I sat down with JeQuan Lewis again but this time he brought a friend. VCU big man and fan favorite Mo Alie-Cox sat down with us and we talked for almost an hour about basketball (especially my favorite, the pick and roll), school, the trials and tribulations of growing up, and what life was like back in April of 2015.
These guys are incredibly polite and very easy to be with. There was a lot of laughter, as was the case when I was solo with JeQuan, and a great vibe in the room during the entire conversation. Because JeQuan and I had spoken earlier, See here, Mo took the first shot at answering most of my questions. We had some great conversation and I enjoyed gaining some insight into how two crucial components of VCU’s squad work together on and off the court.
JeQuan and Mo have come a long way in a relatively short period of time but they will be the first to tell you that their story is far from being over. If the growth and progress from these two this season is any indication, the best from these guys is yet to come.
What did you guys think of the Super Bowl? JeQuan had said he was a Cam fan, Did you guys care who won?
Mo: “I am a Cam Newton fan but I didn’t have a preference who won. I kind of wanted Peyton Manning to win because if he won he could retire on a high note.
Mo, are you a Skins fan since you are from that area?
Mo: “I like Philly; I’m an Eagles fan (As an Eagles fan myself, Mo and I are now are best friends I also passed on the football after hoops question. He still has another year of answering that ahead of him.)
What did you guys think of the game?
Mo: “Panthers offensive line couldn’t block Denver! I mean, the Broncos are the number one defensive team in the league so it was going to be pretty hard, especially with that front 8 the Broncos have. And then the receivers weren’t catching the good passes Cam Newton got off so it was tough for them all-around. Carolina didn’t even allow a touchdown until the end of the game so you can’t even blame their defense for the game.
Let’s talk about school for a minute. Mo, you’ve already graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice and I’ve read where you’ve said that you are interested in joining the Secret Service someday. JeQuan, you are a Sociology major. What are your plans after basketball?
Mo: “Since I was little it has always been something I’ve been interested in. And then I came to college and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Intro to Criminal Justice was one of the first classes that I had and when I took it there was a lot of interesting stuff being talked about and I really like it and after my first semester I decided to follow that and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
JeQuan: “I’m interested in working with some people back home who are involved with a group, “Work Hard and Be Humble Elite Training.” I’m pushing towards that. There’s this guy named John Primm, he played basketball at UNC Asheville and overseas; he is from my county. They have kids of all ages and they have gotten pretty big in the state of Tennessee.”
Can you guys talk about being in the position to impact others and what that means to you?
Mo: “One thing that Coach Smart always used to tell us was that we are in a blessed situation. There are a lot of people who would kill to be in the situation we are in. We are the faces of Richmond, us and UR. Since there isn’t any major league team here and everybody knows who we are, we have to take a moment and be appreciative and just give back to the community because there are a lot of people who look up to us, especially kids. Kids are always watching us on T.V. and we have a main billboard coming into the city and being from the backgrounds we’re from, less fortunate families with lots of friends who don’t even go to college or go down the wrong the path. We just try to make a big impact in our community because it is something we know we can do and we know it can make a difference.”
Let’s talk about some of the challenges you guys faced in high school. Both of you attended multiple high schools and faced some serious hardships growing up.
Mo: “In high school I was in the same school for 7th-9th grade because my school went from 7th-12th grade but then my parents got divorced so I had to move and switch to another school. I went to South County and then I went to Mount Vernon for my sophomore year but the neighborhood we lived in was a rough neighborhood and my Mom didn’t like it so we moved backed to the zone where I used to got to school at. But then a coach and AAU teammate came to me and asked me if I would like to go to private school and continue my education and play basketball. I started to do better in school and also more coaches started to see me play because the high school I had been at, everybody went DII or DIII so it was a better overall opportunity for me. And then when I got here I didn’t look at any of that as something to get upset about. I just looked at all of it as a positive because I didn’t practice or play my freshman year so I just focused on school.”
