RICHMOND — It was two and a half minutes into the game when Marcus Evans hit a three to finally put the VCU Rams on the board. Immediately after, I reached into my bag and grabbed two Excedrin; I wasn’t feeling anything yet, but if the mushrooming volume within the Siegel Center after that shot was any indication of what was yet to come, I knew I had best be prepared.
Hopes were expectedly high for the VCU Rams entering this season. After all, the team is one of the country’s most experienced, returning nine players from a last year’s team that won the A-10 regular season title and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Then Friday night came.
Picture the most casual basketball fan imaginable—someone who still makes jokes about Perry Ellis being an AARP member. Even they know that VCU’s bread and butter is its Havoc defense, which is furious, relentless, and smothering. It was the focal point of the Rams’ Final Four run in 2011 that turned VCU and Shaka Smart into household names.
Their offense, however, has not historically been the side of the ball worth talking about. Last Friday’s performance against North Texas was altogether worrisome, as the then-ranked Rams were taken to the wire by the Mean Green before ultimately prevailing 59-56.
Last night, it only took VCU 20 minutes to come within nine points of matching its scoring total from its previous outing. By the end of the evening, VCU’s 84-82 performance had blown any sort of expectations for a weak offensive performance out of the water.
Despite a slow start, the Rams were able to build a solid lead over the Tigers due to white-hot perimeter shooting and an ability to get LSU into early foul trouble. Still, even with the 24 points scored off of LSU turnovers in the opening period, it was nevertheless shocking to see a VCU team put up 50 points in the first half, something which hasn’t happened since the Rams defeated Cal back on November 21, 2017.
Ultimately, the LSU Tigers—as injury-bitten as they are—are a talented team, and they were able to close the gap, even taking the lead with less than a minute remaining. However, VCU’s defense was more than ready to answer the call, shutting down any attempts at last-second buckets and sealing the win by forcing a game-winning turnover with .2 seconds remaining.
But there’s no denying that the most satisfying aspect of tonight’s victory for VCU fans was the added element of getting to showcase their team’s newfound offensive firepower against a familiar face.
Rams fans were upset when Will Wade made the move from Richmond to Baton Rouge following the two seasons he spent at the helm of VCU. Yet, there was no doubt that he would one day return, as a stipulation in his contract with VCU required him to schedule a home-and-home with the Rams should he ever leave.
Thus, fans knew Wade was coming back, and they were quite ready to give him a less-than-warm welcome in his return to the Siegel Center, poking much fun at their former coach’s troubles with the FBI that led to his suspension last season:
Plenty of members of the Rowdy Rams came prepared for tonight’s game against LSU with some apparel-based jabs at Will Wade pic.twitter.com/0I76VfOJwS— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) November 13, 2019
Additionally, it would have been impossible for Wade to have gone the entire night without noticing the three grown men dressed as FBI agents sitting just to the right of the LSU bench who were relentlessly taunting him:
VCU fans aren't holding back on Will Wade and LSU.— Sporting News (@sportingnews) November 14, 2019
Dressed as FBI agents, they're right at the end of the bench harping on Wade's part in the FBI scandal. pic.twitter.com/FlPX5YjERU
Afterwards, Wade did not seem to exhibit any harsh feelings towards the fans, saying they deserved “probably an A+” as a grade for their creativity.
Of course, the level of passion displayed by the VCU fans is something Wade is no stranger to, having once had their support at his back for two successful years. After discussing the hostile road environments his teams face in the SEC, Wade took a moment to honor his former home, noting that, “this is different because everybody’s right on top of you...so, so intimate.”
Even the LSU players—who have spent their entire careers playing in the best gyms against the best opponents—were struck by the atmosphere within the Siegel Center (which I can best describe as sticking your hand in a bucket of water before grabbing a live wire), as Skylar Mays was quick to state that, “this is my fourth year of college, and this is number one. It’s the toughest environment I’ve ever played in.”
When discussing how his team allowed 37 points to VCU off of 26 turnovers, Wade was quick to point out that “[y]ou can’t simulate this...you can’t simulate what they do.” While he was talking about the defense there, one would be forgiven if they believed he was referring to the Rams’ offense, which finally showcased its potential for unabated energy against a grade-A foe.
The fans who made their way to the Siegel Center to partake in the 137th consecutive sell-out of a VCU home game were witness to a refreshing emergence of a new VCU. It was as if this entire time, the Rams had been playing with one hand behind their back, finally bringing out the other against a man who knows the program all too well.
“Tremendous crowd, tremendous fans,” Wade graciously said after his first game back in the arena where he made a name for himself. “Now I can go back to rooting for VCU.”