Apologies for the posting paucity. I’d give a bunch of excuses, but then I’d just think about something a certain basketball coach once said: “if you want to be uncommon, you have to do uncommon things and give uncommon effort.” So let’s move forward.
This is a difficult post to write. You’d think it easy, what with a 12-3 record, seven straight wins including the first two in conference, a top five RPI, and playing well enough to trail in a game for 36 seconds in the past 275 basketball minutes. But it’s tough to write, because I have to admit something to you. It scares me, but there’s no getting around it.
I like this team. I mean, Really. Like. This. Team. and what they can become. It feels like heresy to admit it publicly, and perhaps I’m tempting The Fates and their fickle nature, and I know somebody is going to text me about it, but it’s the elephant in the room.
The saving grace: just as reality dictates VCU will lose again this season, it similarly dictates we have to acknowledge how good this team is playing, and its prospects. We deal in reality here. Why is that evident?
I’m about as big of a basketball geek as exists, I know this. The names of more than half of the most popular movie and TV stars these days are unfamiliar to me, but I can recognize, name, and say hello to probably 80% of the basketball officials we see. Go figure. And I tell you that so that I can tell you this: I can talk basketball all day long, outside in shorts and flips flops in today’s weather, but I’m worn down by the barrage of references to “the process.” What the hell does that even mean?
Doesn’t matter, because we are seeing it, whatever it is, right in front of our eyes. Think about the progress you’ve seen since we left Barclay’s. There was a raggedness and fish-flopping-on-a-dock to the product on the floor. There existed very little of what Shaka Smart calls “teamship.” The offense felt like a series of 1-on-1 moves, and for big stretches of games the defense hid in the cargo hold of the team bus.
But along the way, slowly, and game by game, things began to improve. Individual improvements began to bleed into collective success. Though we have no idea the steps within it nor the goals to be attained, we are seeing that process play itself out. It is as small as getting your hand up in the face of a three-point shooter and as large as Smart’s unfailing commitment to his players’ well-being. He embraces the fact that 18-22 year old kids are not perfect, and in his words “we are coaching human beings, not robots.” That goes farther than you think in terms of the mental and emotional state of a basketball team.
It hasn’t been a straight line–there have been steps backwards and steps to the side–but the arc of this team is upward. Marrying what Smart calls “approach goals” to the things that allow you to achieve those goals takes time and diligence. The bane of his strategic existence–avoidance goals–are easy. If you don’t want to do anything, you don’t do it. This team is choosing to approach, not avoid, and I like it.
Terry Larrier spent most of the early part of the season running around on the floor like he was the only player left in a vicious game of dodgeball. Now, he is playing far more aggressive (see: spin moves and pump-fake drives into the lane) and not settling for easy threes on offense, and he’s actually picking up the defensive schemes.
Justin Tillman is improving like accumulating snowfall. Consistent, metered, and increasingly dangerous. He was a tough hombre against Davidson, better than his 6/4/3 stat line. Doug Brooks is playing very good on-ball defense and is less flaky, and against Davidson he pump faked on a wide open three. Let me repeat that: Doug Brooks was wide open from three, and hesitated.
Briante Weber has stopped believing in his Toledo stat line, Mo Alie Cox is beginning to capitalize with basic low post moves, and Treveon Graham is himself: direct deposit. You don’t see the paperwork, but the money is in the bank. He seemed to struggle offensively Wednesday night but put up a 15/10 double double.
The last time VCU did not shoot 42% or better in a game was also its last loss. The bench has been scoring well in the winning streak. And bench points means bench minutes, which translates to fresher legs. The Rams showed guts in the Northern Iowa win, and beat down a tough Cincinnati team in their barn. They came from double-digits-down on the road at Illinois State. The biggest sign of maturity: a sloppy first half on the road at Fordham turned into a second half operating table. It’s one thing to do it in That Animal; it’s quite another to be a road warrior.
I like every bit of it.
Yes there are issues. The Melvin is in a prolonged shooting slump, JeQuan Lewis is still in the season’s starting blocks, and Jordan Burgess has a tender ankle. Free throws are a frustrating bugaboo, and never forget the other team is trying, too. Those have all been limiting factors, but VCU is where they are inclusive of those limitations.
The biggest thing is that the team needs to strap on the Cone of Silence and continue to follow the process, whatever it is. It’s a matter of following the plan, another Shaka-ism where we only guess at its meaning. That’s the real reason for my optimism.
They aren’t winning because they are good. They are winning because they are not good enough and dedicated to getting better. And that’s the central point: In November they weren’t good, and focused on getting better. They did that, and here we are at 12-3. I smile at the thought of what they can become if they stay on this path.
Next up: tomorrow’s matinee against Saint Joseph’s. The Hawks are 0-2 in A10 play but have one of the conference’s best–and most dangerous–players. Here’s to DeAndre Bembry hating his trip to RVA.