JeQuan: “I started out in private school at Davidson Christian Academy. It was about two hours away from where I lived so I had to commute that everyday. My Mom worked at Vanderbilt so I’d get to school at 6:00 everyday and school didn’t start until 8:00 and on Thursdays we didn’t start until 9:00 so I’d jus the chillin’. Somedays I’d just be sitting outside waiting for them to open up the doors. My Mom just got tired of doing that because at night after school after football practice or basketball practice I’d be there until 8:30 or 9:00 some nights and then have to drive home all the way back to the county so I did that up until Christmas and then at Christmas we decided I would stay at school in Dickson. I mean, it was a great school and a great opportunity for me but it wasn’t what I was used to. But you know, going back to the county, they weren’t really on me like they were at Davidson and I could just kind of go through the motions in class. My senior year is when things got serious and Coach Wade got me taking classes that I didn’t think I needed to take but I needed them in the end.
What do you mean about your classes?
JeQuan: “I would have graduated if I had stayed on the path I was on but I wouldn’t have been eligible to play my freshman year. Coach Wade got me taking the right classes and doing the hard things when all of my homeboys were chillin’; taking like two classes a semester. And that was part of the reason why I had to walk away from football because I really had to focus on my grades.”
Mo, how hard was it not being able to play your freshman year? A lot of people don’t know that you weren’t allowed to even practice with the team, let alone play in the games. How did you handle that?
Mo: “It wasn’t too bad because I don’t know if I would have wanted to practice and then not be able to play in the games. I wouldn’t be able to travel with the team. I had practiced the whole summer anyways because I didn’t find out until August, when we were getting ready for the Italy trip, so I got to experience practice and see what it was like. It wasn’t like I was going into my next year completely blind and not knowing what to expect. The hardest part was just weight lifting everyday and working out everyday. I lifted everyday.”
OK Mo, take at look at these. What do you think when you see stuff like this? You have a favorite out of this bunch? Any of this weird you out?
Mo: “Hahahahaa! I like the Ironman one the best. The other ones are kind of crazy. The Predator one and then in the other one I look way too happy shooting that gun. But Ironman is one of my favorite superhero movies and my head actually fits on the body compared to the other two. But it also shows that our fans have some great imaginations and that we some of the greatest fans in the country. They come out no matter what the weather is and no matter who we are playing; they will show up. I just have a level of appreciation for what they do and what they sacrifice to come and see us play. We go to other schools and sometimes their gyms are empty and their fans don’t cheer for them so I just appreciate all of the fans we have here and all of the love they have for basketball.”
Mo, you had been at VCU a year when JeQuan got here. What did you think of him when you first met and JeQuan, what did you think of Mo?
JeQuan: “He has been my roommate since my freshman year; his room has been right next to mine. But I didn’t really rock with him when I got here. I didn’t really rock with anybody. I was just in my room. I would lock myself in the room, play video games, and sleep. I was so tired and wasn’t used to the schedule. I had never had summer school in my entire life. I wasn’t used to the training or the weight room workouts. I was just exhausted. Any free time I did get I would just go in my room and lock the door. Even on the weekends, they’d be chillin’ as a team and I’d be in my room. Further in the summer he just came in my room and was like, “Yo, get up! Come on!” and then things were cool.
Mo: “We used to try to get him to do stuff with us but he didn’t want to do anything because he just wanted to sleep. I didn’t blame him because I knew where he was coming from because when I first got here I did the same. I only talked to Treveon (Graham) and Justin Tuoyo. Me and Justin did everything together because we were two big men and we were both freshmen. Jordan (Burgess) wasn’t here yet so all we did was sleep. We slept any chance we got because it was all about getting used to the changes. Every freshman has it. Even Samir (Doughty), when he got here he locked himself in his room and didn’t talk to anyone his first month and he is one of my roommates but now he is comfortable and he is probably one of the most talkative guys on the team. It is really about people getting adjusted and being around new people.”
You guys have had a lot of changes in your time here, on and off the court. Both of you came to VCU with established players like Juvonte Reddic and Briante Weber ahead of you. What has it been like to go from the guy coming off the bench to an established veteran and key component to this team?
