One of the biggest challenges in college basketball is the built-in attrition that comes with a four-year “max contract” for a team’s players. Add in coaching turnover — and it happens to even the bluest of blue blood programs — and you are left with teams and programs that are in a constant battle to remain relevant.
That ain’t always easy and the Atlantic 10 is basically a case-study of exactly what I’m talking about.
Yesterday’s sole A-10 game of the day presented two teams in the thick of that struggle, as a rebuilding George Mason team defeated a Saint Louis Billikens squad that couldn’t look any more different than the program that dominated the Atlantic 10 just two seasons ago.
The Patriots are hoping the Dave Paulsen era will make the Paul Hewitt error a distant memory, as they saw their program go from Final 4 Cinderella to Atlantic 10 cellar dweller in a flash.
Saint Louis on the other hand looks to be in the process of going full Hewitt, as head coach Jim Crews has struggled to maintain the success built on Hall-of-Famer Rick Majarus’ foundation of Evans, Jett, Loe, McCall and Co., going from first to worst from the 2014 to 2015 seasons while looking poised to stay there for some time (see: Mason 92, SLU 79 at Chaifetz).
VCU on the other hand is hoping Will Wade might just be their fourth home run hire in a row.
The Rams were a proud and dangerous Sunbelt team under JD Barnett in the early 1980s (alongside a young assistant coach named Tubby Smith), seeing conference championships and NCAA tournament wins on a consistent basis. VCU won 20 or more games in four of Barnett’s six seasons in Richmond, advancing to the NCAA tournament five of those seasons and winning an NCAA tournament game each of his final four seasons with the Rams.
Barnett left VCU for the Golden Hurricanes of Tulsa, ushering in an error of mediocrity that spanned 17 seasons under three coaches, an ice age of VCU basketball that wouldn’t defrost until the Rams took a chance on a 27-year old up-and-coming assistant under former head coach Mack McCarthy, a fella named Jeff Capel.
In just his second season the former Duke Blue Devils guard led the Rams back to the NCAA tournament, their first trip in eight seasons, nearly shocking a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team before falling 79-78 to the Demon Deacons in essentially a tournament road game in Raleigh.
That would prove to be Capel’s one and only NCAA tournament appearance in his short four-season stay in Richmond before exiting for Oklahoma to coach Blake Griffin and the Oklahoma Sooners.
He would be fired after five seasons in Norman and would return to coaching as an assistant with his alma mater, Duke.
Capel however had left the pieces in place for Florida assistant turned new Rams head coach, Anthony Grant, to take the VCU program to a new level.
Grant’s teams — led by Capel-recruited guards BA Walker, Jesse Pellot-Rosa, Jamal Shuler and a breakout sophomore named Eric Maynor — upset Capel’s alma mater just months after the former VCU head coach left for the Big 12, downing the Blue Devils on a final-possession jumper that would ignite a VCU fan based desperate for some level of sustained success.
Inevitably, Grant would follow the same path as Capel, exiting VCU for the SEC’s Alabama Crimson Tide, but not until after two NCAA tournament appearances during his brief three-year stay in the Commonwealth.
Grant would last six seasons in Tuscaloosa before being fired. Like Capel, he is also serving as an assistant in familiar territory, teaming up with former Boss Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City.
Like Capel before him however, Grant left a stocked cupboard and a winning mentality that would be inherited by yet another Florida assistant, 32-year old unknown, Shaka Smart.
Smart hit lightning in a bottle his second season with a team full of Grant-recruited seniors, guys like Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Jamie Skeen and Ed Nixon, as well as junior Bradford Burgess, taking the Rams to unprecedented heights at VCU: a 2011 Final 4 run and a program-record five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
The Wisconsin native’s name was linked to virtually every Power 5 opening but remained at VCU perhaps longer than any non-Ram expected, eventually bolting for the nation’s richest program in the University of Texas.
Capel, Grant and Smart however all helped kick off a new era of VCU basketball that has built one of the nation’s longest home sellout streaks, a new practice facility and a brand recognition that was almost unfathomable for VCU fans after two decades of mediocrity.
Will Wade, a former assistant under Smart, now inherits the program and hopes to continue the winning tradition that has been virtually bulletproof to coaching change since Capel ushered in a new era at VCU.
At 5-0 in Atlantic 10 play with three road wins, 13-5 overall and now ranked No.32 by kenpom with a team that had to replace their best offensive weapon (Treveon Graham) and the program’s defensive identity (Briante Weber), Wade is clearly off to a good start.
Jim Crews had similar starts at Saint Louis — a very successful two-season run — but it’s Wade’s ability to not only maintain but add to that makes me think he is positioned to elevate VCU versus tank the program like what is currently happening under the Gateway Arch.
Wade took a losing UT Chattanooga team and immediately turned them into one of the better Southern Conference programs, almost overnight, turning an 8-10 conference team before he took over into a 12-4 squad his first season, earning conference Coach of the Year honors along the way.
Ram fans will hope he is capable of doing more of the same at VCU, a task obviously harder to do with a program coming off a conference tournament championship and three consecutive A-10 title game appearances.
So far Wade’s stamps have looked good on VCU’s future.
For starter’s he recruited the likes of Melvin Johnson and JeQuan Lewis while serving as an assistant at VCU, two players who have combined for 28.3 points and 7.1 assists per game this season at VCU while adding Oral Roberts transfer Korey Billbury almost immediately after getting the VCU job this offseason.
Billbury is currently VCU’s No.2 scorer at 12.3 points per contest and has been a huge three-point addition for the Rams, shooting 42.9% from range this season. He dropped 20 points in a Rams road win over rival Richmond this Saturday.
Wade seems to be making progress in building on VCU’s future as well, securing one of VCU’s highest rated recruits ever in incoming wing De’Riante Jenkins while going after a number of other top-100 prospects for future classes.
It’s extremely early in the Will Wade era but the signs currently all point toward yet another home run hire for VCU, and unfathomable fourth in-a-row for a program that continues it’s path toward national relevance and a growing college hoops brand.