"I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money." - Pablo Picasso
Game #9-347: Virginia Commonwealth Rams at Rhode Island RamsJanuary 30, 2013 7:00 pm
KINGSTON, R.I. - Danny Hurley hasn't had a heck of a lot to smile about in his inaugural season at the University of
Rhode Island. Taking over in late March, he pretty much had to play
the hand he was dealt this season as far as personnel, throw in an ambitious non-conference schedule and a much-improved Atlantic-10, and it stood to reason that this might be a tough campaign for a guy who lost 12 games total
in nine years of coaching New Jersey high school basketball.
But, even coming in at 6-12 and fairly substantial underdogs Wednesday night at the Ryan Center, Hurley had to be grinning from ear to ear as he walked out of the tunnel and onto the court. He looked over at the overflowing student
section - what would turn out to be 2,961 of them, the second largest student attendance in the building's 10-year history.
And the rest of the 8,000-seat arena was nearly packed, even on a weeknight where the weather was hideous. (A pre-game announcement said, "Due to a high-wind warning, power outages are possible at the Ryan Center this evening. If that happens, please remain calm and in your seats until the problem is rectified." Okay, I guess.)
One thing Hurley always brings, win
or lose, is energy, and in front of this crowd, you knew he was going to be on his A-game. As his Rams (sportswriter nightmare, both teams nicknamed the Rams in this one) kept the game extremely close in the first half, Hurley ran up and down the bench, stomping his feet, screaming toward the crowd to get loud. After URI got a stop to end the first half to go into the locker room trailing just 29-28, Hurley sprinted onto the court to give everyone a quick high-five and then ran to the locker room with his hand in the air like Joe Namath in Super Bowl III.
Part of the reason for the excitement Wednesday was the opponent. A few years ago, Virginia Commonwealth was just another mid-major name, well supported and on a very good run in the Colonial Athletic Association, but likely not someone who was going to draw a huge crowd on a crappy weeknight in Kingston.
We all know how that changed in a matter of weeks when Shaka Smart led VCU to the Final Four in 2011. He backed it up with 29 wins and another NCAA win last season, a good enough resume
to jump from the CAA to the Atlantic-10, and Smart's "Havoc" style of full-court pressure for 40 minutes has become the most celebrated and imitated strategies in college
basketball in the last couple of years.
In the first half, "Havoc" did just that to a Rhode Island team that is not spectacular at hanging on to the ball anyway. URI seemed close
to a 10-second violation on every possession, and didn't seem to ever get into any rhythm even when they were able to cross half-court. However, VCU was rather careless with the ball as well, and - as happens to teams that pressure sometimes - Rhode Island started to get more comofrtable as the half wore on, and when URI did break the first line of defense, they got a few easy looks and a couple of dunks. VCU's inability to hit outside shots as well meant they only went to the half with the aforementioned one-point lead.
It was hard to tell what Smart made of Hurley's antics, he had surely been warned in advance, but I did notice Smart trying to raise his voice and gesticulate more than usual. In a way, the "Havoc" was being turned on him by Hurley and his team's aggressive play and energy (as well as the URI crowd).
As I sat watching a clearly entertaining college basketball game (really, what one isn't, but comparatively even), I was a bit torn, though.
I wanted to get reasonably close to the VCU bench to get a look at Smart (I should see him again at the A-10 Tournament, but this would be my only regular season look at VCU), but the decent seats at the Ryan Center were going for $30, out of my price range, so I was stuck near the roof of the building.
I've heard Andy Katz of ESPN rail all year that the definition of mid-major when it comes to conferences like the Atlantic-10 is a misnomer because of "chartered planes and million-dollar coaching contracts"
. I bristle every time I hear that, and I don't know anything about chartering jets, but it's always good to do a little research before you open your mouth (or your keyboard in this case), a lesson some in Washington should probably pay attention to once in a while. Turns out Katz at least has an argument.
After the Final Four run in 2011, VCU made a very ballsy move. It had already lost two head coaches to schools above the Red Line in the last five years (Jeff Capel to Oklahoma and Anthony Grant to Alabama), and surely everyone was going to come after Shaka Smart, a then 33-year-old prodigy. It looked like NC State would grab him, when VCU announced it had signed Smart to an eight-year extension, worth about $1.2 million per year with some incentives
Smart had just finished a season where he made $325,000. I don't care what inflation is, that's a big raise.
VCU was following a precedent set by Butler (and Gonzaga) with perhaps the other hottest young name in coaching, Brad Stevens, when he got a 12-year contract after leading the Bulldogs to the national title game
Was it a good investment? It very well might be. The name Virginia Commonwealth University becomes more and more known with every time Shaka Smart knocks off a national power, just as it does with Stevens and Butler, even if they temporarily have to raise money to pay for their coach's new contract
. Studies have shown that bigger name recognition means more students apply to your school, which tangentially increases academic standards without even trying (more applicants means they can be more selective about who they admit to the school).
