But I went down to the demonstration
To get your fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse”
You can’t always get what you want.
But when you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.
Sometimes there’s no medicine, eastern herbs or western chemicals, that frees the anguish that traveled from your eyes through your soul. There’s no words to placate the mind and its processing of the obvious.
Friday night’s loss at Dayton was an ass kicking.
It was ironic that Jason Capel was on the call for ESPN, because midway through the second half I kept remembering Jeff Capel’s legendary “drive around Richmond in a van and pick up five guys” 2003 speech after UNCW humiliated VCU, at home, 81-50.
And while the mental picture of Capel behind the wheel, going neighborhood to neighborhood asking guys to come play for VCU is humorous, his message was anything but that.
“It was an old-fashioned butt-whippin’. I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” he said. “They beat us at every position, every possession. They won every possession. I’m very disappointed in my team. We didn’t fight. We had no pride out there today.”
Capel continued: “There’s no excuse for that. We practice harder than that…there’s just no excuse for that, the performance that we had. It was embarrassing to me, to the coaching staff. I’m embarrassed for our university, for our fans. I feel absolutely awful.”
Mike Rhoades did not use those words after Friday’s debacle, but he matched the angry spirit. Rhoades punctuated our postgame discussion with a message to his team: “I hope they are embarrassed.”
There’s been a book’s worth of words written and a book club’s worth of conversation about this version of the Rams, the 2017-18 VCU basketball season. It’s been a curvaceous trek, and one thing is clear: we’ve reached the fork in the road.
Everything in this season has been explainable, both good and bad. It made sense. Friday made no sense, which is why I believe we’ve reached that fork. The season is going to make sense again. It’s just a matter of what it looks like when the sun comes up.
Next up are those Henrico-based arachnids, slogging through a 4-13 season and steeped in hope that even a disastrous winter is salvageable if 8-23 includes a victory in the belly of that animal. And while nobody will confuse this year’s GW team with any of the Lonergan-based Colonials of recent years, the Spiders are coming off a win. Make no mistake: there’s talent on that squad, and the cohesion of talent around a common goal—we just won and a win at VCU could take our season in a new direction—is a powerful and amazing drug. This exact dynamic was the DNA of VCUs 2011 Final Four run.
Danger lurks, but so does promise. We suffocate Richmond and lock them in the cellar and turn Dayton into the outlier, the January wake-up call, and the sun shines bright and warms our hopes. We don’t, and we risk a bone-chilling march to March.
Typically this is where I dig into numbers to depict the point I’m trying to articulate. But this is not about the numbers. They are pointless to the identification of the issue and its resolution.
We’re not going to spend many words on offense. That’s fine. Yes we sometimes throw the ball all over the gym and the bricks stack up like we’re building Trump’s wall, but on balance we run good offense. We have talent. The ailments on that side of the court are not unlike any other season or team.
Personally I want to see Malik Crowfield get a little more aggressive and have guys make simple plays very simply. I feel like we add to the degree of difficulty on basic plays too often.
But that’s it.
The danger has not surprised us, and it’s on the defensive side. I tried to outline my fear in August by writing:
Chemistry. We always think about it on offense and in the locker room, but for this VCU team, this year, chemistry on the defensive end is going to be the ultimate arbiter of success. This team will be tough enough and scrappy enough, but missed assignments, missed box outs, and the newness of new personnel will keep those twenties out of reach.
It isn’t about scheme. That will help but that’s not the primary issue. Changing scheme is helpful like Advil helps a hangover. You’ve blunted the pain and feel better but done nothing to change the problem of drinking too many Stellas. Stats are merely the bathroom light that allows you to find the Advil.
The primary problem is that we struggle to contain the guy with the ball. Too many times—WAY too many times—a dribble driver gets past his man and runs free towards the rim. The defense must adjust and make quick decisions. We get scrambling and we get beat.
There is no scheme that is not defeated when you don’t stop the dribbler. It causes a power play. The opponent is playing 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 when we are beaten at the point of attack.
Dayton beat us out at the foul line, from the baseline, and in the open court. The first example happened on the game’s third possession. It resulted in an open three that made the game 8-0.
The Dayton player dribbled past Issac Vann and into the lane. Malik Crowfield was forced to make a decision: do I help on the guy with the ball who could shoot a layup, or do I cover the three point shooter? That’s a lose-lose proposition.
The end result—an open three—leaves you wondering why Crowfield would leave his man open, but it occurred because Crowfield was in that no-win situation brought about by the lack of ball control. Further, De’Riante Jenkins also left his man to help on the ball on that play. Even if Crowfield makes the right decision, Dayton is one pass from another open shooter because we are chasing.
As the game wore on, you could see more and more execution errors pop up: a missed switch or open shooter because there was no communication between two VCU defenders.
That’s why I refuse to believe it’s about scheme and we don’t need to “go zone,” a lazy thought process when the other team is getting open shots. It’s more about execution to stop the dribbler, and being overly chatty with each other as the defensive possession wears on.
It’s about one other thing that is also scheme-neutral.
We’ve got to take this personally. We’ve got to get mean. It’s the Eastwood speech in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Sometimes you have to get mean. And I mean plum mad dog mean.
Defense is about passion and want to. Pop in a tape of VCUs loss to Pitt in the 2007 NCAA tournament. We lost that game but watch how that team played defense. That team played defense with a certain nastiness.
You don’t give up offensive rebounds because you box a guy out into the fourth row. A guy makes two straight layups and has that confident look; so on his third attempt he goes to the foul line for free throws shaking out his shoulder because under no circumstances was he going to shoot a layup for the third time.
The most disappointing part of the Dayton game, for me, was that nobody got mad. Jenkins had an angry moment on the bench and Sean Mobley played with the most passion on the court, but after the third layup and fifth three splashed down nobody got plum mad dog mean. “Come on guys let’s pick it up” works great when you’ve just given up a 13-2 run and trail 32-22. You need something altogether different when you’re getting your ass kicked.
So great. Thanks for that. What’s next, Sherlock?
I’ll buy into changing things up more often to keep the other team more off-balance. But as I’ve said repeatedly “go zone!” is a hilariously misguided concept.
We’ve already adjusted to play more of a matchup zone look in our man defense. It worked against Duquesne and got worked against Dayton, which leads me to believe it’s an execution-based problem. We have to get better stopping the ball. To me, that’s 75% of the battle, and 80% of that 75% is playing with a mean spirit.
We have reached the edge of the cliff. We jump from here and we either fly, or we splat.
So vent your frustration. Blow that 50-amp fuse. We didn’t want to get run out of Dayton, but perhaps it’s what we needed.
After Jeff Capel called out his guys in that 2003 UNCW loss, the Rams blew out Towson on the road. Then they went down to Norfolk and beat a very good ODU team, launching a string of nine straight wins.
That season ended with VCU coming back from 11 down with less than two minutes to play in the CAA semifinals against Drexel. They lost on a last-second shot by Robert Battle, but that team displayed the fight and grit and meanness that became the program staple we know today.
VCU would win the CAA the very next year and scare the crap out of Chris Paul and Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament. Three years later Jesse Pellot-Rosa flattened Greg Paulus, paving the way for Eric Maynor to dagger us all into ecstasy. They started stuff against that 2011 team. The 2015 team had to win four games in four days in Brooklyn, beating Dayton in the A10 finals, and did just that.
I think much of that resulted from a direct and public conversation about a van.
I believe in these guys and I believe in this season. Dayton can be outlier, not the identifier. The issues are fixable, and there’s time. It starts today. We can get back to the brand of basketball we’re used to seeing from VCU.
It’s only rock and roll but I like it.