Bear with me, please. After the last six months, a minor irony blew up in my head and I tortured it. So we are going to wrap this 2015-16 season two ways–first with some fun, and then with some perspective.
What else was I supposed to do with the past two weeks?
It’s amazing, the similarities between the entire regular season and the Oregon State game. Think about it. I did:
We didn’t really know what we were getting in Will Wade. You could pretend, and you could hope, and you could read the articles and maybe you saw Chattanooga play a few times, but you didn’t really know what it would be like on the sidelines.
We really didn’t really know what we were getting in Oregon State. You could pretend, and you could hope, and you could read the articles and maybe you saw the Beavers play a few times, but you didn’t really know what it would be like when the game started.
VCU had two quick wins in the 2K Classic, running past Prairie View and Radford to start the season.
A JeQuan Lewis three and two transition layups staked VCU to a quick 9-4 lead over Oregon State.
And then VCU went to New York and dropped two straight games, to Duke and Wisconsin. It was a little bitter, because the Rams didn’t play terrible basketball, but fell short.
And then VCU surrendered a 16-8 run and trailed Oregon State 20-17. It was a little bitter, because the Rams didn’t play terrible basketball, but were behind.
There were ups and there were downs in the nonconference season. A couple terrible losses, including poor shot selection in the loss to Georgia Tech and a 5-5 record, were offset by three expected wins to close it out. VCU stayed strong and had an 8-5 record. You felt good, but you knew it was tenuous.
There were ups and there were downs in the first half of the Oregon State game. A couple terrible stretches, including poor shot selection from three and the 20-17 deficit, were offset by a mini-run by expected players (Billbury, Johnson, Lewis) that gave VCU a six point lead. The Rams stayed strong and at the half led by 8, 35-27. You felt good, but you knew it was tenuous.
VCU opened the A10 season on a run. The Rams took a punch at Saint Joseph’s, slogged through double overtime at Richmond when Will Wade reminded us he could count to six, blitzed Davidson in North Carolina and notched a better-later-than-at-the-time win over Bonnies. VCU was 9-0.
VCU opened the second half on a run. The Rams took a punch when Stevie Thompson hit a three, slogged through Drew Eubanks’ double free throws when Will Wade reminded us he had faith in Ahmed Hamdy, blitzed the Beavers with a Jonny Williams coast-to-coast layup, and notched a more-important-than-it-seemed-at-the-time five points from Hamdy. VCU led 47-37.
The Rams lost in “yeah-alright” fashion to GW and then inexplicably to a barely-winning-games UMass team, and after three straight expected wins at home lost again, at Mason. What the heck?
The Rams gave up a “yeah-alright” dunk to Gary Payton II, and then inexplicably gave up back-to-back threes to barely-scoring Derrick Bruce. Payton slammed home a dunk and VCU trailed Oregon State by two with about 10 minutes to play. What the heck?
At a very critical time in the season,The Melvin hit a layup, and Mo Alie-Cox shut-your-mouth dunked on GWs Tyler Cavanaugh, a forceful statement in an important road win as the regular season wound down. Not everything was perfect after that moment, but the Rams finished the regular season tied for the championship and earned the #2 seed in the A10 tournament.
At a very critical time, The Melvin hit a giant three, JeQuan Lewis followed, and Mo Alie-Cox shut-your-mouth dunked Oregon State’s Eubanks, a forceful statement in an NCAA tournament game as the clock wound towards 6:00 and gave VCU a five-point lead. Not everything after that was perfect, but the Rams finished off Oregon State 75-67 and earned a date in the round of 32 against Oklahoma.
This is where the theme breaks down. VCUs run through the A10 tournament and the Oklahoma game have few parallels. The Rams sandblasted both UMass and Davidson, but struggled for most of the championship game against Saint Joseph’s. The Oklahoma game was its own rollercoaster, with enough ups and downs to fill a season.
Side note: I will go to my grave cursing the crap offensive push off call on JeQuan Lewis. It will go down with the Treveon Graham (non) charge in, ironically, the Saint Joseph’s game a couple years back.
The main tie between the games was how they ended: a loss. But, both also saw a scrappy VCU team that never let up. The Rams trailed the Hawks by 21 points with about eight minutes to play and trimmed that lead to seven. Against the Sooners, it was a quick 21-7 deficit, followed by fight, followed by a 13-point deficit, followed by more fight and a small lead. Just as there was too much DeAndre Bembry, the A10 player of the year, there was too much Buddy Hield, the (some folks say) national player of the year.
That fight was the consistent element, in both games and all season. That’s the real parallel, not the goofy opening paragraphs of this piece.
In November, much was made of what VCU did not have. Smart, Graham, Weber, Larrier, Mack, Murphy, Williams. However by March the conversation, unless you are that moron from channel 8, was focused on what VCU has.
