Attitude. It’s what makes a player, defines a team and determines the outcome of every game.
Everyone loves an underdog story and that’s exactly what VCU has given college basketball over the past few years. The Rams are notorious when it comes to a work-hard, play-hard attitude.
On March 27, 2011, the No. 11 seed Rams caused one of the biggest March upsets in years, when they defeated the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks, 71-61, which led to VCU’s first Final Four birth in program history. VCU became just the third 11th-seed to make the Final Four.
“Once again we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into this game,” said previous head coach Shaka Smart. “Our guys have done a phenomenal job of putting all the doubters aside, all the people that didn’t believe in us, and going out to do their job.”
On April 3, Richmond’s beloved Smart, the man who turned the River City upside down and into a basketball town, announced he accepted the position as head coach at the University of Texas for the 2015-16 season. With his departure, the outlook for the season without Smart was up in the air.
Any time a team loses a coach who goes only by his first name, it’s a problem. But a lot of recent talk has revolved around who will replace departed seniors Treveon Graham and Briante Weber, as well as freshman Terry Larrier.
With the loss of the coach who put VCU basketball on the map, the team’s leading scorer, a point guard who was on the verge of breaking collegiate records and a top-ranked recruit with promising potential, doubt hovers over the program.
“We’re being doubted because we lost Tre, Bri and Coach Smart — and I think it’s mostly Coach Smart — but some people don’t realize the coach isn’t the one playing the game,” junior Mo Alie-Cox said. “We have a good head coach now and he proved he can be successful. We just have to go out there and prove everyday we’re a good team and the team we know we are.”
For the first time in two years, VCU didn’t rank in the top-25 in the NCAA preseason rankings.
“It is what it is,” Wade said. “People just don’t know what we have. I think we have a good team and we’ll see what happens. You can’t worry about the preseason poll. The reality is we came in fifth place in the league last year and we lost our leading scorer, it kind of make sense. But they haven’t see our improvements or Billbury or the other guys.”
Despite winning the conference last season, the Atlantic 10’s annual men’s basketball preseason poll predicted VCU to finish fifth. Senior Melvin Johnson and Alie-Cox were all named to the Preseason All-Conference Third Team. Alie-Cox, VCU’s rim protector, was also named to the A-10 all defensive team.
The players recognize the reasoning behind the rankings, but don’t read too far into them. Johnson, the second-leading scorer last season, said he isn’t interested in personal statistics, he just wants to win.
“We’re self-motivated, we’re motivated just to win whether it’s Duke or Prairie View,” Johnson said. “I take the pride myself, I didn’t really play as well as I could have. It is what it is, but I feel like we’re a really good team and with the coach transition a lot of people are doubting, which is perfectly fine. Guys are internalizing that and it’s fuel to the fire.”
During his last season as VCU’s assistant coach in 2013, Wade took on the role of helping Johnson transition into college during his freshman year. Nearly three years later, Wade said Johnson has matured and sees a successful man and a leader.
Wade has continuously made it a point to turn his players into successful young men on and off the court.
The basketball staff checks in on the player’s classes and Wade meets with every player individually on Tuesdays.
Every Sunday evening, Wade brings in a guest speaker to show them life after college basketball. Speakers have taught etiquette and how to manage their money.
”I tell my guys there’s a difference between getting a degree and getting an education,” Wade said. “Anyone can come here and get a degree. (I want parents) coming to me at graduation telling me I made their son a man.”
Wade recognizes Richmond has become a basketball city even more since he left and he plans to keep it that way. Players have shown discipline and humbleness, two keys to success.
“Our fans are awesome,” Wade said. “It’s great for the university, players and the students. It’s great for the city to thrive. Our goal is to keep it moving in a positive direction and grow the support, keep people excited and bring new folks.”
Sophia Belletti, Staff Writer
Sophia is a sophomore journalism major who writes for the Odyssey in addition to the news, sports and spectrum sections of the CT. Sophia also works in sales at Nordstrom and likes hiking and going to concerts. // Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn