I vividly remember driving down a mountain in western North Carolina in late November, 2005. It was a cold and wet night, after 10pm, and snow fell early in the drive. As the pavement moved closer to sea level and interstate 40 the snow turned to rain.
It was an unhappy descent. The fact that my driveway was still four hours away was nowhere near my mind. VCU had just lost to Appalachian State. Appalachian. State. We were one season from an NCAA tournament game in which Chris Paul had to make all eight free throws in the last minute to hold off VCU. This was Nick George’s senior year. BA Walker and Jesse Pellot Rosa were juniors. Yes, VCU lost to Old Dominion in the CAA Finals the year before, but even though it was painful to admit those were damned good Old Dominion teams under Blaine Taylor.
VCU does not effing lose these games. That phrase bounced around my noggin for at least another 60 miles.
But some kid named Thompson, who stood about 5-7 and was 150-pounds soaking wet, had run circles around us. Eric Davis–you remember that sad chapter in transfer history–committed 3000 turnovers. Sure as shooting, VCU lost. And I hit the road, with four hours to dissect why.
Fast forward one season.
After a poor showing in the Paradise Jam–stop me if you’ve heard about VCU playing poorly in the Caribbean–the Rams rolled off a pile of wins, and guess who came to dinner to end the calendar year and nonconference season? Appalachian State, and that Thompson kid.
Guess what happened? That’s right–a loss to a team VCU does not lose to. I was befuddled, and transported back to that wet stretch of road in North Carolina and the questions of what was wrong with the players, or the new head coach, or both.
Those two seasons and those two losses to Appalachian State are remarkable parallels to where we sit right now. We’re at the fork in the road for 2015-16. That 2005-06 team, with George dominating the ball and attention, entered January at 8-3. The 2006-07 team, with a guy named Eric Maynor dominating the ball and a new head coach, was 9-3. Those two seasons went in entirely separate directions. The former lost in the CAA quarterfinals to Hofstra and Antoine Agudio to finish 19-10. It was the last season in which VCU did not play in some sort of postseason tournament.
The latter featured The Dagger and a double overtime loss to Pitt in the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament.
We were there then, and we are there now. We’ve reached a defining moment in this season. The people and the years are different but the feeling is the same: crossroads. Which way are we going to go? 2005-06, or 2006-07? (I’ll answer that later.)
Side note: please take a moment and consider this. I was griping about Appalachian State. We are griping about losing to Wisconsin, Duke, Florida State, and Cincinnati, by a combined 20 points. Forget what it means for this this season. THINK ABOUT THOSE WORDS IN YOUR BRAIN. And appreciate where this program is, for cripes sake.
I feel better.
So where are we, or who are we?
Let’s back up one season. Treveon Graham and Briante Weber masked a lot of deficiencies. Graham was such a multi-dimensional offensive player that he essentially invented the small-guy-at-the-four-position. Graham’s versatility allowed other players to coast. In no way do I mean that in a bad way. What I’m saying is that Graham was an offensive juggernaut; he was direct deposit. That meant other players were not forced to do certain things on offense. Direct deposit took care of it. This season, without Graham, the players are featured more prominently, and thus being asked to do more, on offense. It is somewhat new.
Similarly, and it should go without saying, Weber was a freak of nature on defense. His ability to pressure the ball made everyone else’s job on defense far easier. They could make mistakes you never saw because of Weber’s ability. And many of those live-ball turnovers were either a direct or indirect result of Weber’s ability.
Both were transformational players.
Where I’m going with this: Mike Gilmore and Justin Tillman are sophomores, but in some ways they are playing a second freshman season. Korey Billbury is new. So is Hamdy. Mo Alie Cox is being asked to do things never asked of him. JeQuan Lewis and Melvin Johnson are the only two players with experience in their roles.
Will Wade is building a new way of doing things, and you could see it in his eyes when he said after the Cincinnati game that “we’ve hit on the right formula.” Everybody wanted that to happen from the get-go, but that was unrealistic.
Also, what people forget is that Shaka Smart lost three of his first four CAA games. That turned out fine, huh? Transition is seldom a smooth ride. It simply takes time for the new players to learn the new approach.
Now, I don’t say that as an excuse, and I’m a believer that you get one or two moral victories a season. Everything after that is a loss.
And that leaves us here: we’ve lost all our chances at a marquee nonconference win. That is a fact. There are no more chances. There are no more next-games.
This team has simply got to get it done, and it will have to occur in the Atlantic 10 season. Fortunately, we have the opportunity for multiple top 100 and top 50 RPI wins in conference.
