There are talking points in sports, certain cliches that sound very smart, but when held up to examination and thought fall flat.
There’s my favorite: “it’s tough to beat a team three times in one season,” which, as it turns out, is not that tough.
There’s the hilarious “we have to focus only on our next game,” which–if you are not a player or coach–is ridiculous.
Another that grinds my gears is that “yeah, but he’s winning with <previous coach’s> players!” This one gets straight to the heart of what Will Wade and his staff have accomplished this season.
It’s actually HARDER to win with another coach’s players. Think about it.
VCU was a wide open, full-court, guard-oriented three-point shooting team under Shaka Smart. They pressed–the whole havoc thing.
Wade came in and started talking about guarding front porches and mauling people at the rim and playing inside-out offense and matchup zone defense. Practice drills. Scouting approach. Meeting schedules.
These were all foreign concepts to the 15 guys who actually play the game. It’s incredibly difficult to get 15 guys who had played a certain way for their entire VCU career to stop on a dime and change to an entirely different approach.
There was a lot to learn, and re-learn. That matchup zone took awhile. It was like cooking dinner on an electric stove for years, and then being told you had to cook the same meal, but over an open fire in your back yard. The end result had to be the same–a tasty meal, or winning basketball games–but you had to take a different route to put it all together.
What’s more, every single guy on that team had to adjust to a new role.
Melvin Johnson: leader and “that guy.”
Mo Alie-Cox: running offense through him.
JeQuan Lewis: distribute, and team first.
Korey Billbury: welcome to Richmond. Figure it out.
The list could continue, but point remains the same. There were both individual and collective changes involved in this season. That’s hard.
And that’s just the Xs and Os. Imagine the emotional and mental side of things. It was a brand new culture.
“We’re going to do what?” is an easy hurdle in October, when there are no games. “You want me to do what?” is coachable when you are winning. Those become gigantic boulders when you are 5-5 and struggling.
The old way produced 20-something wins, a conference championship, and an NCAA tournament berth. It would be easy for the team–20 year olds, mind you–to seek that comfort.
Wade and his staff kept at it, kept digging, used piggy banks and 2×4 lumber and stop signs and whatever means necessary to keep the team on a track they knew would pay off.
Eventually it paid its dividend. Wade had the players focus on details and put quarters in the piggy bank, but don’t for one second forget the coaches were also taking care of their details every single day. They had to. They were managing 15 young men in an extremely vulnerable and transitory situation.
You have to give the players credit for being open to it, and not caving in when things were difficult. Johnson’s leadership, Billbury’s desire to fulfill promises, and Lewis’s maturation were all part of it. So, too, is Alie-Cox’s blossoming offensive game. They did their part.
But the coaching staff galvanized it all.
Don’t you forget that. It’s so very much more difficult to take another guy’s players and system, make them your own, and succeed. Don’t lose sight of what Will Wade and his staff have accomplished.
What did they accomplish?
A regular season co-championship, and an NCAA tournament win. These are two milestones VCU has thirsted for, and have now obtained.
And we play tomorrow for more.