway for three weeks. There's some crud, but she starts and the engine roars.
A tough Valley team in Wichita State followed, but at home. We found out the Shockers were tougher than we expected–a very good learning experience about judging things on face value. After that it was off to the Bahamas to play three ranked teams.
Now, it was absolutely critical to get that first win over Memphis. Number one, it erased the WSU downer. Number two, it set up the next two games and their strength. Number three, it showed how well the team can play when it plays together. Atlantis was a test–the ideal test when you're trying to figure out who you are.
Back home there was the get-back-into-comfy Stetson game; then winnable but tough games, two played at
home (Belmont, Alabama) with a semi-roadie at Old Dominion. I say semi-roadie because a 90-minute bus ride isn't really a "road trip." It's more of a "road game." There is a difference.
And then three home games over exams and the holiday followed by an actual road trip. All four games were checkbox wins to help build confidence and refine the things the players and coaches learned over the early weeks of the season. Every coach will tell you they like to learn lessons in victories, and that's exactly how this coaching staff set the schedule up.
So we roll into the final nonconference game against Lehigh–winnable, but it increases the level of competition in the arc towards conference season. It's at home, and so is the conference opener. I don't know if that was luck or planned, but the players don't have to worry about immediate travel when switching gears for conference season–in a new conference.
Here's what happened along the way. The Rams learned they can survive with someone other than Darius Theus handling the basketball. Briante Weber has showed nobody has to cringe–well not as much anyway–when he handles the ball. Juvonte Reddic played aggressively through adversity. Melvin Johnson played significant and meaningful minutes. Rob Brandenberg began playing basketball with a scowl on his face. Suddenly, even though it isn't sudden, VCU can go 10 deep with little dropoff in intensity.
The team was able to find out individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as those same benchmarks as a team. Skills and chemistry developed. There was physical and mental growth. All of this occurred, shall we say, in all kinds of weather. There was learning and growth in good times and tough times. Importantly, it shined a flashlight on those attributes that still require work.
The sum: this team has created an identity. Shaka Smart's teams are renowned for their growth over the course of the season, playing their best basketball in March. However for years it's come from humble November beginnings.
This year, the high quality play is way ahead of schedule, and there's still room to grow. How this nonconference schedule was created plays a big hand in that because it paved the road to learn and develop. It gave this team the opportunity to accomplish and learn through both wins and losses.
And once Lehigh leaves town, the stakes dramatically change. Personally, I like where we are.