Two Days in the Coliseum: Reflections on the CAA TourneyPosted by JWeill on March 7th, 2012
Richmond Coliseum is not a pretty place. It’s old. The color of the inside can best be described as “concrete.” The rafters are dark and the seats darker. It boasts all the ambiance of an airplane hangar. Each year, at the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament, the fans grumble about the decrepit surroundings and some columnist writes an article in the local paper talking about how old and lousy the Coliseum is.
And yet, somehow the inferior surroundings make the actual experience of watching the conference tournament there stand out all the more. Without the bells and whistles of a modern, NBA-style arena, you’re left with just the contrasting team colors and the fans that adorn them, the rival pep bands and a sort of pure college basketball that shines plenty all by itself.
This Sunday, the arena is buzzing. Old Dominion, two-time defending champion, is battling this season’s regular-season champion Drexel in the first semifinal. Drexel is the outlier, from far-off Philadelphia, while the other teams in the final four hail from the state of Virginia, including Virginia Commonwealth, which is less than two miles away. VCU will face George Mason in the second game, a rivalry that has already resulted in two hard-fought, borderline acrimonious meetings already this season.
The teams here are the best in the CAA, the top four seeds. But they’re also all fundamentally flawed. That’s no damnation, it’s just the way things are. It’s part of what makes college basketball – especially mid-major conference college hoops – irreplaceable, and unmatched in its own specific glory. The Monarchs of ODU feature a player sporting goggles held on with a Croakie and a guy with a knee brace who limps visibly. The players’ names on the Drexel uniforms are comically large, as if designed for AARP approval. VCU’s starting center plays only 15 minutes a game and hasn’t scored more than 10 points in a game all season. One of George Mason’s starting guards shoots under 20% from three. What’s not to love about all that imperfection? In an imperfect world, we can all appreciate some less-than-perfection.
Each of the last four teams sees this event as its only sure path to the NCAA tournament. Only Drexel and VCU offer possible at large candidacies, and neither is overwhelmingly strong. For Drexel’s coach, Bruiser Flint, an NCAA bid would bring some much-needed legitimacy to his program. Old Dominion has been there before.
The opening semifinal starts with lots of intensity and not many shots made. The Dragons manage an early lead. ODU’s bench uses flash cards to call its plays, thus assuring that the players have no answer to the coach’s inevitable question of, “Why the hell did you do that?!”
A fan in the lower bowl holds up a homemade sign, simple scribbled words on a half-still-rolled white poster board that reads, “ODU SUCKS!!”It’s unclear to whom the fan’s allegiances are to, though not who they are against, apparently.
Sucking or not, Old Dominion works its way back into the game methodically, tightening the defense on one end and earning extra scoring chances with offensive rebounds on the other. But the Old Dominion crowd, once boisterous, is subdued by the deficit and their team’s inability to get into any sort of offensive rhythm. At a timeout, Big Blue, ODU’s lion mascot, who inexplicably wears a T-shirt under a jersey, tries to raise the spirits of the Monarchs fans. He fails. Drexel’s Dragon mascot is more cartoonish and more entertaining, a look of forever confusion molded onto his face. But neither has the sheer oddity of the VCU ram, Rodney, which looks a great deal more like a dog with horns attached than a ram.
Drexel’s big men Daryl McCoy and Samme Givens are built in a typically mid-major fashion, beefy and strong but not tall and long as their counterparts at Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina. They create space with muscle and hustle, not with genes. Givens yells at Damion Lee, his teammate, “SCREEN, DAMION!” as an ODU defender rushes to set a pick on his blind left side. Lee doesn’t turn or acknowledge Givens, but as the pick is set he glides just outside it, sensing the body near him.
Thirty-two minutes in Monarchs star forward Kent Bazemore finally gets going, snaring a rebound above the rim and finding a teammate for a basket and foul that cuts the lead to 10 points for the first time in what seems like ages. As the teams go to a scheduled timeout, Bazemore appeals to the suddenly awakened ODU crowd with grand waves of his long, spindly arms. Drexel, as it has all season, finds a way to match the run, breaking a trapping press three straight times for easy baskets. Bazemore’s response is woefully short, and he grimaces at his own airballed three as it bounces meekly out of bounds.
