VCU Holding Steady Under Will Wade

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on February 16th, 2016

As with any beloved family member, the longer Shaka Smart stayed in Richmond, the harder he was going to be to replace. And contrary to what many outside the area may think, VCU’s strong basketball tradition didn’t start with the charismatic and personable young coach, but it made him a seemingly impossible act to follow. A 2011 trip to the Final Four is the most notable element of Smart’s impressive coaching resume, but he also won at least 26 games in all six seasons at the helm, going to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last five years (VCU is one of 11 schools nationally with such a streak). In the school’s first three years since moving up to the Atlantic 10, Smart led the Rams to 12 conference wins each season and the Rams never received a seed lower than #7 in the NCAA Tournament.

Once under Shaka Smart, the young Will Wade is beginning to plant the seeds towards his own legacy at VCU. (Getty)

Once an assistant under Shaka Smart, the young Will Wade is beginning to plant the seeds towards his own legacy at VCU. (Getty)

VCU did its best to keep Smart from leaving. To call his departure inevitable is probably inaccurate, but they certainly knew it was a distinct possibility all along. After Smart bolted for the resource-rich program at Texas, it didn’t take long for VCU to appoint Will Wade to replace him. Wade, like Smart, is a young, energetic, new-age leader who never played at a high level. At 33 years old, he is currently the fourth-youngest Division I coach, but, unlike Smart, this young head coach brought two years of D-I head coaching experience with him, leading Chattanooga to a 27-7 Southern Conference record over two seasons from 2013-15. Wade was also an assistant for four years under Smart (including the Final Four campaign) prior to that, and was a key member of the Harvard dynasty in the Ivy League before joining the VCU staff.

In his introductory press conference last spring, Wade proclaimed that nothing would change at VCU: “We’re going to stay nationally ranked. We’re going to stay nationally relevant. We’re going to be about winning championships. We’re going to defend our Atlantic 10 Tournament championship and … make sure this program continues to progress and continues to take steps until we are at the Final Four and we win the thing.” And, of course, the kicker, worthy of any political stump speech to the base: “Just so y’all know, Havoc still lives here.” But Wade is not Smart, which was proven rather quickly when VCU’s top three recruits immediately de-committed, all to Power Five schools: Tevin Mack followed Smart to Texas; Kenny Williams was scooped up by North Carolina; and Jordan Murphy ended up at Minnesota.

If Wade’s confidence was shaken by the quick departures, it hasn’t shown for most of this season. VCU — without a real freshman class to speak of — went through non-conference play without suffering any truly bad losses although it failed to take advantage of its chances against the high-majors, dropping close games to Duke, Wisconsin, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati. The Rams, 8-5 entering conference play, subsequently caught fire, winning their first nine Atlantic 10 games before suffering a rare home loss to George Washington two weekends ago. That defeat was followed up by a somewhat embarrassing loss at 9-13 UMass last Thursday before an easy win over Saint Louis on Saturday got things back on track. What all of this means is that in mid-February VCU finds itself in a somewhat unthinkable spot: on the NCAA Tournament bubble, even with a solid 18-7 (10-2 A-10) record.

Wade Wilson has ginormous shoes to fill. But he might just be the guy to do it. (VCU Athletics)

Will Wade has ginormous shoes to fill. But he might just be the guy to do it. (VCU Athletics)

“We’ll see,” Wade said after the UMass loss. “We lost three in a row in non-conference before we ran off our 12 in a row. We have to make it happen. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. Nobody cares. Obviously, UMass didn’t care we lost on Saturday [to George Washington]. That’s the way it is. Tough league and every game’s a challenge, we just have to go back and get ready for the next one.” The Rams’ fate now will come down to their final six games and the upcoming Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn. VCU has games with intrastate rivals Richmond and George Mason remaining on the schedule, along with road games against George Washington and league-leading Dayton. “You have to play a complete game, and we had been playing poorly in the second half and well in the first half, and today we flipped that,” Wade said after last week’s loss. “Until we play a complete game, we’re not going to get consistent results.”

Of course, the real question for Wade and VCU may come on the recruiting trails. Early returns have been promising, beginning with the signing of highly rated De’Riante Jenkins from South Carolina and Canadian youth national team player Marquell Fraser. The Rams are already locked into the Battle 4 Atlantis next November as well as the 2017 Maui Invitational in the November after that. It also doesn’t appear that the Siegel Center will be playing to less than a capacity audience anytime soon, with one of the best fan bases in the country looming as a big attraction to potential recruits. Wade’s body language on the sidelines is similar to that of his predecessor. He doesn’t stomp up and down the sidelines, always maintains a steady demeanor, and appears calmest when things are at their worst. Through all 40 minutes, even on the worst of nights in Amherst, Wade’s voice was never heard above the small crowd and his most common gesture was a clap of encouragement.

VCU is still among the nation’s leaders in turnovers forced and three-point percentage as well as defensive efficiency. Wade knew, of course, how difficult a job he undertook when he signed on the dotted line last April. “Here, you’re handed the keys to a Ferrari,” Wade said. “You need to press the gas and go fast.” In the end, only time will tell if the young coach can continue to keep VCU on a ridiculously lofty level. Making the NCAA Tournament this season would be a good start, but the real challenge will be in the next couple of seasons. Leading scorer Melvin Johnson is a senior, and while there will be a solid returning core – led by physical specimen Mo Alie-Cox – the recruits Wade brings to Richmond in the next couple of classes will be crucial to the program’s staying power.

Wade has experienced success both on the court and in the recruiting battles at each stop of his young career, so it is very premature to assume that a bubble season means we can wave goodbye to VCU as a national power. In fact, at about this same time five years ago, a young coach in Wade’s spot was fighting to keep his team among those in NCAA at-large consideration. A month later, he was in the Final Four and a legend had been born. That is a massive stretch for this year’s team, obviously, but Will Wade will have his foot on the gas the next few weeks, and we’ll all see what happens. It’s certainly worked before.

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