Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. --Howard Thurman
The national articles began dropping in September 2011, in the wake of VCUs Final Four run. Shaka Smart unveiled, publicly, an innovative preseason-training regimen that has become both a familiar routine and ubiquitous on the college basketball scene: Navy SEAL training.
The physical challenges have always been the main storyline, despite Smart insisting it has always been more about togetherness and connecting as a team. It’s been that way since the very first article, written by Matt Norlander of CBSSports:
“McGuire keeps telling our guys that you have to get outside yourself, think about the guys next to you,” the coach said. “He couldn’t say anything more fitting about we’re all about and what most teams are about this time of year.”
And that’s fine, this external focus on the physical demands and the physical taxing of the havoc system. However internally, among those in the core group charged with winning basketball games and developing young men, it’s about something entirely different. While there’s a captip to the physical, the VCU coaching staff prefers to maximize its allotted time with the team.
The belief is that connecting the mental and emotional to the physical is a critical mixture in the chemistry experiment that leads to winning. And while plays and gameplans are important, the differentiator—that slimmest of margins between good and great—does not reside at KenPom.com.
(Side note: I cannot believe I just wrote that.)
It’s about leadership, a word that exists as “connector” in the VCU basketball program. For Smart, it’s about creating a transformational atmosphere, not a transactional one. You can only get so far with the carrot-and-stick motivation.
There has to be that connection among teammates and a staff if you want to accomplish great things. That connection leads to love, and not love in the corny sense. It’s the reality that a group of individual love what they are trying to accomplish together.
That doesn’t occur during a shell drill, nor in running the Siegel Center stairs. It comes through spending time together, immersed in activities surrounding that goal. For this basketball team, it came together again last week.
You see, the NCAA opted to allow the men to practice this year under the same guidelines as the women. That is, practice didn’t start on October 15 as prior seasons. This year, teams were able to begin practicing 42 days from their opening regular season game. Teams still could hold just 30 practices over those 42 days, and practice is still limited to four hours per day.
The extra 12 days left some wiggle room in the schedule, and true to form the VCU staff got creative with its use. They didn’t simply string practice out and give an extra day off here and there.
The black-and-gold game was a result of the extra time. Everybody won that night, didn’t they? However last week, from Wednesday through Friday, VCU borrowed a concept from the pros and held a sort of “mini-camp.”
The team got out of town together. They got in a few hard practices at Virginia Wesleyan, but also spent a great deal of time away from everything, bonding together. They even walked through some of the things they will do on road trips.
“Other teams and programs have done it and Coach Smart is always looking for ways to spend time with players,” says VCU assistant coach Mike Morrell. “It’s something new for us and with the new rule we were able to do it. With the team we have, veterans and new guys, it’s a good time to do something like that, to spend time with each other off the floor and move forward as a team.”
You would think breaking the monotony of a 42-day, 30-practice preseason is one benefit of non-traditional activities like the black-and-gold game and mini-camp. However Morrell minimizes that, at least for this team.
“It (the monotony of practice) is a little bit of a concern but it’s not really an issue with us,” says Morrell. “Our style of play helps the monotony, and one thing the guys like doing is playing. We play every day and the guys enjoy that. We of course have drills and things we have to do but we let them enjoy the fruits of their labor every day in that we play a lot.”
The relationship of the work, play, and conditioning comes together at events like the mini-camp. Daniel Roose, VCUs hypermagnetic strength coach, is always keeping the workouts fresh. His approach is to mimic the on-court havoc style with chaotic workouts. Roose mixes in old and new routines, and even lets the veteran players sometimes direct and drive the plan.
Roose knows the score of the game. If he is personally bored with a workout, he knows the players have probably been bored by it for two weeks—they are 18-20 years old, after all—so he switches up the routine.
The players respond to Roose because he, too, is a connector. He prepares the bodies of the players for the rigor of practice and games. He understands the physical—VCU big men are conditioned to run the floor, getting extra workouts on machines they cannot hide from—but he is right in the mix at all team functions. Roose is a part of the core team and the players know they can count on him. It makes the "rise and grind" that is so overused these days far easier than surface stereotypes would suggest.
“It goes back to Darius and Brad and Troy and David and all those guys,” says Morrell. “It’s a buy in and the guys have always done a great job with it. They’re great kids so we really don’t have a hard time with that.”
Morrell downplays the hype as much as possible.
“It’s just what we do and is engrained in the program,” he says of all the team-building activity. “We spend a lot of time with our guys, and through the relationship we have collectively as a staff with the players, they understand what goes into winning. That’s what we do here and it stems from our relationships. That’s pretty special.”