Speaking in England, shortly after 9/11, the Dalai Lama shocked the gathering with a direct, yet codifying message.
“It happened,” he said, and paused. “It happened.” He paused again. “OK? What now?”
I’m obviously not comparing college basketball in any way to that tragic morning, but the Dalai Lama provides a mindset on this Saturday morning, 106 days from the last buzzer in DC.
Moments are passion, a built-in real-time burst of emotion rarely rooted in reality. Moments skew rational thinking. Moments are simultaneously Everest and Death Valley, and they make you think things and say things and write things you may not believe after they’ve passed and you are standing in the aftermath, parsing the inevitable science of aligning facts with passion. Make no mistake, it’s a wonderful process.
That’s why it’s taken me awhile to get to this place, the place where I can try to frame up the 2017-18 VCU basketball season so that we can look forward to what now, or use the phrase I’ve written before that’s never applied more than it does today: what can be. We can look back at the 2017-18 season but we won’t stare.
I’ve sat on the moments of last season and let them breathe. Juxtaposed the emotion and the science. Allowed myself to contemplate that it isn’t illegal or idiotic to have derived joy from an 18-15 season. We’ve been spoiled and brainwashed that our world is the NCAA tournament or misery, but it’s not. I will not allow 18-15 to sully the moments. There’s a good chance that in August, when I’m walking between the 13th green and 14th hole, tipping back a Stella for just rolling in a 12-footer for par, it will hit me from nowhere. There will be a moment, maybe two, that flood my consciousness. Khris Lane’s three against Texas. The first eight minutes at Dayton. That making the turn to the A10 season at 8-5 was a good place to be, and an awful place to be. Pondering Sean Mobley’s innate ability being buffeted by experience.
I will smile at the willfulness of Johnny Williams. He owed us nothing and gave us everything. I will remember him diving headfirst over the scorer’s table at GW and into a concrete wall. I will remember him leading the team, in the back of the bus, in a truly horrendous off-key version of “My Girl.” I will laugh at how Justin Tillman turned a lot of questions marks into exclamation points, and how my eyebrows raised at his effortless three-point shot. Tillman dropped 14 of his first 28 threes before Santa packed his sleigh, unleashing a new line on opposition scouting reports. It was odd, too. Tillman went from the Cal game to middle January without a single dunk. We missed his signature move, its ferocious but remarkably clean and non-violent nature, a sinewy flush in which the rim was no more than supporting actor, with velocity you imagine is like a black hole sucking up a planet in deep space. It’s punctuated with a primal scream, golden hair bouncing in unison with his footsteps to get back on defense.
I will miss those guys for reasons having nothing to do with 18-15.
Those moments will carry the summer, not the issues. Yes, defense was the problem, whether not actually playing it or not being in the right place. We couldn’t score enough, a basketball version of Milton’s Paradise Lost: buckets, buckets everywhere but we can’t cut into the lead. Maybe it was the mediocrity that makes it so hard to wrap our arms around it. We weren’t 9-24 and not good enough. This wasn’t the 1997-98 season, two years removed from thumping the entire CAA, when we lost seven of eight to finish 9-19. You could see that team just didn’t have it.
The 18-15 was just good enough, and not good enough. I find it’s a level of frustration more than anything. You saw flashes, individually and collectively, and wondered why that performance could not be sustained. It was not a game-by-game thing, either. This was media timeout-to-media timeout! What’s more, this question is nagging me: what if it could’ve been worse? It could always be worse. Yes we lost more home games than usual, but we didn’t face the primitive agony of being down by 33 in the first half to Delaware or lose by that margin to Jacksonville State in our own barn.
This was an unfamiliar struggle. And I get it. For all my blather 18-15 is how it’s judged, but this is the transition. This was the year we’ve all discussed. It was easy to talk about it at Labor Day cookouts and you could feign a fear and there were no consequences. But there was no faking it once we got into the middle of it. There was no getting around it because it was real. I’m not bothering with a detailed recap because there’s no difference in 18-15 and 22-11. There really isn’t. Last season was confusing and I think the confusion was driven by ego. We need to let it go.
And because life is impermanent we don’t have to sit on it. So be it. It’s time for paradise to be regained. Doctors don’t just see the sickness of the patient, they see the health. When Mike Rhoades said he told the players this is going to be the most important summer of your life, you have to get better individually so we can get better collectively, he was dead on and don’t you dare underestimate that. That’s the core of what we’re talking about.
I’ve been told by people with no rooting interest that Jamal Brunt is the real deal. Everyone has a year under their belt, and a full year to coach. De’Riante Jenkins and Malik Crowfield got a snootful of the difference in being a contributor and being a producer and that matters. I’ll admit they weren’t ready last year, but now they are ready. Obviously Jenkins needs to eat a spoonful of broken glass every day to toughen up, and for all the Crowfield-comfy-at-point-guard blah-blah-blah, I want Malik to shoot 1000 threes per day. I want Malik to turn into a sort of Troy Daniels—the threat of Malik Crowfield beyond the arc has to be more dangerous than Crowfield actually shooting. I also want:
- I want Sean Mobley channeling Carl Lewis, except the signing the national anthem part. Mobley with more giddyup is dangerous.
- I want Marcus Santos-Silva focusing between the ears—you’re not backing up Justin Tillman anymore. You are good enough, so go do it. Maybe cue up Troy Godwin highlights, because Godwin was as good as I’ve seen at using his rump effectively.
- I want to lock Mike’l Simms in a room with Jesse Pellot Rosa and let him out in late September.
- I want to let IV in the room with JPR on occasion, but also let him watch Larry Sanders so he can see when you use, and when you waste, physical gifts.
- I want Mike Gilmore to talk for five minutes every day to the team.
That’s my offseason regimen, as if I matter. The coaches have it mapped out. They can see who the players can be. The hard part is getting the players to see who they can be, instead of getting caught up in who they think they are.
What’s real for most people is the direct experience of the problem and that’s where the coaches will begin. And because I’m 106 days late, it has begun. We all demand better than 18-15 and so do the coaches. This isn’t some great mystery. It’s all in front of us.
The most important summer is underway. I can’t wait for the results.
Postscript: I need to write often, again. Life has taken me into a 280-character world for VCU basketball. I chalked it up to a busy life and priorities but really it’s laziness. It’s time to get back up on that horse.
You can blame Mike Rhoades. He told a story at the season-ending banquet about De’Riante Jenkins and a cancer patient. The cancer patient was presented a game ball as the fan of the game and sat courtside. VCU lost the game, and when it was over and Jenkins had completed the handshake line, Jenkins beelined to the fan and apologized for losing.
We will get caught up in the Xs and Os, but those are the stories we need to hear.