Tim Pearrell, Richmond Times-Dispatch (http://www.richmond.com/sports/college/atlantic-10/game-day-routine-for-vcu-s-will-wade-filled-with/article_5740769b-1e53-58cb-8414-b4b9e76737c8.html)
VCU’s basketball players interrupt the quiet in the coaches’ dressing room at the Siegel Center on this late December evening. Outside in the hallway, they’re yelling and getting pumped as they prepare to go into the arena to play Howard.
Will Wade pays no attention to the sound.
With no other coaches in the room, he slips on his coat and walks near a sink in the corner.
Standing with his back pressed against the wall, he closes his eyes and starts a breathing routine.
This is the last part of game-day rehearsal for VCU’s 34-year-old, popcorn-munching head coach, of reviewing game plans and scouting reports with the team, of stressing details and goals in the quick turnaround of one game to the next, of trying to gauge, two days after Christmas, how focused his players are against a 3-9 team.
Wearing a “Breathe” wristband, Wade clears his mind and tries to calm himself.
The digital countdown clock (one of at least four in the arena) continues its march — 3:11, 3:10, 3:09 — toward the time for the national anthem as he opens his eyes almost 25 seconds later.
Wade walks out the door and into the hallway, where his assistants, graduate assistants and managers are waiting for him. He bumps fists and laughs with everybody when one of the managers starts dancing.
Ready at last, he and the staff walk into the cauldron of the sold-out arena to see how everything they worked on in two days of practice and one crammed day of reminders will play out.
Players and coaches don’t sit around on the day of a game waiting. Practice and meetings are standard, although the amount and depth of what they do differs for each team.
From the time the Rams arrive for a shoot-around more than five hours before the 7 p.m. game, they are like flight controllers before a launch, checking and rechecking systems.
Wade is routine-oriented. Part of that routine up until game time is assessing the state of mind of his players, so the Rams’ second-year coach quietly talks to them as they’re stretching.
The players break into two groups, with big men going to one end of the court and guards going to the other. Shoot-around is a misnomer. This is a high intensity, spirited session.
Zone defenses have been a problem for VCU, and Howard uses it almost exclusively. The Rams’ big men work on positioning against a scout team playing a zone.
Wade praises, admonishes, corrects.
After five minutes, he blows the whistle, and the groups switch ends. The guards work against the zone.
The groups come together to work on transitioning to their zone offense after being pressed. There’s a turnover by the second group against the press, drawing Wade’s ire for lobbing a pass. There’s another turnover.
“Come on, that’s twice,” forward Mo Alie-Cox says.
Plays against zones get attention. Forward Justin Tillman pins his defender almost under the basket, but the guards don’t get him the ball.
Wade stops the proceedings.
“He’s sealing his (butt) off!” he yells. “We’re going to get the ball inside one way or another.”
VCU reviews its inbounds plays from the baseline and the sideline before assistant coach Wes Long goes over Howard’s offensive sets using the scout team.
Long talks about defending a play Howard runs. It involves three cutters, with the last, Charles Williams, getting the ball near the wing. Williams, a 6-foot-5 freshman guard, is from Millwood School in Midlothian.
Then he goes over the Bison’s inbounds plays.
When the scouting portion is done, Wade has the Rams practice last-second situations: getting the ball upcourt after rebounding a missed free throw by the opponent, and “Hole in 1,” a play the Rams will use six weeks later to pull off a miraculous 54-53 victory at George Washington with .4 seconds left.
(With VCU down 1 and needing to go the length of the court to score, JeQuan Lewis set a screen on a defender who was following the inbounds passer running the baseline and drew a foul.
Lewis went to the foul line and made two free throws.)
A few minutes are allotted for shooting and free throws. The 80-plus minute session finished, the Rams circle up, arms around each other, and Wade tells them to attack the basket and push Howard’s ballhandlers out wide.
The players head across the street to the Basketball Development Center for a pregame meal, which is served about four hours before a game. Wade still has radio and TV obligations. It’s almost 3:30 before he gets to the Development Center and goes upstairs to the dining area. The menu is grilled filet mignon, grilled chicken breast, chicken alfredo, beef lasagna, steamed broccoli, salad, eggnog cheesecake and water.
“That was one of our better pregames,” he says.
Wade has done almost all of his preparation, so he spends the next hour and 20 minutes in his office in the Development Center. This is as close as he and the players get to down time, although Wade sometimes uses some of it to rehearse in his mind what could happen in the game.
If he doesn’t know the members of the officiating crew, he spends some time researching them. Wade wants to get a feel for how they call games and how he can talk to them. He’s familiar with tonight’s crew — Duke Edsall, Les Jones and Olandis Poole — so there’s no need to check.
