"Sir, I need you to power down the computer."
VCU assistant coach Jeremy Ballard had been drawn back into the present time by a flight attendant, snapped into consciousness like a dog being awakened from canine REM sleep. Ballard's faraway land existed inches from his face, images moving back and forth on the screen in front of him.
"We're getting ready for takeoff."
Ballard was not engrossed in a movie, but his gaze and his attention went immediately back to the screen. The stars of the film playing on his computer sat about 15 rows behind him. He was running back the game tape from VCUs loss to Northern Iowa, one hour after the final buzzer. Back and forth and forth and back he watched, using all the remote clicker's buttons. He hit stop only to make a written note on a clipboard, and only after he had watched the same play two or three times.
The flight attendant moved on but she may as well had never stopped. Her command was never heeded. Ballard was back in his own world before he had finished responding to her. In fact, I'd bet he never really heard what she said. Ballard went right back to studying the tape, right through takeoff and well into the three-hour flight.
He never made it to halftime.
Across the aisle and one seat up, assistant coach Mike Morrell was engrossed in a similar exercise. Morrell furiously scribbled his own notes, his head buried like he was trying to decipher Egyptian heiroglyphics.
It was a quiet flight home, but it was active.
Three days later the Wofford Terriers came to Richmond. The quick turnaround was probably helpful for the team members–they love to simply play basketball, and they were afforded the opportunity to do just that. VCU never trailed that night, were never threatened in the game, but never really put away Wofford until late. The game lacked a flow or feel–it was neither ugly nor pretty.
On the outside it was difficult to see the progress. It was Wofford, for crap's sake. Shouldn't VCU have taken them out behind the woodshed like so many other overmatched opponents who ventured into That Animal?
However in retrospect you can see the footprints in the snow. The Rams committed just eight turnovers and forced 20. Jarred Guest's 14 minutes were his most since the Florida State game. Terrance Shannon made his first real impact on a game since Puerto Rico. Treveon Graham went to the foul line 12 times.
And then Virginia Tech happened. VCU spotted the Hokies the first six points of the game, exactly like they did for Kansas in March 2011, before beginning its own basketball Mardi Gras. Tech folded under the deluge of steals and threes. Live ball turnovers. Dead ball turnovers. It didn't matter. The VCU players were connected like an electric current, feeding off one another and gathering energy as they made plays.
I'm betting some version of "now that's how good we can be!" or "where has that been?" came from your lips at some point during the 31-0 run.
It was the same team, the same players, that Saturday. The same coaches. Daniel Roose still wore a sweater vest. It was seven quick days after Northern Iowa.
The connection point is that flight, those precious moments after the Northern Iowa loss. They breathe life into the cliches that drive you crazy. Here's my attempt to put it into one sentence:
"We just have to go back to work and focus on getting better, especially the little things that bring us success, not getting caught up in the result and understanding this is part of the process of building a season."
How was that?
The point is that there is grist behind those words. You see, when the VCU coaches cut up tape they watch more VCU than you think. They do it at all hours and in all places, suspending fatigue in hopes of finding that one thing to unlock a door.
At the level we aspire to consistently play in, and you know exactly what that level is, it's these very little things that matter. It's the chess game–put your players in the right position to make plays. Teach them. First you freeze the pond, and then you let the skaters dance.
Boston College awaits this Saturday, seven days after a great victory. What little item picked up on tape and rolled out during practice will come to life? What tweak in positioning or offensive set will free up a shooter or create a steal opportunity in the press?
I'll bet Shaka Smart's mortgage one of the coaches has a clicker in his hand right now, and he's onto something.