Introducing The Velvet Steamroller…
VCU led Duquesne 60-57 with 4:52 to play on Saturday, hanging by clutched fingernails to what had been a double-digit lead against a game Dukes team. Briante Weber stepped to the foul line, and one thing hit me: Weber’s calmness. In fact, I mentioned to Robby that Weber carried such a benign countenance that it was like he was taking the wrapper off a sandwich. Purposeful, yet without worry. Weber’s approach wholly belied the situation.
Later, The Melvin, who hoisted 10 bricks in 12 shot attempts in the previous 39 minutes, calmly rose from three steps beyond the arc and swished a bomb to restore the lead to five with 59 seconds to play. Then Mo Alie-Cox toed that 15-foot line that has been quarrelsome with VCU this season. The lead was still five. When Alie-Cox headed back to play defense, the lead was seven.
My point is that judging by the body language of each player, you had no idea it was a tight game late or a 10-2 lead at the under 16 media timeout of the first half. JeQuan Lewis stayed within himself and somewhat expressionless the whole game, and postgame introduced us to the newest VCU mantra: poise or panic.
It was the same feeling as the Rhode Island game, in which VCU kept pushing the rock up the hill, doing what they were instructed to do, until they found success. VCU wore down Rhody, and the experience of being there and not giving in to panic prevailed.
The coaching staff calls it hitting singles. I call it the Velvet Steamroller.
It seemed a one-time thing, that slow walk to victory against Rhody. But I was wrong. We saw it again the following game against Duquesne, and if you look back we’ve seen it multiple times this season. Toledo. Oregon, Illinois State. Northern Iowa. Keep going, and you find the trend.
You see, we’ve become enamored with the fireworks of havoc, the blammo. We are wowed by the steals and open court dunks and swishing deep threes and all the velvety softness of a wide open game. This VCU team has an edge to it, but it’s a blunt edge, rather like a steamroller. If havoc is an irresistible force, this team is an immovable object. It’s there for 40 minutes, and if they need extra time then so be it.
It takes some getting used to, this new character. It’s odd to understand and see the exuberance of Briante Weber, to see him disrupt his way to an NCAA record for steals, but when a senior needs to keep calm in critical stages of a basketball game he turns into a librarian.
This team rolls through its opposition. You still see the blammos, but they are shorter, like when the steamroller is changing gears. Rhody had a three-turnover gear-change late, as did Duquesne when VCU was building its 14-point halftime lead on Saturday. It reminds me of the early 2000s UNCW teams. They didn’t carve out impressive runs, but they ran their stuff, played defense, snapped off a series of 10-4 runs, and won basketball games.
Havoc has not gone anywhere. VCU is still turning over its opposition. The Rams are fourth nationally, forcing turnovers on 25.9% of its defensive possessions. VCUs 15.4% steal rate is second-best. Havoc has matured, and the hope is that the guys that play five-on-five are maturing as well. VCU is no longer rolling up a wet towel and snap-whipping its opponent. It’s a more sustained effort, a true cumulative effect.
Yes, 70-64 and 65-60 and 75-71 aren’t gaudy victories, but victories nonetheless. Don’t be nervous at those close margins, for here is the hammer. If it’s true opposing coaches have “figured out” havoc, whatever that means, then the A10 is on notice: VCU is winning games, theoretically, without it. And if they haven’t figured out havoc (whatever that means), and havoc is adaptive to its personnel and has matured, then Lord be with them.
The Velvet Steamroller may be different, but it’s still to be feared.