College athletics is a business? You're kidding.
And you can't begrudge Smart or Stevens for becoming millionaires. Both likely could have made more if they took offers above the Red Line, so there is still a sense of loyalty at play here. Surely, Rhode Island - similar in size to VCU - liked the blueprint enough to give Hurley a large (not quite as big as Smart, reported to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000 per year) contract in the hopes that he can put the University of Rhode Island on the tips of people's tongues through basketball success.
And in the arms race that a conference like the Atlantic-10 has become, that's why Jim Baron had to go
. Like any arms race, though, where does it end? Are we headed down a slippery slope, and more importantly from our perspective, is this really mid-major college basketball anymore? You could probably make a case either way.
These thoughts ran through my mind at the half as I waited for the power outage that never came (thankfully). Of course, I had this game circled since the beginning of the yea. Why? Because I wanted to see Shaka Smart and VCU against Danny Hurley, of course.
As much as I love the tiny gyms, and the out of the way places, this was a college basketball game. VCU went up 38-30 and threatened to pull away, but URI dug down and clawed their way back into it despite the lack of offensive ability. When graduate student Alwayne Bigby followed up a Mike Powell miss (after Powell picked Treveon Graham's pocket) and was fouled, URI was back to within 42-39 with 12:45 left.
Hurley raced down the bench, pumping his left hand like Jimmy Connors in his heyday
, pointing at his players, pointing at the nearly 3,000 students, pointing at ballboys behind the basket. I think he even pointed at me in the last row. Again, I wondered what was going through Smart's head as URI bullied its way back into the game. With the high tension and pressure on both sides, this was the longest (regulation) contest I've attended this year, with whistles every few seconds, and seemingly dozens of checks on the television monitor to boot.
VCU, which came in losers of two straight, was only 2-of-11 on #superhoops, but managed to grab 17 offensive rebounds in a game that strangely featured more offensive boards (31) than defensive (30). When Juvonte Reddic (who had 12 of those rebounds) scored on a putback with four minutes left, the visitors were up 62-47.
It should have been a knockout blow, but Hurley's bunch was too stubborn to stay down, even out of time outs. Andre Malone's #superhoop
capped a quick 10-0 run and got Hurley back stomping his feet and imploring the crowd to help his team on. Two more URI #superhoops
kept things in doubt, but finally, mercifully, it came to an end with a 70-64 decision to VCU.
Hurley and Smart had a couple of contentious moments during the game, but afterward they were all smiles in the postgame handshake. Smart had to be happy to get any kind of conference road win after the comeuppance of the week before, while Hurley had 7,000 people come out to see his 6-12 squad on a crappy Wednesday night. Surely, if he could put a contending team on the court, the support will be there.
Like plenty of others straddling the Red Line these days, he someday hopes to be the next Shaka Smart. Maybe Hurley might reclassify the $10,000 clothing allowance somewhere else
, though. Like a basketball court outside his office where he and his brother can kill each other in 1v1 games after hours.
To each his own.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 70, at RHODE ISLAND 64
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 17-5 (5-2) -- J. Reddic 6-10 6-6 18; T. Graham 5-9 8-11 19; D. Theus 4-7 3-6 11; T. Daniels 2-7 0-0 5; R. Brandenberg 3-7 0-0 6; M. Johnson 2-6 0-0 4; B. Weber 1-3 1-2 3; J. Guest 2-3 0-0 4; T. Okereafor 0-0 0-0 0; J. Tuoyo 0-0 0-0 0; D. Haley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-52 18-25 70.
RHODE ISLAND 6-13 (1-5) -- M. Powell 1-6 4-4 6; A. Malone 4-12 1-3 11; X. Munford 6-15 3-4 17; J. Hare 5-5 0-0 10; N. Malesevic 2-5 0-0 4; T. Buchanan 4-8 1-2 11; R. Brooks 0-0 0-0 0; A. Bigby 2-2 1-1 5; M. Aaman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 10-14 64.
Three-point goals: VCU 2-11 (T. Daniels 1-4; R. Brandenberg 0-1; B. Weber 0-1; T. Graham 1-3; M. Johnson 0-2), URI 6-18 (N. Malesevic 0-1; A. Malone 2-5; T. Buchanan 2-3; M. Powell 0-3; X. Munford 2-6); Rebounds: VCU 32 (J. Reddic 12), URI 21 (N. Malesevic 5); Assists: VCU 10 (D. Theus 4), URI 13 (M. Powell 6); Total Fouls -- VCU 16, URI 18; Fouled Out: VCU-None; URI-None.