After a reset year in 2018, VCU resumed its familiar place atop the Atlantic 10 standings in 2018-19, winning the regular season conference title en route to a 25-7, 16-2 record overall. The handiwork resulted in the Rams securing the only at-large bid from the league this year — along with an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll tip Friday night 9:40pm against the UCF Knights.
I caught up with long-time friend and VCU radio color commentator Michael Litos to discuss the state of affairs in RamNation as Mike Rhoades’ team prepares to take the floor on the game’s biggest stage.
Chris DiSano: Another Atlantic 10 regular season title for VCU. You’re with this team throughout the year… What are your thoughts on this particular group of kids and what they’ve accomplished?
Michael Litos: Well, Mike Rhoades wants a certain culture to run through his program. That culture is about getting after it every day. This team’s identity was on the defensive end. It’s not always necessarily going to be that way. Quite frankly, I think it surprised coach Rhoades that we became a defensive team. Even in late December it was, “holy crap”, this is actually our identity. We’re going to dig in and play half court defense. I think for Coach Rhodes it’s more about playing a certain style: playing hard, grinding out every possession, and paying attention to the details… and I think what it says about this team is that guys bought into that identity and that mode of playing. It played out on the defensive end this year.
It also speaks to leadership. I think that’s something that we talk about in vague, random terms of, well, you’ve got to have a guy lead the team… But when you’ve got a guy like Marcus Evans who is a fierce competitor and he’s going to set the tone of holding everyone accountable; and you’ve got someone like De’Riante Jenkins who spent his first couple of years just having fun playing basketball with his friends who is now locking down on the defensive end and talking more; and guys like Issac Vann who just go out and do the job every day — that’s something that a freshman or sophomore can look at and learn from. All of these factors of leadership by example add up.
It’s like a great, big physics problem or something where it all adds up to a team that, when it begins going the right way, it goes that way in spades. I think we saw that with a lot of the big wins in the latter part of the season during the 12 game winning streak. And it also helps when there’s difficult times because they’re able to play through it.
CD: For those who don’t know Coach Rhoades, what is his communication style and what have you come to respect the most about him as a leader?
ML: He’s the consummate players coach. Here’s a great story. It’s from last year but it’s a terrific example. They were reviewing film and Issac Vann was out of position on defense. Coach said, “Issac, what are you doing playing defense there?”
Issac said, “I was in this position and I should’ve been hedging to the ball a little closer. My bad coach, I got it.”
And Coach Rhoades said, “You better be. Because we’re going to get in the game and if you make that mistake I’m going to take you out. And after the game your mom is going to ask you why I took you out. And you’re going to tell your mom, ‘Ahhh, I don’t know I guess Coach Rhoades is trippin.’ And I’m going to say, ‘No Issac, I took you out of the game because of that defensive mistake.'”
And everybody in the room busted out laughing. It was a great job of Coach Rhoades making something funny but making a point.
People used to say about the former baseball manager Frank Robinson that he did a great job of stepping on your shoes without messing up the shine. I think that’s what Coach Rhoades does. He’s been able to teach things and correct things in a very positive manner. That’s something the guys really react to because they aren’t scared of making mistakes. They have a mentality of always attacking because they’re not going to get yanked from the game because they made a mistake.
CD: Shifting gears, you touched on Marcus Evans’ leadership before. Of course he suffered the injury in the A-10 Tourney. How’s he doing?
ML: They found there’s no structural damage which is great news. It’s about pain tolerance for Marcus. I expect he’s going to play some minutes this week. He’s as tough a kid as there is. There hasn’t been any official word, but I think he’ll give it a go.
CD: Focusing on the NCAA Tournament, let’s talk seeding first and then draw. What are your thoughts on the team earning an 8 seed?
ML: I’ll be honest, I was surprised by it. I thought we’d be a 10 or a 9. But I think what the committee did was reward teams that played well over an extended period of time. We always hear about the “full body of work” and crud like that. But VCU won the A-10 regular season, won 12 in a row, won it two games clear of the second place team… and they were rewarded for consistent winning. They didn’t penalize them for a Friday in Brooklyn. I think the committee did a nice job of rewarding what they always talk about but don’t always act upon. It’s about the entire season, about winning on the road in non-conference… so the committee lived up to what they talked about for VCU and other teams that assembled the same type of body of work.
