Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
They stepped off the plane in Columbia, South Carolina, last March and something felt different: Coach Mike Rhoades and redshirt-senior guard Marcus Evans were in town for the NCAA tournament.
The two looked at each other. No words were said, but the message was clear: “We made it.”
Evans and Rhoades had talked about this moment since their days at Rice and had finally achieved the goal of making the big dance.
It was a long road to the tournament — especially for Evans, who overcame two Achilles tears and a postseason injury — but their goal was fulfilled.
Now, after four years on the court and about six of knowing each other, Rhoades and Evans are entering their final season together.
After being recruited by VCU when Rhoades was an assistant in Richmond, Evans followed him to Rice after Rhoades received his first Division I head coaching job.
When Evans arrived in Texas, he and Rhoades set a goal.
“I told him we were going to play in the NCAA tournament and I said that when we were at Rice,” Rhoades said. “From our first day at Rice … that’s what we were pushing towards and we were getting closer and closer to it.”
Evans had a breakout freshman season for the Owls, being named C-USA Freshman of the Year and First Team All-C-USA. He followed up his freshman season with another All-C-USA selection his sophomore year.
“We threw him in the fire as a freshman at Rice and said that we were going to build a program at Rice on him and his class,” Rhoades said.
When Rhoades accepted the job to coach the Rams, Evans said the team at Rice knew he was leaving for his dream job.
For Evans, who followed Rhoades to Richmond, it was a chance to play closer to home and for a coach who had been by his side since the beginning.
“I was up in the air about where I was going, but I knew I kind of wanted to be closer to home and I wanted to play in a program that was making the tournament,” Evans said. “As I went throughout the process, it kind of made sense that VCU checked all those boxes.”
Playing in the Siegel Center last season was not the first time Evans stepped foot on the floor on the Rams’ home court. The two met on the floor of the Siegel Center during Evans’ sophomore year of high school at a team camp.
“He had a lot of energy,” Evans said. “It was early in the morning and he was hyped up so I knew he was a crazy guy in a good way. I just knew he was a guy that a lot of players connected with.”
One after another
The Chesapeake native transferred to VCU after his sophomore season and had to sit a year per NCAA transfer rules. During his redshirt season, Evans tore his left Achilles, but he used the year to recover and didn’t miss a game.
In June 2018, Evans tore his right Achilles playing pickup basketball, putting in jeopardy the beginning of his junior season.
“It was now he was going to miss games,” Rhoades said. “All he wanted to do was play and put on a VCU uniform, he was so excited to do that. That really took everybody for a loop, but man he came back so quick and he didn’t miss a game.”
To everyone’s surprise, Evans returned for the Rams’ season opener last year against Gardner-Webb, a mere five months after his injury. He played nine minutes and logged 9 points in the contest.
Evans said the support from Rhoades took off the pressure to return to the floor.
“The biggest thing he did was giving me reassurance,” Evans said. “I was fighting so hard to get back for the first game, and he just kind of helped take the pressure off of me basically, saying ‘take your time, we’re going to be fine.’”
Rhoades said Evans leaned on his faith, his family and the team to return so quick last season.
“When you have adversities like that, you have to lean on something,” Rhoades said. “For him to be ready and be even stronger this year it’s just an acknowledgement for him to know that hey, ‘I got through a lot of stuff, we can do this and now we can do it together.’”
Evans played in all 33 games last season despite being in recovery from the Achilles injury for most of it. Just when he was almost 100%, he got injured again, and this time it was his knee.
“I always say to beat Marcus Evans, you’ve got to kill him because he’s going to keep coming at you.” – coach Mike Rhoades
In the Atlantic 10 tournament against Rhode Island, Evans rose up to attempt a layup and came crashing down to the court. His screams silenced the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as training staff tended to him.
The injury was diagnosed as a deep bone bruise and hyperextension, but it was painful for Evans to put weight on his knee. Less than a week after he sustained the injury, Evans suited up and played in the NCAA tournament against UCF.
“In the A-10 tournament when he went down, I really thought it was a major knee issue,” Rhoades said. “He wasn’t 100% in the tournament, but just to see him fight back and say ‘We’re going to play in the tournament together, coach’ was a tribute to him.”
Evans wore a padded knee brace in the game he worked toward his entire collegiate career, playing 26 minutes and recording 6 points.
“It was hurting from the jump, damn near every step I was taking,” Evans told The Commonwealth Times in March. “But we worked so hard to get to this point, I wanted to try to give whatever I had to help this team win.”
‘To beat Marcus Evans, you’ve got to kill him’
If nothing else, Evans and Rhoades have one thing in common: competitiveness, as individuals and with one another.
For Evans, it’s winning every play at practice like its a game, Rhoades said. For Rhoades, it’s his persistence and dedication with everything he does, Evans said.
“Everything he does, he wants to win — he wants to beat you,” Rhoades said. “I always say to beat Marcus Evans, you’ve got to kill him because he’s going to keep coming at you.
Rhoades’ dedication is just like the players’ on the court, Evans said. It’s easy for them to connect with Rhoades because he has the “fight in him” like the players do.
“He’s a guy you kind of have to give some respect for because in his way, he’s not going to be told no, he can’t do it or his way doesn’t work,” Evans said. “In his mind, if he believes in his team and the system he has, it doesn’t matter what the media says.”
Rhoades has not kept Evans on a leash at all during their time together. Instead, he allows him freedom on the court, which Evans said helped him grow as a player.
“I think after that it was kind of understanding,” Evans said. “I knew the level of trust he had for me, and I knew what he expected from me.”
The trust and freedom that Rhoades bestowed to Evans in their first two years together resulted in Evans scoring 1,000 points before coming to Richmond.
Although Evans suffered multiple injuries last season, he fought through both and accomplished the goal of making the NCAA tournament that he and Rhoades set for themselves years ago. For Rhoades, it demonstrated his attitude and coaching philosophy of not making excuses for anything.
“You go through a lot of tough ups and downs, and we did it at Rice and we did it at VCU,” Rhoades said. “But we’re going to make no excuses, don’t complain about it, just keep finding a way — and we made it.”
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