You can’t think your way out of a prison that’s made of thought. That’s where we are right now.

At 5-5, with nothing on the left-hand side of the ledger that impresses the NCAA tournament selection committee, VCU sits in a largely unfamiliar cell, all by itself in an 8x10 rectangle of what-ifs. We got into arguments with Virginia, Marquette, Michigan, and Texas. But they all left the room. Seton Hall merely peeked in and closed the door. So here we are, with evaporated nonconference opportunities that leave us with a tattered arm chair called Old Dominion, with its stains and creases and holes caused by nearly a decade of inattention, as room’s lone piece of furniture.

It’s discomforting to look around at empty space. To grab at the naked air and close your fist tight, hoping that when you peel back your fingers ODU or Bucknell are magically top 50 wins. But you know better. It makes you think, and that’s the worst thing you can do.

Even in years past, when we left a tropical non-exempt tournament with little more than hope and bruised knuckles from fighting the P5 big brothers, we would enter the yuletide season with at least one game we could point to and say “There. That one. That is going to help us.” We also held the comfort that our A-10 brethren would provide sufficient top 100 opportunities to fill out a “resume,” or whatever the heck it is those guys use to evaluate the at large teams.

Neither blanket is at our avail this year.

This has created the prison of thought, that place where the more we think the more we dig ourselves into a cold, unwalled hole. It’s a confusing duality: we want answers and we want clarity and we want hope, but the harder we think about those concepts, the more they elude our grasp. So many good things in this season—I can think of a dozen top of mind—but so many bad things as well.

So much to think about because exactly none of it is clear.

Those concepts all surround another duality: it’s a smothering feeling, like how you pack a snowball underneath two gloved hands, to realize the at large bid is—barring something unpredictable occurring in the A10 season—not on the table. Ugh. But the other side of that thought is very freeing. The comfort of “an at large nonconference resume” is also an albatross.

In the A10 you have the stigma of validating a well-played nonconference season with a successful conference season. Sixth place finishes in the A10 get you a postseason you pay for, a sort of prostitution for extra practice time. It isn’t like a P5 conference season. You can’t bumble your way through January, knock down two highbrows in February, and coast into a seven seed as the sixth-best team in the SEC. In the A10, no matter how good or how bad your nonconference season, it can change in an instant.

That’s always been a funny duality to me. We pin the success of this season, in December, on the fact that we’re good enough to earn an at large bid to the NCAA tournament. But doesn’t that also mean you don’t believe we’re good enough to win a conference championship? It’s a curious mental insurance policy. I freaking love it. High standards, just a little cockeyed in how we get there.

And that's why it's time to stop the fool's errand of thinking about what has happened. It's time to focus on what we have ahead.

I am unwilling to believe this isn’t an NCAA tournament-caliber team. Nonconference aside, it can win in this year’s A10. I am unrelenting in my assertion that this team is AHEAD of schedule. It's better in December than we thought it would be. I am unwavering that this is a top-of-the-A10 team with as much a chance to win the tournament as in any season since we made the jump from the CAA.

Yes, I’m an optimist. Here’s the thing about that: optimists don’t think life is great all the time or force themselves to think positively. Rather, we see those negative things and instead of fighting them, and fighting the emotions that go along with the situation, we figure out what to do to change it to the way we prefer it to be.

So we are clear, this isn’t the annual “Stop Freaking Out Because Everything Is Going To Be Okay” column. Everything isn’t okay, at least not in the way we’re used to defining okay. A big part of optimism is accept reality.

We’ve got to get better defensively. Much better. We’re getting killed at the point of attack, which leads to open shots when our defense is forced to continually help and recover. That gets exposed in transition when guys are getting lost in scramble situations. Rotations come late. Too many times, a VCU defender has had to make the impossible choice: guard the open guy five feet from the basket, or guard the WIDE open guy beyond the three-point line.

This always ends with a bad result, and ours is a game of results. We’re 5-5. That means no matter the story, no matter the newness, no matter the good bad and ugly of any game and any progress VCU has played five good games and five bad games.

Mike Rhoades said in Sunday’s postgame that he was disappointed in the team’s spirit and attitude. That’s when it hit me, and it is borne out by one play. VCU knocked the ball away and charged out on a fastbreak, led by Johnny Williams. Once attacking the rim, Williams flipped a gorgeous drop pass to a trailing Justin Tillman. However instead of a two-step violent thunderdunk, Tillman tried to go all George Gervin for a nifty, finesse finger-roll.

He missed.

That’s not VCUs identity.

I’m convinced if this team takes on the identity of its current head coach, a conference championship is a viable discussion. Someone who would know brought up the concept of VCUs swag to some of us the other day. He said people like to talk about swag when you’re winning, but swag pays its greatest dividends when you’re not winning.

The biggest key to the A10 season: remembering VCU swag.

Ironically, it’s the Texas game that provides the data point. VCU fell behind by 19 in the second half, and all looked lost. But then the Rams forced a turnover. And scored. Forced a tough shot. And scored. Another stop. Another score.

Uncle Mo, that arbiter of college basketball runs, was clearly with the home team.

Turnover. Score. Turnover. Score. Suddenly 57-38 became 57-50. From there, as Mike Rhoades would say, it was Game On.  The offense was fun, but the defense was the key. Defense is always the key. Offense may be the purring swag engine, but defense is its gasoline.

This team has that swag, simmering just under the surface. It’s there. We’ve seen it. Marcus Santos-Silva has as much VCU swag as any freshman since Nick George.

And you. Holy heck, That Animal. It’s one thing to appreciate noise and vibe, but it’s quite another to be physically moved by the force of the fervor. You know how loud you were. It was incredible. If you don’t show up to the Bucknell game with that same kind of energy, passion, and vigor, don’t bother picking on the players or coaches for what you perceive as them not bringing their best. You told on yourself and what you are capable of achieving. Now go do it every time, get That Animal growling with ferocity, because that’s precisely what you are asking of the players and coaches.

I’m doubling down on these guys and these coaches. We can get out of that lonely room not by thinking through what is and what is not, but through concentrating on who we are. Fight, scrap, play hard-nosed defense. It’s a time-tested formula to get to the NCAA tournament, whether via a conference tournament championship, or an at large bid. The growth of this program has permitted multiple avenues. This season happens to be a different path.

There is another room. It’s chock full of VCU basketball and its passion. It’s filled with fans, players, coaches, victories and the NCAA tournament. It resides in our collective consciousness. In my mind, I wonder if it’s real or imagination. In my heart it’s all the same.