The path to an at large bid seems clear: finish off the nonconference season unblemished, and some combination of 14 or 15 conference wins. Whether that’s 12 regular season wins and two or three at Barclay’s, or whatever, that’s where we need to be.
That strikes me as hilarious, really. Since when did the success metric of a season become a December checkpoint of the clear path to an at large bid?
Wasn’t one of the reasons we joined the Atlantic 10 precisely because of the ability to play well in conference and earn an at large bid, because, you know, the conference is that strong?
Doesn’t the Atlantic 10 offer its automatic bid to the conference tournament winner? Oh, that’s right. I nearly forgot. It’s been so long since VCU won the Atlantic 10 tournament. It was way back in 20thelastonetheyplayed.
A very good basketball coach once told me “winning attracts shit.” And what he meant by that was that when you win, people are attracted to you for the wrong reasons. Expectations become clouded, unrealistic, or poorly framed. Players begin expecting success because they don’t know any differently. They lose sight of the details. They forget about what goes into winning. That’s where we are, to be honest.
There isn’t one thing VCU can do to go the route of 2006-07. The Rams can’t simply “press more, like we used to do.” It doesn’t work that way. That’s a shortcut approach brought on by the poor framing of expecting to win because you are VCU.
We press more and we get tired, or the opponent forms a layup line at the basket and we bitch and moan like last year that the man-to-man defense (and press) is getting shredded. Everyone loved it this summer when Wade said VCU would “guard the front porch” and fall back into some zone defense. I’d argue we are guarding the porch and making it more difficult to score. VCUs steal percentage and turnover percentage are actually BETTER than last year.
The one thing we always forget about the defensive part of havoc is that it wasn’t about open court steals and layups–it was about getting extra possessions for the offense. Those run outs were fun, but they were no more than a favorable result of the overarching strategy. We are doing a better job with that this year. Sure, we don’t get as many easy baskets, but we’re giving up far fewer of them as well. When Wade says he likes the scheme and that they have found the right attack, this is what he means. It’s a question of strategy, and Wade is choosing to make it more difficult for opponents to score. I like that.
However this is where those “little things,” those “details” that Wade also harps on, come into play. For players, that is the dividing line of winning and expecting to win. What I mean is that the players have got to understand—and accomplish—the things that go into winning.
You don’t just stop someone on defense. And you don’t stop someone on defense if someone else is doing their job. A missed assignment off the ball led to a dagger three on Saturday by Farad Cobb. On offense, a VCU player screened a spot on the floor instead of screening a defender. He was called for an offensive foul. Out of a timeout, the players didn’t line up properly on an inbounds, which meant they could not run the called play.
Those are the details that lead to lost possessions and bad shots. Those are the things that, if handled, lead to winning. Open shots don’t just happen—they are made to happen by handling the details. Open shots aren’t easily given up, not if you are true to the scouting report.
You can see the signs of this team taking the right direction, the 2007 Approach. There are fewer breakdowns on defense. On three drives that I can remember from Saturday, Lewis u-turned in the lane and set up the offense as opposed to driving straight to the rim. That’s progress. Gilmore played with more kid-opening-Christmas-gifts than kid-trying-to-find-cookie-jar. Progress. Hamdy was inconsistent Saturday, but he was a factor. Progress.
Personally, that VCU scored 63 points against the nation’s 11th best defense, 61 of which were from players other than Melvin Johnson, is insanely encouraging. More progress when you consider The Melvin’s 36 points (of 71 total) against FSU.
On one of Lewis’s u-turns on Saturday, he zigged left, zagged right, and fed Hamdy for basket and a foul. The Melvin sprinted from the other side of the court, put his arm around Lewis and got his nose one inch from Lewis’s. Melvin screamed at Lewis “that’s what we need from you.” Progress. Now, the guys have to hold each other accountable for breakdowns. That’s the next step forward.
As Wade said: not perfect, but better. Way better.
So to sum it up: there’s no getting around 5-5. It’s where we are and it’s time to move forward. We’ve reached that precipice. I’d much rather move forward needing to shore up details than to have a flawed approach. I like the zone looks Rasheen Davis and Will Wade are implementing. I like the offensive flow. Details matter, and will ultimately make the difference in 2006, or 2007.
A friend of mine that knows a thing or two about VCU basketball texted me on Sunday morning. It read: We are an NCAA caliber team.
I believe that. Firmly. Now it’s time to go do that. Wade knows it:
“We’ve got the right formula now. We’ve got to do it better…our margins are extremely thin. Every little detail matters.”
We’ve got this.