VCU Q and A with Rams’ Radio Color Man Mike Litos
After winning their ninth straight contest on Wednesday night against a feisty Duquesne team, the Bonnies take their long winning streak on the road to VCU on Saturday night. The Bonnies have never won in the friendly confines of the Siegel Center and will have their hands full with a Rams team that while not “vintage VCU” is still plenty dangerous and obviously tough at home. SBU remains firmly on the bubble heading into the final three regular season games and would be best served just winning all three. Bonas stands in third place at 11-4 in the conference as Davidson, also 11-4, has the head to head tie breaker. Earning a top three seed is critical in that it will allow a team to avoid Rhode Island until the conference final (Assuming they get there). The Cats finish the season with games at Duquense, in Olean and then home vs. URI. (A10 Standings and updated team sheet below).
So, here’s our interview with Mike Litos, the voice of VCU Rams basketball. He is truly an A10 basketball gem and we thank him for his time and fantastic answers and insight into their club.
1. Bona hasn’t seen VCU this season under their new coach Mike Rhoades. Give our fans your early impressions on Rhoades and how VCU looks (different maybe) under him.
It will be a completely different, but very familiar, VCU team. What I mean is that Rhoades is the polar opposite of Will Wade. While Wade liked to pound the ball down low, assault the rim, and turn games into what he called a tractor pull, Rhoades is more wide open. VCU looks a lot more like Shaka Smart’s teams—pressing and trapping, chucking threes, and generally trying to speed up the game. As our record shows, the results have been uneven and disappointing. We’re seeing the ass end of losing two recruiting classes and three head coaches in four yearsbut Rhoades knows what he’s doing. He had to get six players in April last year so it’s been a little bit of patchwork.
2. VCU fans were clearly really upset with how Will Wade left the program. Where are the Rams today in terms of healing that wound and moving forward with MR? How bad a hit did the team take with respect to recruits (Admittedly, I don’t follow recruiting much).
I’d say it’s less like a wound and more like gout. I don’t know that it ever heals, but it’s also not present every day. But from time to time it crops up and it isn’t pretty. We tend to have a ton of fun at VCU, but like gout attacks after too much spicy food and Stella Artois, the gout/memory makes your joints hurt. Rhoades kept two of the four Wade recruits. One of the defectors is riding the pine at NC State, and the other got thrown off the LSU team. We’re good there. The two Rhoades kept—Sean Mobley and Marcus Santos-Silva—are going to be players. Mobley starts and is a gifted passer and shooter at 6-8. Santos-Silva is a widebody and a terrific rebounder. Fortunately Rhoades looks to be that long term coach VCU has wanted so it’s been easy to buy in to moving forward and letting what was stay in the past.
3. VCU won 26 games a year ago, 25 before that, 26 the year before that…today they are 15-12. This season has had to feel drastically different for Ram fans (Who haven’t lost less than 25 games since 2009!) How is the fan base and program handling this “rebuild” if you will?
I promise I’m not trying to be a jerk here, but it seems fitting to harken our game with Bonnies last year. Remember how you guys felt last year after Mobley (who I freaking love to watch play) hit that three and the fans stormed the court? And then the angst of what happened afterward? And then not really knowing 100% the cause? But knowing that this was a setback but you’re still good? And you’re mad and frustrated and hopeful and need a drink and celebrate and curse and drive your car off a cliff and fly to the Caribbean? Yeah, we’re living that Sybil-esque existence this year.
4. VCU is at their best when…
Making shots. I know that sounds ridiculous, but this team’s entire identity is created by knocking down threes. I’m not even talking about open court layups and dunks, or short jumpers. I’m talking bombs away three-point shooting. I’ve never seen a team—and I’ve been around since 1986—whose confidence level is predicated on making deep FGAs. There’s a gear every team needs to hit, especially on the defensive end, in order to be successful. If VCU is not making shots, it affects the rest of their focus and edge. That’s when we see games like GW on Saturday.
5. VCU struggles most when…
They can’t stop the dribble drive. In the open court it leads to the opposition flying into the lane on a power play, and in halfcourt a guard is at the rim for a layup, or a dish to a bigger guy for a layup. Maybe they kick it out for a wide open three. Whatever. The point is that our inability to stop the ball at the point of attack drowns us because we are typically a little slow to rotate, and somewhere there’s an open shooter. And you bet your bippy coaches scout that and know that and find those shooters.
