There is a building process throughout every basketball season. You build offense. You build defense. You build leaders and you build chemistry. Those elements form a plan of attack that you carry out every single time you step on the floor.
The building process begets the ability to recognize and execute those "little things" that provide the difference in winning and losing. The opponent is irrelevant to this process. That's a matter of scouting and execution, a by-product of this endemic process. Each team is different, and each team progresses along those individual paths until they converge in one location.
The challenge is that the location isn't an actual place. There is no data and no measurable that you use to gauge progress. It's more Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's threshold test for obscenity and less Ken Pomeroy. You know it when you see it.
That connection point: identity. This edition of the VCU Rams is still searching for a sense of who it is, that identity, that one thing they can all count on when they face adversity.
I lied. There is one measurable: the scoreboard. And yesterday against Northern Iowa, without a true identity and facing adversity, VCU ended up on the wrong end of the measurable.
That root cause was obvious in the amalgam of plays and players that presented themselves at critical points in the game. That identity, that "this is a big spot and we're going to do this" has not yet been worked out. Even great basketball teams have off nights, and they use their identity, more times than not, to get over the hump.
This is a talented team. They were able to play a C+ game and tie Northern Iowa or get it to one possession on several occasions. But they could never get over that hump, and I believe it's because they haven't yet worked out who they are.
Identity is a common theme for this basketball program
Last season VCU was a defensive nightmare: I dare you to take the ball out of bounds. Darius Theus was the compass and Troy Daniels an assassin, but make no mistake we knew who we were. Luke Winn was not writing aritcles in Sports Illustrated about the midrange jumper. Theus's most important trait: he wasn't the most skilled basketball player, but he always knew what buttered our bread. In order to make plays, you have to know what plays to make.
Two seasons ago it was Brad's Team. The squad took on the moxie of Burgess. It was the kind of basketball team that was more Roberto Duran than Sugar Ray Leonard. It took a punch and came back to pound you, quietly and efficiently. George Mason broke out hearts on Valentine's Day but two weeks later never stood a chance on Burgess's senior day.
In 2011 it was the loose cast of characters that cooked and swagged to the Final Four. That team had no singular leader–there is a difference in leadership and identity–and it rose and fell based on confidence and it revolved around the personalities of Rozzell, Rodriguez, and Nixon.
It's a little-known story from that season that the all time goofball Jamie Skeen called out Burgess in a meeting. Skeen never said much in the locker room, but in a film study Burgess had made a mistake and was unresponsive to why, in late February, he blew an assignment. The coaches were prepared to move on but Skeen, in a rare moment of verbosity, instructed them to stop the film and demanded an explanation from Burgess.
You know how well Burgess played in the NCAA tournament. That team's identity was confidence in moments.
The year before that it was a Larry Sanders team. And let's be honest. That season was filled with tremendous highs and frustrating lows centering around the concern level of its first round NBA draft pick. That team lost to Western Michigan but beat nationally-ranked Oklahoma in back-to-back games.
They played in a phony postseason tournament but won it. That whole season sounds like its star player and identity?
I could keep going but you get the point. Whether it was the personality of a single dominant player or a distinguishing characteristic of the collective team members, VCU has always had a distinct identity and plays to that identity.
UNI Opened This Door
Sunday's bad offense/good defense first half was replaced with a good offense/bad defense second half. That's what happens when you don't have that thing or that guy to hang your hat on.
This also happens:
The score got to 63-60 with a little more than three minutes to play, and Briante Weber made a steal. It was the kind of sequence you've seen 100 times, where havoc has taken its toll and VCU engulfs its opponent, making scintillating plays and backbreaking scores.
Melvin Johnson got the ball around halfcourt and took off down the lane for an ill-advised drive. The play happened right in front of us, and I can tell you that Johnson had made up his mind beyond the three-point line that he was going to make something happen.
What happened was a turnover. I will argue until I have no breath that it was a bad play only because nobody else was expecting it. That wasn't our identity. Perhaps in February it will be, and the other players will understand this and Johnson will get a ball screen to help out, that little difference in success and failure. But not in December.
This also explains the play where Briante Weber flashed up court, into the lane, and ran into Juvonte Reddic. The ball trickled away to a UNI player. On many times after the press was broken the Rams were unable to "fix it," the coaching staff's term for finding men in transition and closing down driving lanes.
It's also found in why we started big in every game with Reddic alongside Terrance Shannon or Reddic with Mo Alie Cox, but yesterday we went small with Treveon Graham at the four and Jordan Burgess in the lineup.
For whatever reason this team has not yet fully developed an identity. The root cause is not because VCU can't shoot. It isn't because VCU can't defend the halfcourt. It isn't that VCU is leaderless. The problem is that it's a little bit of everything, the great big vat of Brunswick Stew that's cooked by the warmth of identity.
In good times the media calls it chemistry, and in adverse times it's called resolve. Make no mistake–it's the same thing. This team is still searching for it and the fact of the matter is that we aren't fattening up on Longwood and East Tennessee State and Fairleigh Dickinson while we figure it out.
No, this isn't a top 10 team. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, we need to get better stopping dribble drives and find a rhythm in offensive sets. And yes, there is much to work on but as Shaka says we have much to work with.
Here's where I differ from others. Most people believe our identity comes from our style of play. I believe our style of play comes from our identity. And that's why until we figure out our identity, those roles and tactics that are necessary to win basketball games will show up only here and there.