On Sunday, for the seventh straight season, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee called the VCU Rams as one of the field of 68. Coach Will Wade has maintained the level of excellence set by his predecessors since taking the reins prior to the 2015-16 season — and the 10th-seeded Rams are readying to face the nationally-ranked and 7th-seeded St. Mary’s Gaels (28-4) Thursday in Salt Lake City. Atlantic 10 analyst Chris DiSano of Yurview caught up with Wade to talk about RamNation and the NCAA Tournament in this exclusive interview.
Chris DiSano: Can you reflect upon this year generally and where you came from to get where you are today?
Will Wade: We’ve certainly grown as the year went on. If you look back, we lost our exhibition game and people forget about that. We lost back-to-back games to Illinois and Georgia Tech and then came back to pick up a pivotal road win against Old Dominion… and then were able to beat a great MTSU team that’s in this tournament and that got us jump-started.
I think our team has grown. Sometimes it’s tough when your program has been so guard-oriented to turn it into more of a post-oriented program and get the guards to understand that it’s better for them when we feed the post… everybody’s more open and it just works a little better. So as we’ve undergone a shift in the philosophy, it took us a little while this year to get everybody to understand that this is what works and it’s good for VCU winning —which is the main thing. So I think we got better and understood what it took for our team to win.
Watch: Chris DiSano break down VCU on Dash to the Desert
CD: To follow up on that… how might that aid you moving forward?
WW: Part of the reason I specifically shifted to this philosophy is I think it’s what wins the most in tournament settings. You have to have good bigs and be able to bang down there. That’s why I said after we played Rhode Island that they can win games in the tournament. That’s why I think we can have success too. You gotta have guys who can play around the rim, have a shot-blocker who can protect the rim. If you can protect the rim and protect the paint it gives you a fighting chance in most of these games. So I think our philosophy and trying to take higher percentage shots is going to pay off in these types of environments.
CD: We’ve talked about on-court approach, but what is it about the culture that’s been built that equips you at this time of year?
WW: Well, we’ve got good fiber to our program. It has a good way about it where our guys understand what goes into winning in these types of environments. The reality of it is, too, that sometimes once we get to the tournament the pressure is off a bit. We’ve been playing from January 18th to late February, for five weeks or so, where if we lost a game it could knock us out of the tournament. So you talk about pressure… that’s a lot of pressure to play five weeks, two games a week, so nine or 10 straight games where we couldn’t lose. That’s big time, big time, pressure. So that helps prepare you for these types of environments.
CD: When you are playing at your best, what are you doing well?
WW: We’re forcing tempo and generating turnovers, defensively. Offensively, we’re valuing the ball offensively and scoring in the paint. And when we’re not scoring we’re getting great shots on the rim and are able to get all over the offensive glass for tip-ins. We’re attacking and aggressive on both sides. Defensively, we’re attacking on the perimeter and keeping that ball pressure high to keep it out of the paint. Offensively, we’re pounding the paint and pounding the rim.
CD: Your most recent three games were in the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship last week. Taking the temperature of your team, did you like what you saw overall? What areas are you looking to firm up?
WW: Certainly, on the whole I thought we shot it a little better which was good. I thought that outside of the championship game we finished well around the rim. I thought our defense was solid. We wore down a little as the tournament went on, but I think overall we were solid. There was a lot to build off of… for the most part we played well and showed some good traits in terms of being able to come back and never being out of things. But we need to improve with our crispness and execution on offense and need to play more consistently on defense. We didn’t have enough consistent possessions where we were good enough defensively.
CD: I know you’ve only had about 24 hours to prepare for St. Mary’s, but what have you learned about them and what can you share about the match-up?
WW: They are a tremendous team. They are an elite, elite offensive team. They’re the best offensive team we will have played all season. They run their stuff and are very good at what they do. Defensively, they have a good scheme and make you grind, into submission almost. So you have to be on your horse offensively and execute properly and with great pace. You also have to really value the basketball, because they are very patient on offense — one turnover is almost like two turnovers because they’re going to hold the ball forever. I think that’s going to be important because we’ve had some turnover issues this season.
We have to take great first shots because they are the No. 1 defensive rebounding team in the country. I told our guys – and I respect the heck out of George Mason because I think they’re the best defensive rebounding team in our conference – that these guys make George Mason look like a JV team compared to how well they defensively rebound the ball. And that’s no knock on Mason as I think they’re phenomenal, but I was trying to give our guys a sense of perspective, because these guys build the Great Wall of China around the charge circle to block out. It’s unreal. So we want to make sure we are getting great first looks.
CD: For you defensively, will you show different defensive looks because of their elite offensive nature?
WW: Yeah, we’re going to have to mix it up a little bit. They’re such a rhythm oriented team. So we need to mix up our coverages and defenses to try to keep them out of rhythm as best as possible.
CD: Let’s go league-wide for a minute… The Atlantic 10 earned three bids with yourselves, Dayton and Rhode Island. What are your thoughts on the A10 teams collectively?
WW: First off, we got the teams in that deserve to be in and that’s always a good sign. I was happy about that. All three of the teams are deserving and all can win first round match-ups… and once you win the first round, who knows what can happen from there. We’ll be rooting for each other and trying to carry the league’s flag so to speak.
I think that the non-conference schedule played a factor in all three teams getting in. In our case, we were 3-3 against the RPI top 50. One was Dayton at home and the other two were non-conference wins with Princeton and MTSU. It was great to hear from the selection committee that Rhode Island would’ve gotten in (even had they not won the A10 Tourney) either way. I know their aggressive scheduling, going to Valpo, Houston, and playing others like Belmont – which could’ve been a top 50 win if Belmont kept winning in their conference tourney – to challenge themselves, and then the neutral court win over Cincinnati —when you get those types of wins in the non-conference, that’s huge. Dayton won at Alabama and had underrated home wins as well, like ETSU. So when you schedule those types of teams, it really helps you.
So all three teams that got in scheduled really well and scheduled to get NCAA at-large berths. Obviously, Rhode Island won the automatic bid but they would have gotten in anyway, as the committee chair said, based on strategic scheduling.
CD: Back to your team. Hopefully you have many more minutes to be played, but reflecting upon your seniors [JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox, Jordan Burgess, Doug Brooks, Torey Burston & Ahmed Hamdy Mohammed (two-year player)] , what have they meant to this program?
WW: Just incredible. Those guys have been to four straight NCAA Tournaments. They’ve done a tremendous job representing our school. They’ve played in four straight A10 Championships and won over 100 games. That’s just so difficult to do. Really proud of those guys and like I’ve told them once or twice, they could’ve flown the coop when I got the job here. Mo and Jordan had fifth year eligibility, for graduate transfers, and I don’t think I’m kidding anybody when saying that there’d have been quite a market for those guys. But they stuck with us and wanted to be a part of winning and continuing the championship pedigree here and I’m forever appreciative and thankful to those guys for sticking around.
CD: Lastly, a friend of ours, Mike Litos [VCU radio color commentator]… I haven’t seen him in a bit… is he as good looking in person as he is on television?
WW: Haha, I tell him he has looks for radio. He’s a great guy, does a great job and knows a ton about VCU basketball and our history. He’s kind of like our historian, he’s the go-to guy for VCU basketball.
CD: Will, thanks as always and good luck in the NCAA Tournament.
WW: Appreciate it Chris, thanks and looking forward to it.