CD: Let’s talk draw… The Rams will face the talented UCF Knights who I’ve watched a few times including a couple of weeks ago when they knocked off Houston. I’m sure you’ve begun your prep; what are your thoughts?
ML: The first thing everybody knows about UCF is Tacko Fall at 7-foot-6 and he’s a complete disrupter, but I almost think that’s a red herring in terms of what VCU has to do to win the game. He’s going to force VCU to tweak a few things and he’ll be a challenge for Marcus Santos-Silva and Corey Douglas underneath, but I think if you’re not paying attention to Aubrey Dawkins and B.J. Taylor… They’re two athletic, defensive-minded wings; Taylor shoots the deep ball at 40%… If we’re too busy looking at Tacko Fall who will impact that game, guys like Dawkins and Taylor can win the game. This game is going to be won or lost on the wings – it’s going to be Taylor and Dawkins versus Vann and Jenkins. Whoever wins that battle wins the game.
CD: Beyond game-planning for a particular opponent, when these guys are at their best what do you see? Secondly, is there a particular area of growth you’ve witnessed as the season has worn on?
ML: When they’re guarding the basketball they are at their best. We talked about Marcus Evans; leadership, shooting, alpha-dog, but his ability to flat-out guard the basketball is a signal of when this team is playing well. They’re not turning teams over a lot, but they’re forcing teams into “shooting turnovers” [contested twos and late shot clock hoists] and going the other way. When they’re playing well that’s what they’re doing.
The differentiator for this team is three-point shooting. They’ve really struggled, but when they make seven or eight threes and shoot a reasonable percentage they’re a lot more dangerous, because that allows the Vanns and the Jenkinses to exploit the lanes.
On the second part of your question, this team – between the ears – is as strong as any VCU team I can remember. Mentally, their growth from the beginning of the season to now… to be able to withstand 10-2 runs and not panic… We played 15 terrible minutes of basketball to begin the game against George Mason and then won the game 71-36. They don’t panic, get out of sorts, snipe at each other. They just go about their business because they think they’ve got the right game plan, they’ve got enough talent, and if they defend they’re going to be in the game and eventually it will even itself out. They’re as mentally strong a VCU team as I can remember.
CD: Marcus Santos-Silva is an absolute beast. What impresses you the most about his growth and the way he is playing right now?
ML: He really does a great job staying within himself. When things are going well he’s not going to say, “Hey, let me shoot this 15-foot jumper because things are going well.” He’s going to do, every single time, what Marcus Santos-Silva does well. He’s going to work his butt off, get great position, hustle as hard as anyone on the floor, get his rebounds, work in slip-screen situations to get his offense going, post-up occasionally… but you’re never going to see him do anything crazy outside of what he does well. We talk about that with guards a lot but not as much with big men. He’s so good at playing to his strength and not getting outside of that and that’s what makes him an incredibly effective player.
CD: We’ve discussed three-point shooting as perhaps the category x-factor for this team. Who is the individual x-factor for this team in Tournament play and why?
ML: For me it’s Issac Vann. Everybody talks about his defense but we’re a different team when he is playing offense at a high level. He changes the offensive tenor because he’s that next weapon that you need to guard. When you have Evans, Jenkins, Santos-Silva, and you add a strong offensive game from Vann — it’s a dynamic team and you start to run out of defenders that can guard all of our guys.
CD: How important is getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the growth/health of the program after a one year absence?
ML: To be able to course-correct after one reset year is huge for this program. After going back to an 18-15 type year last year, the ability to bounce right back and have a year like this – as opposed to stringing a few 18-15 type years together – is enormous. It’s a signal that VCU remains one of the nation’s best teams and allows Mike Rhoades and his staff to go right back out on the recruiting trail and be met with confidence because people recognize VCU basketball is continuing to maintain its standard.