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Why I believe

There have been a few articles popping up here and there in the lead-up to this upcoming hoops season on what will become of the VCU basketball program in a post-Shaka era.  NBC’s Rob Dauster and I even got into a solid Twitter exchange over a recent Terrance Payne NBC Sports article describing VCU as one of the nation’s “programs in decline”, Dauster taking exception to my describing the article as “lazy” (and calling him a “genius” at an early point in that discussion) due to my belief that Payne took the easy way out in the article by focusing on VCU and Florida because they are two programs who arguably lost the two highest-profile coaches this offseason in Smart and his former mentor at Florida, Billy Donavan. Payne listed as well the departures of the likes of Treveon Graham, Briante Weber and recent UConn transfer Terry Larrier, but did give Will Wade and VCU some credit for the recruitment of top-100 2016 commit, De’Riante Jenkins, but I think overall left out some major ingredients on why I think VCU is doing anything but declining.

WHY I BELIEVE

Because I believe in Will Wade

Will Wade has done something coach Smart, or coach Grant for that matter, never had to do at VCU or anywhere else at the D1 hoops level: turn a losing program into a winning one as a head coach.

Will Wade took over a UTC team after serving as a VCU assistant and took them from losing squad prior to his arrival to 22-win team in just two seasons, earning SoCon Coach of the Year honors this past season.
Will Wade took over a UTC team after serving as a VCU assistant and took them from losing squad prior to his arrival to 22-win team in just two seasons, earning SoCon Coach of the Year honors this past season.

Wade, Smart’s first hire as head coach of the VCU Rams as well as Tommy Amaker’s first hire as the head coach of Harvard, took over a UT Chattanooga team that lost 19 games the season prior to his arrival and turned them into a 22-win team by his second year there, not to mention an 18-win winner and conference runner-up his first season.

That is not easy to do.

Wade was named the 2014 SoCon Coach of the Year for that effort.

Did he take the Mocs to an NCAA tournament? No. But Smart needed a season to get things rolling on Broad Street himself, missing out on both the NCAA and NIT his first season despite taking over an NCAA tournament team from the previous season (a 1-point loss to a talented UCLA squad) and a roster that consisted of the likes of Larry Sanders, Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell.

Smart more than redeemed himself the following season by guiding the Rams to their first ever Final 4. But remember, that was an appearance that almost never happened, with VCU being a controversial selection into that season’s field as an 11-seed and First 4 participant in the 2011 tournament.

Thank God it did.

Wade however was a part of that staff and assisted on a NCAA tournament record of 7-3 while at VCU. Smart’s teams went 0-2 in NCAA tourney action following Wade’s departure to UTC, losing as the higher seed in both games (5-seed loss to 12-seed Stephen F Austin in 2014 followed by a 6-seed loss to 10-seed Ohio State the following season). Coincidence? Perhaps. But worth noting.

My point? Wade’s record as both an assistant coach and head coach speaks for itself.

As a recruiter Wade has done a sensational job in next to no time. The 32-year old lost all three of Smart’s 2015 recruits, two of which were top-100s and had to scramble to find replacements immediately. The result? Wade and staff grabbed 4-star Minnesota decommit Jonathan Nwankwo (6’10 240), 3-star St. John’s decommit and Philadelphia top-20 all-time scorer, Samir Doughty, and Alabama “sleeper” Gerron Scissum (#savageorsandwich), who reportedly held offers from the likes of Power 5 schools Ole Miss and Maryland. They also added a JUCO big who averaged a double-double and a proven D1 transfer, but we’ll get to them later.

And that was just the beginning in a serious scramble, getting roughly two months before recruits for the most part moved to to college campuses for summer workouts.

As for 2016, Wade and Co. have proven they are more than capable of not only continuing the recruiting level established by Smart and top-recruiter Mike Morrell, but potentially building on that, adding the school’s third-highest rated recruit ever in Jenkins (ESPN’s No.59 recruit in the 2016 class) while still being considered by a number of other top-100s, doing all this without the Q-rating that comes with the sizzle of the name Shaka Smart.

Wade also had to re-recruit several of VCU’s current players from transferring upon Smart’s arrival, including Justin Tillman, Mike Gilmore and JeQuan Lewis. Bonus points.

Because VCU has never had this…

$25 million state-of-the-art practice facilities have never downgraded a program.

Front

When I was a kid I attended Sonny Smith basketball camps held in the Franklin Street gym, the same gym all of Smart’s players practiced in. This new monster makes that old place look like a dive bar.

Forgetting all the technical abilities that will allow the staff to upgrade their daily routine, the wow factor of what instantly becomes one of the nation’s best college hoops practice facilities never hurts recruiting and a program’s ability to lure the nation’s best high school players.

