Throw Out The Playbook. Well, Sort Of…
Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come
alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come
alive. –Howard Thurman
The national articles began dropping in September 2011, in
the wake of VCUs Final Four run. Shaka Smart unveiled, publicly, an innovative
preseason-training regimen that has become both a familiar routine and
ubiquitous on the college basketball scene: Navy SEAL training.
The physical challenges have always been the main storyline,
despite Smart insisting it has always been more about togetherness and
connecting as a team. It’s been that way
since the very first article, written by Matt Norlander of CBSSports:
“McGuire keeps telling our guys that you have to get outside
yourself, think about the guys next to you,” the coach said. “He couldn’t say
anything more fitting about we’re all about and what most teams are about this
time of year.”
And that’s fine, this external focus on the physical demands
and the physical taxing of the havoc system. However internally, among those in the core
group charged with winning basketball games and developing young men, it’s
about something entirely different. While there’s a captip to the physical, the
VCU coaching staff prefers to maximize its allotted time with the team.
The belief is that connecting the mental and emotional to
the physical is a critical mixture in the chemistry experiment that leads to
winning. And while plays and gameplans are important, the differentiator—that
slimmest of margins between good and great—does not reside at KenPom.com.
(Side note: I cannot believe I just wrote that.)
It’s about leadership, a word that exists as “connector” in
the VCU basketball program. For Smart, it’s about creating a transformational
atmosphere, not a transactional one. You can only get so far with the
There has to be that connection among teammates and a staff
if you want to accomplish great things. That connection leads to love, and not
love in the corny sense. It’s the reality that a group of individual love what
they are trying to accomplish together.
That doesn’t occur during a shell drill, nor in running the
Siegel Center stairs. It comes through spending time together, immersed in
activities surrounding that goal. For this basketball team, it came together
again last week.
You see, the NCAA opted to allow the men to practice this
year under the same guidelines as the women. That is, practice didn’t start on
October 15 as prior seasons. This year, teams were able to begin practicing 42
days from their opening regular season game. Teams still could hold just 30
practices over those 42 days, and practice is still limited to four hours per
The extra 12 days left some wiggle room in the schedule,
and true to form the VCU staff got creative with its use. They didn’t simply
string practice out and give an extra day off here and there.
The black-and-gold game was a result of the extra time.
Everybody won that night, didn’t they? However last week, from Wednesday
through Friday, VCU borrowed a concept from the pros and held a sort of
The team got out of town together. They got in a few hard
practices at Virginia Wesleyan, but also spent a great deal of time away from
everything, bonding together. They even walked through some of the things they
will do on road trips.
“Other teams and programs have done it and Coach Smart is always
looking for ways to spend time with players,” says VCU assistant coach Mike
Morrell. “It’s something new for us and
with the new rule we were able to do it. With the team we have, veterans and
new guys, it’s a good time to do something like that, to spend time with each
other off the floor and move forward as a team.”
You would think breaking the monotony of a 42-day,
30-practice preseason is one benefit of non-traditional activities like the
black-and-gold game and mini-camp. However Morrell minimizes that, at least for
“It (the monotony of practice) is a little bit of a concern
but it’s not really an issue with us,” says Morrell. “Our style of play helps
the monotony, and one thing the guys like doing is playing. We play every day and the guys enjoy that.
We of course have drills and things we have to do but we let them
enjoy the fruits of their labor every day in that we play a lot.”
The relationship of the work, play, and conditioning comes
together at events like the mini-camp. Daniel Roose, VCUs hypermagnetic strength
coach, is always keeping the workouts fresh. His approach is to mimic the
on-court havoc style with chaotic workouts. Roose mixes in old and new routines, and
even lets the veteran players sometimes direct and drive the plan.
Roose knows the score of the game. If he is personally bored
with a workout, he knows the players have probably been bored by it for two
weeks—they are 18-20 years old, after all—so he switches up the routine.
The players respond to Roose because he, too, is a
connector. He prepares the bodies of the players for the rigor of practice and
games. He understands the physical—VCU big men are conditioned to run the
floor, getting extra workouts on machines they cannot hide from—but he is right
in the mix at all team functions. Roose is a part of the core team and the
players know they can count on him. It makes the "rise and grind" that is so overused these days far easier than surface
stereotypes would suggest.
“It goes back to Darius and Brad and Troy and David and all
those guys,” says Morrell. “It’s a buy in and the guys have always done a great
job with it. They’re great kids so we really don’t have a hard time with that.”
Morrell downplays the hype as much as possible.
“It’s just what we do and is engrained in the program,” he
says of all the team-building activity. “We spend a lot of time with our guys,
and through the relationship we have collectively as a staff with the players, they
understand what goes into winning. That’s what we do here and it stems from our
relationships. That’s pretty special.”