He dials Dr. Joel Fish, a sports psychologist based in Philadelphia who works with Wade and the team. There’s no answer.
Fish is “in-depth on everybody” on the team, Wade says. He talks with Fish a lot so Wade can relay thoughts and bounce ideas, primarily about his coaching and preparation, but also about the players.
Deciphering the mood of each player and the team is important to Wade. If someone is not locked in, all the schemes and plans don’t matter.
“You have a different team every game,” he says. “We don’t live our lives in bubbles. There are issues that happen, so you have a different makeup with your team every game. You’ve got to figure out what that makeup is and who’s struggling.
“People are like, ‘Well, he played well this game so (he should play like that again).’ What if his girlfriend broke up with him? We had a kid who had his car scratched earlier this year, and that threw him off for a game. There’s stuff like that you wouldn’t think (matters). All that stuff matters to our guys. You’ve just got to be cognizant of that and have a pulse for where everybody is.”
If Wade notices something of concern during the shoot-around, he’ll bring the player into his office after he eats.
“You’ve got to do a quick fix for that game, and then after the game, you delve into it a little deeper,” he says.
It’s a little before 5 when Fish calls back. Wade says he has a good feeling about the team and the preparation. The conversation lasts about five minutes.
Wade changes into a suit. The Development Center is quiet as he walks out, talking on his phone to another coach.
After hanging up his coat inside the coaches’ dressing room in the Siegel Center, Wade does his next check on his team. It’s 5:25, and a couple of players are on the floor shooting, so Wade walks into the arena, sits on the bench and observes for about 15 minutes.
He chats with John Feinstein, the analyst for the TV broadcast, and Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry. This is not a comfortable matchup for Wade because Nickelberry is a good friend who helped Wade get started as a graduate assistant at Clemson and then helped him land a job as an assistant coach at Harvard.
Wade heads back to the team’s video room. On the way, he meets the Rams’ certified athletic trainer, Eddie Benion, with what essentially is Wade’s pregame coffee: a box of popcorn.
Wade isn’t sure why he eats popcorn before every game, other than it became a habit after he got his first head coaching job at Chattanooga four years ago. Long, also Wade’s assistant at Chattanooga, used to bring him popcorn after speaking to the fundraising club. Benion procures it from one of the nearby rooms the university uses for pregame functions.
Wade places the popcorn box on a lecturn in the video room, grabs a handful, writes a note on a large whiteboard, grabs another handful, and writes another note.
These are the main areas he’s stressed in practice.
“Really you’re just trying to drive home 3-5 main points, over and over again in different ways,” he says later. “You try to give it to them visually on clips. You try to give it to them by voice. You show them. There’s (different) ways people learn. You try to appeal to all those ways, especially as you get closer to game time.”
Posted on another board are VCU’s goals for each game: five or more turkeys (three defensive stops in a row); grab 40 percent of offensive rebounds; have 12 or fewer turnovers; have five or fewer miscommunications; make more free throws than the opponent attempts.
Meet three of those standards, and Wade says the Rams almost always win.
Long is first up with video clips of Howard when the team comes into the room about 55 minutes before the anthem.
Williams, No. 13, can score inside, from midrange and on 3-pointers and likes to drive hard to the basket, he says. Don’t send him to the free throw line. He shows the play where Williams is the third cutter.
“We’ve got to be in his pocket,” Long says.
Solomon Mangham, No. 12 and a 6-7 forward, is an aggressive shooter. Long tells the Rams they can’t switch defenders softly on screens because Mangham gets off his shot quickly.
“Don’t let him get going,” he says.
Marcel Boyd, No. 5 and a 6-10, 250-pound forward, favors shooting with his right hand over his left shoulder and needs to be kept off the offensive glass.
Long goes over a few other players before the screen retracts and Wade takes over.
If Wade isn’t urgent about an opponent that is 3-9 and is missing some key players because of injuries, he knows his players won’t be.
His voice rises. He talks fast and repeats sentences, almost for effect.
He hardly refers to his shorthand notes on the board during a 7½-minute delivery.
“Like we talked about the last couple of days, our pace and pressure,” he says. “Our pace, our pressure. Get the thing going in the full court. Get the thing going in the full court. Our house, our rules, right? Play it at our pace.
“Specifically on offense, we’ve got to attack in transition. Sprint and attack in transition. Get that thing to the front of the rim in the first 6 seconds of the shot clock. Get that thing to the front of the rim in the first 6 seconds of the shot clock. If not, play inside-out, sit down on two feet (and don’t go airborne with the ball) in the paint. Sit down on two feet in the paint.”
Defenders will be raking at the ball in the lane, Wade says, so be strong. Be disruptive on defense with pressure.