Smart only had the prospect of this to lure recruits to VCU. Wade gets to walk players through it.

I believe in our players

I get it, VCU lost some really good players. Treveon Graham and Briante Weber in particular will go down as all-timers at the Commonwealth. Those two are EASILY two of my all-time favorites to come through the program, not only because of what they did on the court, but in how much I enjoyed who they were off of it (another shot out to Bri for filming his graduation for us).

But here’s another reality that helps ease the pain of those loses: VCU isn’t the only program to lose players this offseason. Virtually all of college basketball will do the same.

If you go down VCU’s 2015-16 schedule basically all of the Rams’ opponents are full of key losses. From NBA lottery picks (Duke, Wisconsin) to A-10 Players of the Year (Davidson) and A-10 First Team selections (Dayton, Richmond), everyone must replace production. Well, minus Cincinnati, but that’s rare.

But you know what the funny thing is? Somehow someone always steps up.

VCU lost Larry Sanders to the 2010 NBA Draft — a year after losing Eric Maynor to the 2009 NBA Draft — becoming the Rams’ highest drafted player ever as the 15th overall pick in 2010, then went to the Final 4 the following season despite missing the NCAA tournament with Sanders. They then lose all but one key piece from that team and win a VCU record 29 games the following season thanks to guys like Troy Daniels and Darius Theus stepping up in their increased rolls, and yes, because of a great coaching job from Shaka Smart and a staff that included Will Wade among others. They then lose guys from that team, continue to win, and the circle of college hoops life continues.

As someone who watched all those teams I can’t remember being as impressed with as many young players as I was this past season. Seriously, you all saw Justin Tillman do the same things I watched him do, did you not?

Troy Daniels and Darius Theus went from hardly recruited to stars at VCU, and having seen continued examples of that, I’m quite confident that guys like Justin Tillman, Mike Gilmore and JeQuan Lewis can do more of the same.

Oh and by the way, all of those guys I just mentioned weren’t under-recruited out of high school. They were all four-star recruits, the first two of which were top-100 players, making them all some of the most highly-recruited players VCU has ever had. Those are the guys who get to become the new stars thanks to the revolving door that is college basketball.

For what it’s worth, their offensive ratings as freshmen (107.3 for Tillman, 104.2 for Gilmore) were some of the best over the past decade, ranking sixth and eighth alongside the likes of  Troy Daniels (No.1 at 121.2), Lance Kearse (No.2 at 116.7), Mo Alie-Cox (No.3 at 114.7), Bradford Burgess (No.4 at 113.5), Brandon Rozzell (No.5 at 107.7) and Rob Brandenberg (No.7 at 104.8).

The leader of that group, Troy Daniels, had a quiet but efficient year as a freshman and is now one of two VCU players in the NBA. Lance Kearse was an extremely talented young player who’s career at VCU was ended because of health reasons (Kearse suffered from a sickle cell trait, that sidelined him before he finished his career at the DII level closer to his hometown). Mo Alie-Cox isn’t necessarily known for his offense but was an A-10 All-Defensive selection last season, so add him to the list of dangerous pieces for Will Wade his next two season’s of college hoops. Bradford Burgess has a jersey currently hanging in the Siegel Center. Brandon Rozzell became a star during VCU’s Final 4 run and totaled just shy of 1,000 points at VCU while Rob Brandenberg finished as a top-25 all-time VCU scorer by totaling 1,219 career points.

Moral of the story? I love the potential of those guys not only based off what I’ve seen, but what their numbers tell me as well. The cupboard is far from bare, quite stocked to be honest, and Wade filled it even more by adding Oral Roberts transfer Korey Billbury, a player who averaged over 14 points and 7 rebounds his past two seasons of Division 1 college basketball, not high school…we’re talking numbers in D1 hoops against grown men (Treveon Graham averaged 16.2 points and 7.1 rebound this past season, for comparative purposes). Wade also brought in JUCO transfer Ahmed Hamdy Mohamed, a 6’10 245 big who originally committed to Houston before ending up at Lee College where he averaged 16.2 points and 10.7 rebounds this past season.

Because VCU has some of the best fans in the country

I should know, because I’m one of them! The Rams have a season ticket wait list and have sold out every game since January 29, 2011, 11 games before VCU started their journey through the 2011 NCAA tournament field en route to VCU’s famous Final 4 appearance that year.

VCU should most likely continue that streak with most games selling out early in the season and others selling out days before they ever tip. And with that, VCU’s basketball program is anything but declining off the court, including on the balance sheet.

I believe in Will Wade, I believe in the guys he believes in and I believe in the passion in the stands and at VCU events. VCU is, always was, and always will be more than just one man and if you’re truly paying attention to VCU basketball right now, you know the future is as bright as it has ever been, but probably even brighter than that.

 

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