Mo: “Coming in, it was a big transition because that year we had a lot of bigs. We had me, Justin Tuoyo, David Hinton, DJ Haley, Juvonte Reddic, and Jarred Guest. There we six of us fighting for two, but pretty much just one spot because Coach Smart didn’t play two bigs together very often. Sitting out that year was kind of a blessing in disguise because I probably wouldn’t have played much my first year. I was able to work on my game and then the next year I played. I was in good shape because I had gotten a lot stronger and could bang with them (VCU big men). Terrance (Shannon) was here which also helped because he was another mentor in the front court. I just learned from him and Juvonte and now I’m a leader on this team so I just try to help the younger guys now.
JeQuan: “My situation was different because I just had Briante and he was a good mentor. My first summer I hated him though cause he was always on me. During workouts, full court 1-on-1, he woke me up. He showed me it wasn’t going to be easy. He showed me that college was real and that it was a big transition. Going against him everyday in practice prepared me so much for going up against anybody in a game because I had never played against anybody who played defense like Briante Weber.”
Yea, I can’t imagine a better guy to get you ready to play D-1 hoops. Speaking of Briante, have you guys talked to him lately? How’s he doing?
Mo and JeQuan: “He’s here right now! He’s working out right now.”
Mo: “He’s on his break from the D-League so him and a lot of the former guys will be back in town over the next few days.”
JeQuan: “He texts me a lot and just says “What’s up?”
Mo: “He normally talks to us before every game and just motivates us. He watches every game. You know he is in South Dakota and he says he doesn’t do much. He says he is watching us and watching movies.”
Does the fact that you guys are roommates have any impact on the way you play?
JeQuan: “We kind of have a big brother/little brother kind of relationship type thing because he’s been there for me since my freshman year. He was probably the first one I built a relationship outside of my class.”
Mo: “I would say it helps. I probably don’t yell at JeQuan as much as I would someone else (laughing).”
JeQuan: “Mo understands me more than anyone else.”
Mo: “It took us a while to get the pick and roll right and stuff like that but we’ve gotten better with it as time has gone on. It used to be me and Mel. Mel used to get me all my points last year but now I run it more with JeQuan. He has gotten a lot better over time and it has just been a transition we have been working on.”
What has been the biggest thing that has helped you two get your chemistry to a point where you can play off of each other more effectively and efficiently?
Mo: “I’d say Coach Wade. He came in and changed the offense to more pick and rolls and stuff like that. We run more pick and rolls in practice and it translates into the games since it is one of the main things we work on. We work on the other big hiding away so if the defender helps JeQuan has the drop-off or can get the layup. The chemistry comes from practice and changing the scheme of what we do. Earlier in the year we would try ducking in but we have smaller post players. I’m probably, well, me and Hamdy are the biggest guys. Justin and Mike aren’t great with their backs to the basket so them hiding away makes the defense have to guard them and opens the pick and roll more. I would the scheme has really helped it (chemistry).”
Here is an example of what Mo was referring to with JeQuan and the screen action. If you give Lewis a step, he will go right by you.
JeQuan finds Tillman on the baseline as the defense is forced to step up to stop his dribble penetration.
JeQuan: “I just know that Mo is going to roll hard and when I do come off the ball screen I know that if I dribble my guy down; he gets cut by the screen and it’s either going to be me open or Mo open. My man is going to be out of the play so basically you are playing 2-on-1. Either his man is going to step up and stop me or I’m going to go as far as he will let me.”
The pick and roll works because of the spacing and timing on the play. The defender is put in a situation where he has to decide to step up and take JeQuan or fall off and get Mo. Miles opts to stop the ball here and Mo makes them pay at the rim.
JeQuan, you and I have talked before about this and how timing is so important to making it work and just having a good feel for your teammates.
JeQuan: “I feel like it is just repetition. If he knows I’m coming off and he’s rolling, he is getting the ball if someone comes to me.”
Mo: “If you have Melvin in the “shake” action, you can’t help off of Melvin so you have to pick your poison. You have to pick something. They can let me try to score but I’m going to make almost all my lay-ups and my free throw shooting has gotten a lot better.
