Three seasons ago, a high-flying VCU team gutted out a two-overtimes victory at Delaware to get to 12-2 in the CAA and 20-6 overall. It was the team's 11th victory in 12 games and they were playing well. It seemed at the time to be a mundane victory. This was an average Hens squad, even though they featured future 2,000-point scorer Devon Saddler.
The Rams followed that game by losing at home to archrival Old Dominion. The 70-59 setback was humbling, but not particularly troubling. The Monarchs were playing their way into a CAA title and NCAA tournament berth and despite the vitriol of the ODU rivalry, VCU fans knew their guys lost to a good basketball team.
Nobody had an inkling what the next eight weeks would entail. The rollercoaster season had just begun to leave the station. There were more losses in a backloaded conference schedule–a Bracketbusters win at Wichita State was sandwiched by losses to George Mason, Drexel, and incomprehensibly at home to James Madison to close the regular season.
You know what happened next.
Shaka Smart speaks frequently of leadership. It took awhile for that leadership, and buy in, to emerge in that 2011 season. Smart also speaks of sparks. He uses the scientific-visualization in reference to what gets the VCU energy and havoc going. However sparks can occur off the court as well. In 2011 that brought alive the leadership that was necessary to forge the Final Four run.
You know of the armhair-singe calendar burn from Smart, the famous Andre Cornelius tweet, and Jamie Skeen standing up and challenging Brad Burgess in a team meeting. All sparks. But so was Joey Rodriguez hitting two free throws with less than one second to play in the Roundhouse. Skeen banking in a buzzer-beater against Drexel. The massive comeback in the CAA finals against Old Dominion that showed well.
All sparks, on the court and off the court. It's a symbiotic existence and when it comes together it's beautiful.
Fast-forward to today. This edition of the Rams recently gutted out a two-overtimes victory at LaSalle. They followed that up with three straight home wins, lining up to the 11 wins in 12 games feat from 2011. And then, Saturday's humbling but not troubling loss at St. Joseph's, a good basketball team, to fall to 7-2 in the A-10 and 19-5 overall. We sit on the precipice of a backloaded A10 schedule.
This is where sparks come into play, both on and off the court, and those sparks need to be nurtured and fanned by this team's leadership.
The only way that emerges is through playing the game and discovering those sparks. You cannot create them. You can only do those things that allow then to happen. Then you pounce, and your leaders are in front of it all.
By now it's obvious this team isn't going to be led, or governed, by one player. This is a collective effort. Leadership can mean a lot of things but the ruling party for this team is Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenberg, and Briante Weber.
Each brings his own approach to leadership, and it, too, is symbiotic. Weber's magentism and charisma is a coalescing force–you can't help but to notice and be impacted by Weber's high quality play and the enthusiasm in which he approaches it.
Reddic is averaging a double-double in A10 play, pure production, and spoke up after the St. Joseph's loss. That will speak volumes to his teammates. I can't help but to wonder if that is Reddic's Skeen/Burgess moment.
"I think a lot of guys weren’t on the same page. We had guys thinking about themselves and not bought in," said Reddic. "I think this is a reality check for us, that we’re not as good as we think we are."
And really, there's nobody that understands more about what the VCU program is all about than Rob Brandenberg. He can be both the calming force behind-the-scenes and the lightning rod on the court with this team.
Smart said yesterday, "the first step in leadership is to take care of your own business." That carries obvious meaning, but leadership can also come from the willingness to submit to the common goal: winning.
That may mean Treveon Graham getting 20 shots, Reddic and Graham carrying the load, Melvin Johnson getting 10 threes, or six players in double figures. It becomes about every player deferring to that end, the whatever I need to do to help this team win mindset. That's a spark.
If you pay close enough attention to Smart, you can see the manifestation of sparks. It's hitting singles and making the extra pass and being connected. It's preparing. It's understanding who you are, who you are not, and taking advantage of opportunities. You see, when VCU aggressiveness and attacking is fueled by sparks, well, it's beautiful.
Let me be very clear when I say I am not comparing the two teams, nor am I comparing the two seasons. Simply, I see a similarity in the construction of the 2010-11 team and the 2013-14 VCU Rams. It was leadership that brought out the best in that team, and it is leadership that will bring out the best in this team.
How that plays out when the clock is running is what we all look forward to experiencing.