After a tough summer and rough start to the season, VCU has put itself into a position to play big games that matter. That means the pressure is on, but the pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Photos by: Will Weaver
Things could be a whole lot worse. Scratch that–things have been a whole lot worse. But VCU enters the final game of the regular season with at worst a share of the regular season title and an opportunity to pick up a prime-time win over Dayton on Saturday night. There’s a little more pressure on the Rams now that the stakes have been raised, but that isn’t exactly a bad thing.
It wasn’t that long ago that, as Coach Wade put it, “everyone thought the world was on fire.” Days after Coach Shaka Smart took a one-way trip to Austin, Coach Wade inherited a program that lost its best perimeter defender ever, its second-best scorer ever, a talent-rich rising sophomore, and its best-ever recruiting class. Broad Street wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence.
A few months later, VCU lost at home to Cincinnati to cap off a three-game losing streak and fell to 5-5. Coach Wade was bullish after the loss and boldly proclaimed “I know what we’re doing now is going to work. We’ve got the right formula, now we just need to do it better.”
I’m not sure if even Coach Wade expected what’s happened since.
But here they are. If they lose on Saturday, VCU wins a share of the A10 title and at worst a #2-seed in Brooklyn. A win gives them an outright title and a guaranteed #1-seed. It’d be VCU’s first conference title since 2009 — before Coach Smart even took the job at VCU.
Shoot, we were in here a couple months ago after we played Cincinnati…who’d have bet on that? Any takers on that? No, I don’t think we’d had any takers if I said we’d win the conference.1 Coach Wade
Senior Melvin Johnson is unquestionably reason #1 the Rams have been so successful. This season, he combined the attacking craftiness of his freshman campaign that earned his floater the name “The Melvin” with the 3-point shooting of his sophomore and junior seasons while adding point guard skills and improving his defense. Against Davidson on Wednesday, his 3-point shot wasn’t falling which in the past meant his impact might have been limited. Instead, he finished with 16 points (5-6 2PFG) and 4 assists.
Senior Korey Billbury, who transferred to VCU from Oral Roberts when it felt like everyone was leaving, also deserves credit. He showed up this summer as a scorer–and not much else. On Wednesday, he did an exceptional job defending Jack Gibbs, the A10’s best scorer. He’s had a few frustrating games on offense this season, but his ability to impact the game in every way possible has earned him every second he’s spent on the hardwood. After getting frustrated earlier this week, Coach Wade reminded Billbury to “have some perspective, buddy, you could be the seven seed in the Summit League Tournament starting this week.”
This ain’t the best team we’ve had here in awhile in terms of talent, but we’re tough, we’re together, and we play really hard.Coach Wade
VCU did an exceptional job coming together under tough circumstances and putting them in a position to compete when it matters. Coach Wade deserves credit. The seniors deserve credit. VCU, a true program, deserves credit.
Saturday won’t be easy. Dayton is one of the best defensive teams in the nation and they own one of the best arenas in college basketball. One of their better players, Kendall Pollard missed some games because of injury, which has caused them to stumble, but they started the A10 11-1 and rose all the way to #13/#15 in the country. Add in senior night, and the environment will be a pressure cooker.
But pressure isn’t bad. As Coach Wade pointed out on Wednesday, “the pressure is a privilege…there’s no pressure if you’re just playing the season out.” This summer and even in December, it looked like VCU might just be playing the season out at this point. Coach Wade, Melvin Johnson, Korey Billbury, and crew weathered the defections and tough defeats, and built something special really quickly. Saturday’s pressure is a privilege well-earned.