He’s animated now, rattling off his points nonstop. He talks about different defensive coverages he wants to use when Howard sets screens, depending on where the screens are on the court and by what position.
All positions except Mo Alie-Cox and Ahmed Hamdy will switch off on screens. Alie-Cox and Hamdy, playing the “5” position in the low post, have more to remember. They will “blitz,” or trap, the ball handler when the man they’re guarding sets a screen on the wing.
Teams sometimes use the double-teaming tactic when the big man isn’t a threat to pop out from the screen and shoot from the perimeter.
On screens out front, Wade wants Alie-Cox and Hamdy to “hedge,” jumping out in front of the ball handler to keep him from turning the corner and then retreating to guard their man.
Wade stresses high-level communication on screens and being relentless on rebounds. He warns of long rebounds because Howard will shoot a lot of jumpers.
He tells the Rams they should retrieve 40 percent of their misses because the Bison play a zone and won’t always be in position to block out.
Breathe, he says — the team works on visualization and breathing techniques with Greg Graber, a mindfulness coach and meditation instructor — and lock in and take a step in playing a complete game.
The Rams open their Atlantic 10 Conference schedule at George Mason in three days, and putting together 40 minutes is something they haven’t really done.
“This is where we’ve got to raise it up,” he says. “Next level, right fellas? … We’ve been better with our preparation. Let’s make sure it shows tonight at 7 o’clock. Let’s make sure it shows tonight at 7 o’clock. Committed and connected. Our competitiveness through the roof for 40 minutes. Not 20 minutes, not 30 minutes, not 15 minutes. Forty minutes through the roof. Our attention to detail, our execution … We can’t stroll (into George Mason) and say, ‘We’re going to put it together for 40 minutes tonight.’ We’ve got to have a foundation to build off of. That’s tonight.”
Three times Wade says take care of the ball, an area of concern because of turnovers in other games. No cross-court passes against the zone.
The Rams gather in prayer.
“Let’s have a good warm-up,” he says.
As the players head back to the court, Wade goes down the hallway to VCU’s locker room. He gives the starting lineup to Nelson Hernandez, the director of basketball operations, to take to the scorer’s table and enter into the scorebook. On another whiteboard, he writes the opening script for the Rams.
Hernandez comes back into the locker room several minutes later.
One final time, Wade checks on the state of his team.
Hernandez, Wade says later, has “an unbelievable feel for what our team looks like, what their team looks like,” so Wade asks for his take after watching the Rams warm up.
“They seem OK,” Hernandez says.
Loose and laughing, the players filter back in with 11½ minutes left on the clock. Benion hands out drink pouches and gummies to provide shots of electrolytes and sugar.
Wade’s instructions are a last reminder. Even with all the repetition, players forget or get confused in the heat of a game, especially when they’re constantly adding two or three new plays and tweaks to the base schemes they’ve been taught.
Start in a press and drop into a man-to-man defense. Switch, hedge and blitz on ball screens. Stay in front, or three-quarters in front, of Howard’s players in the low post and knock them back off their spots while keeping hands up. Use the zone motion offense. Late in the shot clock, stay in zone motion and attack the basket. Stay on two feet with the ball when penetrating into the lane.
Wade shows a video clip from practice of good execution in the Rams’ zone offense.
“Good seal, side to side (ball movement), look at the guards snapping the ball through,” he says. “The baseline drive and (a pass) for 3 points to the corner. Actually he misses it — I forgot about that.”
Wade tells them to go after offensive rebounds, attack on both ends, make an extra effort, make one more pass, never give up on a play, take the next step with a complete game.
There are 5½ minutes on the clock. The players head into the hallway, almost ready to take the floor. Wade goes across to the coaches’ room to get his coat and breathe.
VCU overwhelms Howard 85-51. The Rams get off to a fast start with aggressive defense, are effective against the zone and handle the ball well.
Howard has 21 turnovers and shoots 36 percent. Charles Williams is 6 of 14 and scores 20 points, but he has to make some tough shots. The Rams don’t give Williams much room on the play Long highlighted. Mangham is 3 of 7 and has 7 points.
“We followed the scouting report really well this game,” JeQuan Lewis says in the postgame news conference.
There are some missed plays as well, and Williams goes to the foul line and makes 6 of 8 free throws. But Wade says it’s “closer” to a complete game.
The Rams accomplish three of their five game goals: Five or more turkeys (12 times they get three consecutive defensive stops), 12 or fewer turnovers (11), and five or fewer miscommunications.
They don’t grab 40 percent of their offensive rebounds (31 percent) or make more free throws (14) than Howard attempts (19).
In his news conference, Wade says the Rams prepare the same way for every team.
“There’s a high, high level of attention to detail in everything’s that done,” he says. “Winning is hard. Beating any Division I team is not easy to do.”