Some may say the landscape of college basketball has lacked a little style and swagger from its March contenders lately. However, the reigning Atlantic 10 conference regular season champions, led by a 33-year-old head coach who has learned the trade from the best in the business, say otherwise.
Meet the VCU Rams.
VCU has a motto and a program aimed at what it calls the “Quest for Distinction.” Second-year head coach Will Wade has his Rams blazing out of the gates this season with an 12-3 record and headed toward their quest of a seventh straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Wade took over the program last year after two years in charge at Chattanooga and a previous four-year stint at VCU (2009-13) as an assistant under Shaka Smart, who eventually left VCU to take over at the University of Texas.
Many pundits wondered aloud if VCU’s Cinderella run would come to a crashing halt with Smart’s departure, but Wade quickly silenced any critics in his first year. He led VCU to an impressive 25-11 record, its first conference regular season title since 2009, and a win in the NCAA Tournament.
With long dreadlocks flowing and multi-colored hairstyles, not only is VCU still winning under Wade, but the Rams look cool doing it.
“I don’t think they get any of that coolness from me because I’m a pretty boring guy,” Wade said, jokingly. “I’d be the most uncool guy in the program, that’s for certain.”
Although his team is full of style and swagger, that coolness is not part of Wade’s formula for success for VCU; he’d rather point to his team’s performance on the court as the reason for the attention around his program.
“We’re an aggressive, attacking team that is tough,” he said. “We’re a team that’s really connected and committed to one another.”
On the floor, VCU is led by 6’1 senior guard JeQuan Lewis, who is having an all-conference season, leading the Rams with 16.1 points per game. Wade says that Lewis is a student of the game and that the two of them sit and watch film together “three or four times a week.”
The Rams feature a balanced attack with 6’7 senior forward Mo Alie-Cox as the only other player scoring in double figures (10.1 ppg). Alie-Cox is a fan favorite who often elicits the chant of “Mo says no” during games at the Siegel Center from the VCU faithful. He was also named to the A-10 All-Defensive team, All-Academic team and All-Conference Third Team.
Despite being in his fourth season as a Division I head coach, Wade is one of the youngest coaches in the NCAA. He says he has taken bits and pieces from various coaches whom he has worked under, but is now putting his own personal spin on. Wade says that the overall culture and how he treats his players was influenced by Shaka Smart, and he credits his defensive strategies to current Dallas Mavericks assistant Larry Shyatt. The structure of how to build the program comes from former DePaul and Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell.
As for his recruiting model, Wade gives all the credit to Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker.
“He is the finest I’ve ever seen at that,” Wade said.
Over the past decade, VCU has become a constant fixture in brackets come March. Wade, naturally, is in town to continue that success, but to model VCU into more than just a late-season sleeper. With 25 wins last year and a six-game winning streak after an early December stumble, the Rams seem well on their way.