A couple weeks ago, I wrote about losing in college basketball for The Classical. My story originally began this way, as an elegy of the season that the VCU Rams had, its various ebbs and flows, before I decided to re-gear. When Shaka Smart left for Texas last week, I thought that it made a lot more sense to show you this. The edit-god David Roth helped significantly in mashing these boiled potatoes into what you have here.
“Did you ever see that octopus that came out of the water and ate the crab?” asks the bartender. It was perilously late at night, and I was out of town.
“No way,” I reply, between bites of pickled carrots and red sauce. I could be honest about my cowardice; I would be leaving town soon. “Every headline is ‘Fuel of nightmares.’ Why would I get into that?”
Why does anybody? She made me watch it on her phone, and it somewhat lived up to its horrific stature. I tipped well. After stumbled back to room for the night and slept as easy as I ever do, with thoughts of the long snow of the north and also of this blissful time on a lake last summer, and with the inescapable feeling that whatever was catching up to me would do so, and maybe soon. An octopus? In the morning, there was basketball.
* * *
D'Angelo Russell is better at his chosen sport, more naturally gifted, than most people deserve to be at anything. In Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament game against VCU, Russell sunk three-pointers again and again, and the feeling was, well, this is who he is—a skillful, marketable NBA lottery pick. Reggie Miller howled about Russell from within his cocoon of nothingness, every blast of hot air an admonishment towards Stephen Curry's eventual overtaking of any remaining professional record that Miller owns. The VCU Rams were still ahead at the half, but the momentum had changed, and VCU’s famed “Havoc”—a lauded two-way scheme of press, man-to-man half-court defense, threes, and dunks cooked up half a decade ago by wunderkind coach Shaka Smart—was in the process of being undone by the speed and strength of the Ohio State backcourt. The end hung over VCU like a low cloud.
Early in their season, the same five men were nightly stalwarts: Treveon Graham, the hard-nosed, chuck-it-up senior captain; Melvin Johnson, a flame-throwing long distance specialist named Melvin; Jordan Burgess, a defensive guard compared regularly to his greater brother Bradford, an alum whose luminous number (five, or something like it) hung in the rafters back in Richmond; Mo Alie-Cox, a developing badass in the model of Kenneth Faried—stocky, wide, but better at blocking. And there was Briante Weber, the best defensive player in the conference, a natural pain in the ass, and both the team’s leader on the floor and very nearly Division I’s all-time leader for steals by a human being. The mark surely would have been his, and before the tournament began, had Weber not torn a bunch of ligaments in his knee on January 31.
Weber's knee crumbled on a play late in a game against VCU’s comparatively bourgie hometown rival Richmond. Weber's injury, which crumpled up a prosaic and familiar drive-and-kick, felt like a choreographed homage to more important ACL tears of the past, with the difference that Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, and Ricky Rubio all made money while recovering from theirs. The Rams struggled immensely after, losing to Richmond once more after that, then Dayton and Davidson in a row, as well as to some other mid-major opponents not worth mentioning.
Eventually, they rallied and re-shaped, as this team has done over and over during Smart’s tenue. By the time of the the Atlantic 10 Men's Basketball Tournament—this is how I came to watch that Octopus on a bartender’s phone, while eating something called a Meatball Salad, in Brooklyn—they were back to something both like and unlike themselves. The seats next to the ones I shared with my friend, a diehard VCU fan, stayed empty until Saturday when humans realized they might actually go home without a crushing defeat. From those seats I saw those around me realize that revenge against Richmond, Davidson, and Dayton in a row could be syrupy and luscious, and never too filling.
After nearly losing to Fordham, Smart changed the team's rotations, starting rangy freshman Terry Larrier, who despite his numbers—which are remarkably unimpressive for being a highly touted prospect—provided a length of twine, several different widths of needles, and a button allowing the Rams a greater flexibility on defensive assignments, and outside offensive integrity. Larrier, for all his immaturity, had considerable prowess solving the puzzle of the 2-3 zone.
The Rams started to shred, and the revenge tour was on. They got weird, playing at times with four wings and one point guard, four wings and one forward, or the full no-fucks-to-give order of five wings. Brooks was kind of terrible, more or less in foul trouble the entire time, but there was a sense that it was satisfactory with management. Graham's worst predilections towards senseless, foul-baiting hurling seemed to be held at bay by good defense; he shot 2-of-11 against Richmond in the quarterfinals, but made five of six from the line. Hoisted into eminence by Weber's injury, new point guard Jequan Lewis did pretty well. Together, the team was able to build a barn, plant crops, and win the Atlantic 10 conference championship, clinching an already known terminus in the NCAA tournament. I had to catch a bus, so I missed Weber cutting down the net on his crutches, and doing a happy dance at half court in a Robocop-grade knee brace.
* * *
We go by a few rules, as a matter of being humans in the year 2015. Firstly, the 2-3 zone is an impossible fortress and those who can breach it deserve to be on our currency. Secondly, octopus are (apparently) alpha predators beyond anything of our wildest imagining, and they will—they will—haunt your dreams. Thirdly, Midwestern land grant universities were overtaken long ago by the hungry taste of television blood money—make a Ravenous Predatory Octopus joke here yourself, if you like!—and because of that, there is no sporting schadenfreude as hot as seeing a team from a None Of This Is Really Ethical, Let's Be Honest Sports Conference lose to one that isn’t. None that is legal, anyway.
But also there is D’Angelo Russell, and that was enough to end the season for VCU. The Rams' fervent passion for man-to-man defense was easily countered with their simultaneous fear of fouling, an after-effect of an NCAA referee mantra to “call basically all contact.” In their zone, the Buckeyes were largely able to resist the Rams’ small-ball offensive pressure. It was close, but it worked. Russell would struggle in the next game, likely the last of his college career, but he revealed himself to be very much the kind of player that Phil Jackson should feel fine about being fined for scouting.
Even as VCU went down, they were tinkering and innovating and trying strange things. A super-small lineup—all wings and one point guard—provided a boost later into the second half, with 6'5” guard Burgess guarding the equivalent of the Buckeyes' center. VCU made it to overtime with Mo Alie-Cox fouled out, and their effort and persistence seemed to be rewarded. They turned the ball over too much in the extra session, and they weren’t.
I texted with my friend Alex late after the game, which VCU lost by three. I told him I was hopeful for the team, which was only losing three players to graduation and had already proven that it could work around just about anything.“College sports are different, because you only get a few years to cheer for your favorite players,” he said. “Eventually, they all graduate, or transfer, or get interested, or even lose interest. Even coaches are never permanent as the prospect of greater jobs always looms. But within this transience, there's also a certain permanence, in that memories of temporary heroes will always remain.”
So maybe, Briante Weber isn’t leaving after all. Maybe none of them ever will.
For exclusive commentary on basketball and culture, check out more Negative Dunkalectics, follow @negativedunks on Twitter, and become our fan on Facebook.