The Old Dominion band looks like most all college bands do, the boys shaggy and lumpy, the girls just slightly less so. With its team all but finished the band tries to muster some enthusiasm with a rendition of LMFAO’s irritatingly ubiquitous “Party Rock Anthem.” No one cheers.
Eventually, too many shots don’t fall for ODU and do for Drexel, who weathers the only real threat the Monarchs throw at them and win going away. Dour faces dominate the losing band and cheerleaders as they file from the bleachers behind the basket.
After the game, Drexel coach Bruiser Flint says of the opportunity in front of his team, “This was our mission.” Givens, a senior, smiles as he notes that he’d never played beyond the quarterfinals in three prior trips. The losing coach, Blaine Taylor, his voice quiet and calm, talks of the journey his team has been on this season. It’s “been personally satisfying for me,” he says. “As the two-time defending champions, I think we carried ourselves with pride and dignity.”
He then adds a few minutes later that the game was a “little more physical, a little more titty-bumping going on.” Everyone looks around them as if confirming he actually just said that before chuckling uncomfortably.
Back on the court, warm-ups begin for the second semifinal. The hometown contingent makes itself, and its loathing of archrival George Mason, well known.
“You don’t want to go warrrr, with the Raaa-ammms!” They scream.
Riding the home crowd, VCU opens fast. VCU coach Shaka Smart gets into mock defensive stance each time George Mason comes down the floor, urging his players to lock down and unleash his HAVOC defense. Unlike last season, Smart no longer sports the “substitute teacher” ensemble of shirt and tie and no jacket with slacks. His suit is sharp this time around. But within a few minutes the jacket is off and we’re back to Mr. Smart, 10th grade history.
George Mason coach Paul Hewitt was once where Smart is: hot coach of the moment. Now, years later, he is starting over again, having once strode the sidelines at against Duke and Carolina as head man at Georgia Tech before being let go.
A dunk from Rob Brandenberg puts VCU up 9-0 and sends the band and the crowd into a frenzy. The arena is already louder than at any point in Game 1. Mason gets three chances off of offensive rebounds but cannot connect on any, and the drought continues. Brad Burgess’ deep three-pointer balloons the lead to 15-0. GMU is rattled, and cannot seem to dribble, pass or shoot straight.
The taunting in the stands, playfully back-and-forth before tip-off, is now one-sided. The GMU fans sit silently, their team scoreless nearly five minutes in. VCU fans bought up many of the tickets from departing fans whose teams had already lost. After another made basket, the Patriots still without a point, the fans in black and yellow jump up, creating a wave all the way to the off-gray rafters of Richmond Coliseum.
It should here be noted that the Virginia Commonwealth pep band is first-rate, truly Final Four-caliber. They call themselves the Peppas, and they have their own website, CD for sale and media outreach. They have a spice the ODU band – nearly any band, honestly – does not, something like a raw unadulterated joy, a surrender to the moment. Of course, it helps when you’re winning. George Mason also has a stylized pep band, known as the Green Machine. The two square off, in something akin to a rap battle, back and forth. The bandleader for VCU’s side, Ryan Kopacsi, who calls himself “The Total Package” is into his job more than any human should possibly be, exhorting the crowd to insanity.
“I could really use a shutout today, “he yells to a security guard nearby when VCU has it rolling, “the first one in [expletive deleted] history.”
The Green Machine’s leader, known as Doc Nix, says of the rivalry between the two, “Oh, they started a few years before us, but we do all right.” He then swaggers off in sunglasses and a cape, toting a cane with a giant fake diamond on the top.
Another VCU three and it’s 18-0. Another, 21-0. A free throw eventually breaks the GMU scoring curse. VCU’s fans roar in mock approval. It’s 30-4 and Smart claps approvingly.
“You let the whoooole team down!” the Peppas yell in unison when a GMU player dribbles off his foot out of bounds. “Check your wal-let!” they chant when Andre Cornelius goes to the FT line. Cornelius was suspended 10 games for credit card fraud earlier this season.
An emphatic dunk from GMU forward Mike Morrison gets the Patriots fans excited. They now trail by just 20. A pair of ardent VCU fans wearing replica jerseys sit in the first row cheer and taunt like they own stock in the Rams.
“These are actually the Delaware seats, but they’re gone so we just walked down here,” says Jason. Both are current students. His cohort Michael says he got to go to Houston last year to see the Final Four for only 25 dollars as part of a student raffle, room and transportation included. “It was amazing,” he concedes.
