The Ballad of Love and Hate…

VCUs 4-1 start is surprising, and not at all surprising.

The visuals in the VCU locker room after Tuesday’s tough loss to St. John’s: Issac Vann got taps on the side of his head from multiple teammates after his 30-point, 11-rebound, five-assist game. Marcus Evans sat alone, staring into space. Sean Mobley busied himself removing tape. Vann barely acknowledged the love, a slight nod of his head. Nobody was coming within five feet of Evans, who seethed at his locker. And Mobley spiked his tape into the carpet hard enough to bounce five times, coming to rest at least ten feet from him.

The sounds: only the logistical necessities to get organized and get out of there were louder than a mumble.

But it wasn’t the sights and sounds that were striking. It was the smell. There was a distinct aroma hanging in the air. It wasn’t despondence or disappointment. Yes, the team lost a tough game it could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, won.

The players were upset at that, but something different filled the room and dominated the mood: hate. It was the rancid stench of raw hatred.

Mike Rhoades mentioned, almost in passing last season, that he needed to get his team to hate losing more than it loved winning. It’s an important distinction at this level. It never happened. But late Tuesday night hate filled my nostrils as I walked around that losing locker room. It was stronger than the joy of the Temple win 22 hours earlier.

***

My point here, with leftover stuffing making up 40% of my body weight, is not that VCU is going to win the A10. We’re a long way from March and a return trip to Barclays. But the Rams are going to be much better than anyone thought and are a much greater threat to win that championship if it continues to grow in the manner in which it has begun: angry, old school VCU basketball. Might want to book a room in Brooklyn.

We’re only five games into the season so I’m not saying that’s who we are, but that’s who we’re growing to become. What you see on the court is what’s happening back in the back. It’s real. This team is about the things that go into winning, not just winning. And they don’t simply move on from adversity. They hate it. They despise it. They are accountable to it. They’ve used it as the fuel for a 4-1 start that looks better than the record. VCU has done what good teams do: thumped three teams you are supposed to thump, and played two close games against two other good teams.

There are issues, of course. Turnovers are the glaring and obvious problem. VCU is turning the ball over on 24.5% of its possessions—that’s one in every four trips down the floor. That’s 328th (of 353 teams) nationally. There’s no other adjective other than some synonym of “bad.” Because of VCUs aggressive style of play, some turnovers are expected. This is not something that can continue.

Much of the issue is cleanupable, in a word. For instance, against St. John’s, Corey Douglas zipped a high post pass to Vann, who had begun his cut to the basket. An aggressive play. The problem is that Vann had moved his mindset to the drive. He forgot the groceries, and they spilled onto the pavement; scooped up by a St. John’s player and turned into a layup. It’s the old John Wooden line: be quick, but don’t hurry. I can guarantee you the team is either looking at film of turnovers, or practicing what they saw on film.

There is a good stat to say this aggression is paying off: VCU is getting to the foul line. Its free throw rate is the highest it’s been since Ken Pomeroy started tracking the stat in the 2001-02 season.

And so I’m clear, this isn’t about a moral victory, or staying close to a talented team on the road. I told Robby that’s a game, when it plays out, we should win seven of 10 times. Yes, it was a missed opportunity and that stinks. This is different. It’s about the makeup of the players, both from a talent standpoint and a mental toughness standpoint. They play for each other, not gaudy statistics.

This is the path of a team that won’t lose late to Richmond or Mason, like last year. Or drop a head scratcher. Or get down to Dayton by 462 points in the first half.

How about some bullet points?

  • Marcus Evans has been a turnover machine. After 18 months without actually playing there is a ramp up and we’re seeing that. A few turnovers were due to missed connections where Evans zigged and tried a pass to a teammate who was zagging, or a cleanupable play like trying to throw a 65-foot pass to Marcus Santos-Silva on the run. There’s a “same page” element to this that’s still a work in progress.
  • Further, Mike Rhoades likes to say “the ball sticks” when the offense gets sludgy. Evans just about dribbled a hole into the Barclays floor a few times, but he will figure it out. What is clear: Evans is that alpha dog. He is a dude. You’ve got to have a guy with that guard-cocky to succeed.
  • Do not underestimate what the combination of Santos-Silva and Douglas brings this team. It’s far more than Douglas protecting the rim or Santos-Silva rebounding with abandon. Both are very active and physical in the post but also mobile. They demand attention because they can step out to help get the offense moving and then sink to the post. They can guard to 15 feet. That matters. Their continued growth is a marker for the rest of the season, because that is a differentiator.
  • Depth: Rhoades went with essentially an eight-man rotation against St. John’s, including a seven-man rotation in the second half with only Kel Simms and Malik Crowfield coming off the bench for significant minutes. The overtime only saw Simms get off the bench. Depth isn’t always playing 10 guys. Sometimes it’s having the option of which 7-8 guys are playing well.
  • Open your mind to a different view than you held in August. The summer me said De’Riante Jenkins was going to be VCUs leading scorer. But Evans is healthy earlier than anyone thought, and Issac Vann is not the same player. Jenkins popping a handful of threes and limiting his turnovers, essentially the third option on offense, is weird. But true.
  • Sean Mobley has been hobbled a bit by a sore knee, but his emergence from a season-long funk is critical. He’s got too much talent.

***

This is a team that reeks of vintage VCU teams. It’s got some grit, and some swag. Temple’s Quinton Rose was halfway into the VCU huddle before being pulled back with around two minutes to play Monday night. That’s because Vann, in a manner of speaking, gave Rose a recap of Vann scoring on Rose, and the current game score. Vince Williams drew three charges in the first half against Bowling Green. Did we draw three charges all of last season

Antoine Willie ate ballhandlers alive and was equally happy starting or coming off the bench. Jamal Shuler was a noted gunner and carries a 1000-watt smile. But he sat down on defense and harassed ballhandlers to an exceptional level. He took it personally. Joey Rodriguez was filled with hate—he was not going to let his guys lose. Jordan Burgess would grab offensive rebounds on missed VCU foul shots.

In fact, a free throw—the most benign play on the basketball court—is the essence of hate. Hate makes no assumptions. Hate boxes out with venom even when an 86% free throw shooter steps to the line. It centers itself to the 14% and acts thusly. Hate dives to the floor. Hate takes charges. Hate barks at teammates when needed, and hate talks trash to opponents when effective. Hate comes from surprising places.

These are the attributes that pay off in close games, and when you’re shooting 30%. What you’ve seen is no mirage. It also looks familiar. This was the 40th time I’ve walked into a Mike Rhoades locker room and the first where hating to lose permeated so heavily. I love it.

We love these kinds of VCU teams, and these kinds of VCU teams win. You can hop back on the bandwagon—happy to have you aboard. Please understand when you are seated up front, right next to the horse’s ass. There is a penalty for your lack of faith.

Judging this year’s team by last year’s is a mistake; just as large a mistake as continuing a wait-and-see attitude. I’m telling you today: you will see.

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