That’s why we can sit here in the shadow of the Final Four in Houston–the fifth since the last time it was in Houston, the one in which VCU competed–and feel very good about the season and the state of VCU basketball. We know what we have, and we know we are constructed to fight to overcome obstacles.
It’s a curious duality. It feels new and familiar at the very same time. What’s more, the feeling about this season isn’t really about the NCAA tournament win, and near-win, although it is absolutely about that NCAA tournament win.
It’s how this VCU team arrived at its destination, the journey. That’s what makes us all feel good about this particular season, and the trajectory for the next particular season, and the one after that.
But it’s also about the fact that we took a ride together and tasted something only 31 other programs tasted. NCAA victory.
One of my favorite Emerson quotes is that “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
At 5-5 this team could’ve packed it in. Korey Billbury, already an influential member of the team, was nowhere near his goal. Ahmed Hamdy was figuring it out; ditto every returnee in a new role. Minutes were doled out unevenly. Hell, the coaching staff was figuring out its own roles and approach and relationships.
It was a brand new culture, this WFWE. (Will Freaking Wade Era). It was like walking into your sister’s house, after her kids have gone to college and she remodeled a couple rooms. The infrastructure is essentially the same, but it’s a whole new vibe.
We can pretend it was familiar and easy because Wade was here three years ago as an assistant, but you know better. It’s never easy and it’s always new. And it didn’t start well. Things could’ve gone south. Very south. Ernest Shackleton south.
In seasons past there were frustrating and ugly losses, but never–ever–doubt. This year, at that point, doubt was introduced, and it was real. We can admit that.
It was tamped down by an enthusiasm that generated 12 straight wins. That’s what we all responded to, and that was the genesis of why VCU could lose in the A10 final, and in the NCAA round of 32, and there was not a sense of profound loss. Rather, a sense of profound hope.
Doubts were extinguished, and it became about what happens on the basketball floor when the clock is running. That transition from 5-5 to whatever the record would eventually become was the turning point of past to present. From that team to this team.
An important data point: Wade’s Aykroyd-channeling “we’re on a mission from God,” press conferences waned as the season went along. He had fewer instructive points to make about his VCU team and its identity. Everyone began to see it take shape. There was no need to blaspheme in there, and press conferences turned a little more dry white toast.
You can outline a plan and talk about a plan. You may be able to see the plan. The leader–Wade in this case–can articulate the plan and pontificate on the important influences on the plan. That’s what occurred early this season, but you couldn’t really taste the plan.
And there they sat, at 5-5 and staring each other in the face, and in the heart. Headed south?
That did not happen and it’s precisely because the coaches and players attacked every day with enthusiasm. Wade has mentioned his distaste for the term grind. “I love what I’m doing,” he’s told me, “and when you love what you do it’s not a grind.”
They added some junk yard dog to the mix. That’s what everyone began to tap into.
This team determined its identity–blue collar, work hard. Take nothing for granted. It was a pizza and beer team. It was Melvin Johnson as a senior, not Melvin Johnson as a freshman. And while you can talk about those things, you have to be those things.
This VCU team was also a team of Be. Of Action. Of Do. I’ve written here about the power of what can be, and the difference this season: what can be became what we did.
The 12-game midseason winning streak validated those instructive points, which meant Wade had less blaspheme in his speech. VCU won fast, slow, with defense and offense. Made threes and missed threes. We saw a familiar face, and took comfort in an old friend: VCU basketball.
It rose from a dark place and beat a major conference team in the NCAA tournament.
I attended a practice in October where assistant coach Rasheen Davis threw his clipboard to the floor in disgust, shouting at the players and instructing them on the minute differences in how NIT teams practice, and how NCAA teams practice. The staff had a plan from very early and set the tone of non-deviation. They knew, and like the winter’s first fire it took time to blaze. There was care and feeding, to be sure, and eventually smoke gave way to the fire.
The bedrock of it all was a stubbornness. VCU would have, as Wade says, out of body experiences, but for the most part they were true to their identity. Importantly there was never a hint of panic.
Those attributes are what got them past UMass, and Mason. They were losses and they smelled to high heaven. But there was no doubting. Oh no sir. Not by February. They were banana peels, not armor-chinking fear.
Enthusiastic stubbornness is Will Wade’s stamp. It was what brought them back from deficits and held leads, this enthusiastic stubbornness. It represented the homeostasis of VCU basketball and the sign of progression.
Doubt turned to hope and then to belief. For everyone from coaches to players to fans. It was quite a journey. And lo and behold, goals were met, and then we won in the NCAA tournament.
Don’t you dare take that for granted. Don’t. You. Dare. Revel in all the days, the good ones and the bad ones, and definitely not just the ones in March.
VCU announced Wade’s contract extension on my birthday and tonight is the Final Four. Dammit, that’s where we’re ending this season.