The 62,000-square foot practice facility that opened in November is a concrete example of the progress made at VCU since 2011 when it rose from an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament to the Final Four. That was the first of five consecutive NCAA appearances, which is the Rams’ longest streak since joining Division I in 1970 and one of the 10 longest active runs in the nation.In last Saturday’s win over George Mason, their 7,637-seat home, the Siegel Center, was sold out for the 75th game in a row. On game days it’s awash in black-and-gold, fans rock to the sounds of the Peppas and deliver a unique war chant to visiting teams who rarely leave happy (VCU is 8-1 at home this season).
Will Wade is the man trusted to meet their expectations. An assistant on the Final Four team, he spent the last two seasons winning as coach at Chattanooga. He returned to Richmond, Va. last April to replace his former boss, Shaka Smart, who averaged 27 wins in six seasons with the Rams before leaving to coach Texas.
“The basketball part is the same,” Wade said last week as his team prepared for the nonconference finale against North Florida. “Off the court there are more obligations, more media, more time after the game, you have to be better at managing your time, but basketball is basketball.”
The previous day, Wade had watched film with his team, conducted a practice, prepared a game plan with his staff, flown to Delaware to watch three high school games and flown home. The day included a one-mile run, as did all of Wade’s days in 2015.
The Rams dispatched pesky North Florida the next day. They stretched their winning streak to a season-high five games Tuesday night after rallying from a 13-point deficit in the final seven minutes to steal a win at St. Joe’s. They are one of six A10 teams with a perfect conference record entering tonight’s games.
Just a month ago, the Rams were suffering, buried under the combination of a rigorous nonconference schedule and a squad lacking the talent of recent VCU teams. Wade cobbled together a roster in the spring after three incoming freshmen went elsewhere when Smart departed.
VCU’s rocky December hit bottom on Dec. 15th in Atlanta. The Rams led Georgia Tech by three points early in the second half. But the game’s final 10 minutes featured an array of uncharacteristic miscues - turnovers, missed layups, silly fouls - leading to a 13-point loss.
Wade leaned on his former staff mates at VCU, friends such as Jamion Christian - now head coach at Mt. St. Mary’s - and Rice’s Mike Rhodes during the rough stretch. VCU lost to Duke, Wisconsin and Florida State by a combined 14 points, dropping each game because it was on the wrong end of a possession or two.
He also received support from an unlikely source, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin.
“He has been really good to me, to text and talk,” Wade said. “He’s been great, put some perspective on things. I’ve appreciated him and leaned on him. Quite frankly I didn’t know him that well. He’s been real good except when we played ‘em.”
That was the Rams’ fifth loss, a tough 69-63 home defeat on Dec. 19th. But even in defeat, Wade felt his team was on the right track. They haven’t lost since.
At his introductory press conference, Wade told the assembled fans and media that “Havoc” - the frenetic fullcourt pressure and all-out style favored by the Rams under Smart - still lived at VCU. He’s remained true to those roots, but applied his own touch. The Rams don’t apply fullcourt pressure as frequently as past teams yet remain among the national leaders in turnovers, forcing foes to lose the ball on one-fourth of their possessions.
An analytics devotee, Wade has also restructured the team’s offense to maximize its efficiency. VCU is taking two fewer 2-point jump shots (14.4 per game) compared to last season and looking to score its points from three places - behind the 3-point line, at the rim (where Wade hopes they’ll improve on a 51.5 percent success rate) or on the free throw line. During their winning streak, the Rams have scored at least 1.06 points per possession in every game.
Senior guard Melvin Johnson leads the Atlantic 10 in offensive rating. Korey Billbury, a graduate transfer Wade procured late from Oral Roberts, has been a solid scorer and rebounder. After a turnover laden start, talented point guard JeQuan Lewis is rounding into form. He had 19 points, six assists and six rebounds in the win over St. Joe’s.
All the Rams have 24-hour access to the $25 million practice facility. Inside amenities include a team dining facility, locker rooms and tubs with any temperature water a player might need to recover from aching or injured muscles. There are five cameras surrounding the practice court. Coaches can provide immediate video feedback on two courtside flatscreens and delve even deeper in a classroom that's steps away from midcourt.
It’s an elite building for a program that climbed toward similar status through consistent success in recent seasons. Wade aims to keep the Rams there, knowing they’ll need at least 14-15 wins between the conference regular season and tournament to keep their NCAA tournament at-large chances alive.
“I try to keep perspective that we’ve played five really tough games, won at MTSU and ODU,” Wade said. “I think these games will help us moving forward. If we can finish top three in the A10 will be where we want to be in March. Need to lean on this conference schedule to help us out.”