JeQuan: “You have our three top scorers on one side. I’m coming off the ball screen, Mo’s rolling, and Mel is shaking on the backside. It is tough to stop all three. You might get two but it is tough to stop all three.”
What are you seeing now from teams as far as teams making adjustments to what has worked for you guys?
Mo: “Last game, GW, they were digging down and playing like an NBA-style defense off the pick and roll. We weren’t really used to it so it kind of neutralized what we did. We weren’t making smart decisions like we normally do.”
JeQuan: “They basically took away the roll. We didn’t do a good job of seeing it.”
Well, since you brought up George Washington, let’s talk a little about that game and the fact that you guys were on the losing end of things for the first time in 12 games. What is the process like for you guys to get things rolling again?
Mo: “Well, we got back in the gym and everyone started competing again. Coach Wade showed us the film and Coach Wade’s stats guy showed us some crazy stats. The main thing we talked about was that we got away from what we normally do, pounding the paint and getting the ball on multiple sides. We talked about hustle plays and stuff like that. We watched the film and we saw that we were letting our offense effect our defense. We weren’t playing up to our potential and we were shooting the ball on the first side with 20-something seconds left on the shot clock. We saw stats where if we shot the ball the first time it was 33%(conversion rate) but if we rotated the ball it went up to 45%(conversion rate) and if we got the ball in the paint it goes up to 55%. When he shows you things like that it makes you think about it. It makes you wish you would have done it but it is behind us now and now we have to move forward and just get back to work. He (Wade) showed us a stat where we had allowed at least 40 points in the second half of 6 straight games. And he (Wade) told us like a week or two weeks ago, “One of these days we are going to need our defense to bail us out. Our offense won’t be rolling and we will need the defense to be there for us.” And he was right. Our offense wasn’t rolling and our defense wasn’t up to par.”
Coach Wade has made multiple comments about the team’s second half defensive deficiencies and not being very happy about the trends he was seeing in the second half. What are you guys doing to correct things?
Mo: “The biggest thing is just finishing possessions. In the first half (against George Washington), we only gave them two second chance points but in the second half they had thirteen. The three-point shot to put them ahead was a second chance possession. It just comes down to finishing possessions; getting the ball and rebounding. We play good defense but we just don’t finish possessions.”
JeQuan: “We just need to come out with the mentality that we want to get after people, nothing easy. We’ve been coming out in the second half and been trading baskets. Once we get into the mindset that we are trying to make a statement and not go through the motions. If we are up 10, let’s go up 30 or 40. I feel like once we get back to that mentality and mindset, well, we have to do it. We have to be that way if we want to be great.”
In the second half of the GW game, JeQuan came out hot and you guys went up by 8 points quick. GW called a timeout early and it seemed to really slow you guys down. But it seems like you guys see that now.
JeQuan: “If we don’t fix it, Coach Wade is gonna fix it. Believe me, we’d rather fix it then have him come in.”
Coach Wade comes across as a very intelligent guy. How would you describe him?
Mo: “I don’t think people realize how smart he is because he’s got that babyface, Hahahaha! But he is one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever had. He talks about things that we don’t ever think about and he is always right.
JeQuan: “Some of the words he uses I’ve never even heard of and he’s always like, “Look in Webster’s. It’s in there.”
Mo, when you were in high school you talked about watching Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders play together and how they had a connection that you liked. You two, and Melvin Johnson as well, seem to be feeding off of each other. How has that connection evolved?
Mo: “I think that it is evolving because the majority of my minutes either came with JeQuan or Mel in the game. Freshman year we were all in the second unit and then last year all of us started at one point so we’ve had that connection going on for a while. Our freshman year we probably had one of the best second units in the league but we didn’t get a lot of minutes because of the guys in front of us so we just had to take what we could get. Over time, it keeps getting better and better and we have another year here at VCU so I think it is just going to keep improving.
JeQuan: “Yea, I just think it is knowing each other. I know Mo’s strengths and weaknesses. When I was talking about that lob in the GW game, I just said to myself that I was going to throw it up there and I know he’s gonna go get it. I know if I just throw it anywhere near the basket he’s gonna go up and get it. I don’t even worry about it. I could have my eyes closed and I know he’s going to come down with it.”
