In With Young Guns, Out With Dickens…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Last night’s thrashing of California, PA is precisely a two cities tale, a schizophrenic rush of March 2011 and March 2014. You knew CalPA was overmatched in this college basketball version of soccer’s Friendly, but you saw something curious last night. It wasn’t confusing because of its straightforward ferocity.
It strains any shred of credibility to say you walked out of That Animal last night without an encouraged vibe, no matter how guarded. It was the kind of evening where your superlatives involved cursing.
I’m not afraid to admit it: I saw pieces and parts of a damn good college basketball team. It isn’t how they played and cannot be captured in a statistic. Rather, it’s how they looked. There’s foolishness in that statement, I know, but we have everything before us and mine eyes saw some glory last night.
And that’s the fun irony that triggers those winter of despair thoughts in the back of your head–there was just enough ugly from VCU in the game to know there’s a copious amount of improvement to be made. How do you mentally process what you saw? You cannot escape the reality that the opponent is a division 2 program, on the road, for an exhibition. Similarly, you cannot discount how easy the game becomes when you’re winning by 40 points and in front of your home crowd.
Treveon Graham may have played a worse game in his freshman season, but I cannot remember offhand. To say the Freight Train was out of sorts is to say the atmosphere in the Siegel Center is decent. Briante Weber was in streetclothes.
I didn’t see much of a press, and Shaka Smart commented in postgame that it has a ways to go. I will not equivocate and say that VCU took it easy on a program we hold in high regard. That’s not our identity. But the press was not wreaking. How much of that was missing Weber? Who knows.
But my gracious.
None of that matters put against what stood out to me most–the activity level of every player that stepped onto the floor. Mo Alie Cox set the tone. On the very first offensive play Cox took a post feed, bodied his defender to clear space, and hit a solid jump hook. Cox grabbed three you-are-not-getting-this-basketball rebounds and blocked a shot. He then pogo-sticked into the air and flushed a one-handed dunk. All of this occurred in the first four minutes of the game.
Smart went 12-deep before the game was five minutes old, and every single player flew around the court. The thing about that, to me, is not the fresh legs against a wobbly-legged and tired opponent. It’s that each player carried an attacking mentality. Fatigue saps your physical energy, but it also winnows your mental ability to push for more. Fresh bodies meant fresh bodies, but it also meant fresh minds.
Here’s the final aspect that stood out: those parts of the game that annoyed you last year? More curious eyes…
Finishing around the rim was a problem last season–Justin Tillman in close, and Terry Larrier in transition, don’t appear to have that issue. Shooting was a problem last season–The Melvin hit six of eight threes and Jordan Burgess swished his first three bombs from the same spot on the left wing.
Side note: rightfully, people are gaga over Tillman’s depth-charge dunks, but that quick spin and soft bank shot in the second half brought me to the edge of my seat.
Tennessee will show up in Annapolis bigger, stronger, faster, and, because it’s for real-real, more intense. The VCU team has yet to play in front of a crowd with different rooting interests.
This is where early-season leadership is critical. Much was made of Treveon Graham becoming more of a vocal leader in his senior season. Graham must collect the underclassmen, sit them down, and tell them “this is how we do things.”
We will walk through next week with this conflicted mind, and that’s fine. That’s part of the beauty of college basketball and what’s going on in this program. Embrace it.
The best part? It’s the regular season.