The “U Question” was impossible to escape yesterday, and I guess that’s okay. It’s the nature of a press corps that lives 1,000 miles away and covers Big 12 basketball, or a national outlet accustomed to sound bites and historical high level references.
You cannot blame them, really, and when you think about it that’s all we had to work with regarding Oregon State.
Underdogs, and playing like one. It was the question of the day. What are you going to do? VCU and Shaka Smart made its name on the back of being an underdog, and rightfully so. It was accurate and it served everyone well. We saw a lot of success with the motif.
But just as Smart handed the reins to Will Wade and the style of play changed, so, too, is the manner in which people look at VCU. We’ve seen it coming all season, this acceptance that VCU is an accomplished basketball program. And yesterday’s press availability is the final nail in the coffin.
Wade expertly addressed that lingering U Question:
“I do think we have an accomplished program, but I do think we let our hair down and play a little bit. We play loose, and play like we’re an underdog, though we don’t necessarily see ourselves as the underdog all the time,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got — I’m not trying to compare, but we just opened a $25 million practice facility. It’s as nice as any practice facility as anybody’s got in the country. It’s hard to be an underdog when you’ve got the sort of facilities and infrastructure that we have. But on this stage, I think most people view us as an underdog and we’ll play that role and let our hair down, play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
Bullseye. The transition is still is not complete, and there is work to be done, but I feel like yesterday was a tipping point for VCU basketball. It was the point at which people unaccustomed with the specifics of VCU and its basketball heritage will now better understand. It isn’t about being an underdog anymore.
“We don’t view ourselves like that,” Wade continued. “We view ourselves as one of the top 20, 25 programs in the country, and I think our winning and our record over a longer period of time has substantiated that.”
So what does that mean today, March 20, when the Rams play Oklahoma for a Sweet 16 berth?
It means playing like junk yard dogs, not underdogs.
VCU is going to need that rattlesnake mentality because (1) Buddy Hield; (2) The Sooners are more than Buddy Hield; (3) There will be 18,000 people wearing red making a ton of noise.
It’s funny, really, when you think about the things Wade has been saying all season. Details matter. Margins are thin. We can’t have out-of-body experiences. Every single one of those apply today, on a much larger stage.
Those are the things that have paved the way for success, and to be at this place. They are the junk yard dog things things that make the VCU engine go, not the underdog mentality.
“We’ve been to eight out of the last ten NCAA Tournaments, so we’ve been very successful. But when we get here, yeah, we just let our hair down and go play,” says Wade. “We’re not in a Power Five Conference. We don’t have the name recognition of an Oklahoma or some of those folks, and we don’t necessarily have star players. We haven’t had a lot of star players over our runs. We’ve got gritty, blue collared, hard-working people. That’s what our university is, that’s what our team is, that’s what our fan base is. That’s who we are.”
Or: Be VCU.