Asked if they believe their Rams can do the unthinkable, a la Butler, and make a return trip to the Final Four. They exchange a look that implies they don’t want to admit they have their doubts.
“We can make it to the sweet 16,” Michael says finally.
“We just have to get in and we’ll be fine,” says Jason. He then turns to Michael and adds, “That would be awesome, though, wouldn’t it?”
Meanwhile, the game has changed. George Mason has managed to cut into that huge early lead. Gone are the taunts and catcalls from the VCU faithful. Now the Green Machine is the band with extra fire, while The Total Package bites his nails. Fans of both teams stand up as time trickles down. Patriots faithful see their team’s NCAA hopes evaporating. A breakaway layup and foul finally ends things, the VCU fans erupt appreciatively and the juiced up VCU bandleader screams at no one in particular, “Buckets, b-tches!” The matchup for the final is set.
You know you’re in Virginia when a fife and drum corps performs the national anthem to a rapt audience. A lone voice sings along with the corps, operatic, surprisingly beautiful and strong and lilting. Everyone turns around and sees it coming from a barrel-chested fan wearing ram horns and sporting a beard in the front row of the VCU student section. He smiles.
It’s immediately clear just how high the stakes are in this game, and that the players are well aware of this. Both teams scrap, and the fans live and die with each bounce of the ball. It’s not a game for boys. Neither team can be considered a “finesse” team, and both play a muscling defense and score almost by accident. Daryl McCoy, a beast of a man, a player Shaka Smart referred to the day before as a “brick wall,” commits a foul and nearly loses his shorts. Literally. The crowd laughs uproariously. It’s unlikely any of them would laugh at him to his stern and unemotional face. He is simply massive. VCU blocks a Drexel shot on one end and the Rams race down the floor to a roar from the fans only to have McCoy swat the layup attempt on the other end, which sends the Dragon-lovers in the Coliseum to their feet.
The creaky Coliseum is full to the rafters for this game. VCU black and gold dominates, and there is a hum throughout, a murmur of nerves and hope and fear, even during breaks in the action. With less than a minute left in the opening half, the Rams hit a three-pointer for a 16-point cushion at the break. Like the last game, VCU has a big early lead. But also like the battle the previous night with George Mason, Drexel will not go quietly. The Dragons claw and scrap and push and work their way back, the lead at nine. Then seven.
VCU fans are tense, subdued now, fearing they are seeing the slow demise of NCAA dreams. Junior guard Darius Theus steps up, following his own miss for his team-high 16th point. A tiny cadre of Drexel fans directly behind the Dragons bench applauds loudly at a dicey foul call on the baseline. The lead is cut to four. Then three. Fans rise to their feet across the arena. They’re standing in the upper deck throughout a desperation timeout from Smart. With just 19 seconds remaining, Rams junior Troy Daniels calmly sinks two free throws and the Coliseum shakes. The massive contingent of VCU fans can sense it. Security positions itself to keep fans from jumping over the railings and into press row to rush the floor.
It turns out Drexel has one last gasp. Dragons junior Chris Fouch quiets the cheers with a clutch three-pointer from the deep corner, cutting the lead to a single point. After two VCU free throws, Drexel has a timeout left but coach Bruiser Flint decides not to take it and a hurried three to tie the game bounces hard off the back of the rim, VCU rebounds and the game is over.
The Peppas and students storm the court. Staffers scramble to assemble a makeshift riser for postgame awards and presentations while giddy VCU supporters bounce all around them. More and more fans find their way onto the floor, far underneath the vast concrete and steel Richmond Coliseum dome. The chant begins again, “You don’t want to go warrrr, with the Raaa-ammms!”
Smart holds aloft his young daughter, born just before the beginning of the season back in September, to the roar of the remaining fans. As the trophies are given out, the bearded opera-singing student with the Ram horns stands triumphantly at center court, beaming a wide smile.
“This is just great. Who would want to change this?” He says, surveying the scene.
As the players climb a ladder to snip off pieces of the net, a black-and-gold clad mass climbs up the Coliseum’s ancient concrete stairs and pours out into the night, past discarded signs and abandoned concessions, their faces flush with victory in an early Spring chill.