Mo, you had yourself quite the April last year. Your coach left you and you were falsely accused of hitting a woman at nightclub IN THE SAME EVENING! Obviously the charges were bogus,Video proves Mo Alie-Cox to be innocent, and everything worked out fine. JeQuan, what was it like for you watching your friend go through that ordeal and knowing he was innocent the whole time? What were you saying to him while all this stuff was going on?
JeQuan: “Yup, you going down bro! (laughing)”
Mo: “They were all just making jokes because we all knew the truth. But her story could be believed by people because it happened the night Coach Smart left. And then she tried to add that in her story. I had just gone out and got to the club at like 11:15 and they said it happened at 11:30. I was still out, just chillin’ and didn’t even know any of this (false accusations) was happening. I go somewhere else and then come back to where she said it happened. I get a call from Coach Ballard and he was asking me if I hit a girl and I was completely confused like, “What are you talking about? I’m still at the the place where they said it happened and nobody has even come up to me to say anything.” So I was asking all my friends, “Did you see a fight?” but none of them saw anything. Then the video came out and proved my story. When you see the video, my back is turned to where it happened. I wasn’t paying any attention.”
JeQuan: “If you know Mo, even if he is mad, nothing like that is going to happen. He wouldn’t even try that with us. That is why we gave him a hard time about it. To keep his mind off of it because we know how nice he is.”
What a crazy night! How was that last night with Coach Smart? Do you guys still keep in touch?
Mo and JeQuan: “We still keep in touch. Text and stuff.”
Mo: “He is still a good dude. Leading up to it we kind of knew it was going to happen because normally it would get brushed off but this time we got two weeks off, which never happened and then he canceled all workouts. Then he came to the weight room that day and said we were meeting that night at 8:00 and clear everything up. When he called that meeting we were all like, “Ahhh, he’s gonna tell us he’s leaving.” In years past, since we had been here, there was never any meeting or anything. We just went about our business. Some how the media found out about the meeting and we had to push it back. We had Jeff Goodman (ESPN College Basketball Reporter) on the street asking us, “Is he leaving, is he leaving?” We had tons of people hitting us up, asking us about it. I was mad for a couple of days but I understand what he did. He had to put his family in the best situation. We knew he wouldn’t stay here forever but I just thought he wouldn’t leave while we were still here. We used to joke around with Tre (Treveon Graham) and say, “Tre, he’s leaving when you leave!” But then it actually happened! (laughing)”
What was the reaction like when Coach Wade was announced as the guy who was going to replace Coach Smart?
Mo: “Coach Wade was my big man coach when he was here before. He was always hard on us so I was like, “Ah man! Coach Wade is gonna be HARD on us! (laughing) He has always been a good coach though. We were freshman and experiencing something new and we weren’t used to working that hard (when Wade was at VCU as an assistant coach). Now we all love him but back then we were young and didn’t really understand why he was making us work so hard. Once he got here, he just talked to us and then we started making the transition.”
JeQuan: “At the time I was pushing towards Coach Ballard because he was my point guard coach. I knew things would stay pretty much the same. But when Coach Wade got here I already knew him so I was good with that.”
Justin Tillman talked about the “brotherhood” you guys have here. Is that real?
Mo: “I don’t think Justin was ever going to leave really. He loves it here. We all do. We get to be the main attraction in the city. I don’t know why you would want to leave this anyway.”
If you could go back to 16-year old Mo and JeQuan and talk to them knowing what you know now and having been through some of the highs and lows you’ve been through, what advice would you give them?
Mo: “I’d go back and work on my offensive game more. I didn’t really care about scoring points in high school. I just would work on stuff so when I got to college the transition would be easier.”
VCU has a lot basketball left to play. How well it does on the court will be directly impacted by JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox. Senior leaders Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury are hungry for success in their last days of college ball and Mo and JeQuan want nothing more than to help them “eat.” The next few weeks will provide all college basketball fans with some amazing moments of high drama and hopefully for VCU’s sake, a fully belly as well.