6. Offensively and defensively, what are the biggest differences from Wades’ teams to this year’s version?
Other than everything? I’m not being facetious. Wade got back and set up defense. Rhoades will press and trap. Wade played zone. Rhoades plays primarily straight man (but will switch into a softer man that resembles a matchup). Wade, as we said, fed the post to Mo Alie-Cox—who in a surprise move is out of eligibility—and got points at the rim or got fouled. Rhoades feeds the post but it’s for Justin Tillman jump hooks or to spray it back out to a three-point shooter when the defense collapses. Ditto the guards—they penetrate to score, but option one after that is to find a three-point shooter.
7. The Rams could certainly still finish in the conferences’ top 4. Let’s say they earn a bye…make a case for them finding a way to cut down the nets a short drive from Richmond in D.C…
It’s about VCU. Here’s what I mean: I’ve seen every team in person except Bonnies. I’ve seen every team multiple times on TV or other tape. Rhody is the only team I think needs to chip in for VCU to win. When the Rams are rolling, they are very good. If they are making shots, it picks up every facet of their game and based on what I’ve seen they can beat any team in the A10—even when that team is playing well, save Rhody. We played probably an A- or B+ game against them and lost. Might be the same Saturday with you guys but we will see. It’s so different in person than on TV. But back to my main point: when things are clicking, this VCU team is really good. The secret is tapping into whatever it takes to make that happen. Plus, it’s a 90-minute drive to DC and the VCU faithful travel very well. You can bet that Sunday, and probably Saturday, will be more like a home game and Siegel Center North. The team feeds off of the crowd and that matters. I always laugh when people say VCU did not have an advantage playing the CAA tournament in the Richmond Coliseum. It was a HUGE advantage.
8. If you’re Mike Rhoades how do you plan to beat the Bonnies?
It’s a two-step process: (1) Determine Jaylen Adams’ schedule; (2) Hire Jeff Gilooly. I kid, but that joke may also be over the head of a bunch of people—I’m old. I think VCU has to turn Bonnies into a two-point shooting team. Adams and Mobley can’t get rolling. Those threes are—wait for the math—worth three points, but they are also huge confidence plays. At home, those threes are a multi-possession shot because everybody picks up their game when the home crowd gets frenetic. On the road it shuts up the crowd and gives your guys a shot of adrenaline. VCU has got to keep that from happening. We have to run the three-point shooters into the lane and defend from there. Also, you don’t sweat Adams scoring 35. The kid is a player. You get beat when a kid like Courtney Stockard score 19.
9. If you’re Mark Schmidt, how do you plan to beat the Rams?
It starts the night before the game, when Schmidt takes the VCU radio guy out for a steak and beer. I’ve always found that’s a key to beating VCU. But after that, you lean on Justin Tillman, double Justin Tillman, run a second wing at Justin Tillman, deny entry passes to Justin Tillman. We’ve seen throughout the conference season teams basically playing a defense that surrounds making someone not named Justin Tillman beat you. and as I wrote above, that’s where other guys making shots is so very important. It’s always a game of adjustments. You crowd Tillman and force other guys to make shots. They don’t make shots and you run the same defense for 40 minutes and you probably win. They make shots, and you have to adjust, and then it gets fun. To be clear: you’re not going to get Tillman tired and you’re not going to frustrate him. Kid is a rock. It’s about the other guys.
10. Without mentioning a single stat, tell us why Justin Tillman is so damn good and will be so hard to replace…
Holy hell, you don’t have the time for this answer. I’ll start with this: he is an incredible kid. An artist off the court and an ass kicker on the court. Tillman’s versatility is his biggest asset, and I wish we had one more season of it. (This is where the gout starts to act up.) He’s of course lethal around the rim but he’s developed a jump hook and 15-footer. His three-point shooting is such as asset now that a few times per game we run a play for him to shoot it. He works his butt off on every possession and stays even-tempered—he’s always angry. Defensively he’s blocking shots and in the press he can guard a guard. You can plug him into a role and he will play it with a high level of spirit. I’ll stop now, because I could go on all morning.
11. Which freshman or sophomore on VCU’s roster has the most promise today and why?
Very easy question for me. Sean Mobley, and it isn’t close. The kid is 6-8 and will be called a stretch four. However that doesn’t even begin to describe how Mobley impacts a game. He has an incredible feel for the game—knows what he wants to do before the ball is in his hands. He sees things either before or as they are developing. His passing is insane for a senior, much less a freshman. High IQ. Can shoot out to near-NBA range but smart with the show-and-go. Granted, his “go” is fairly plodding right now and he needs to get into better shape—he’s kind of like a Jeep Wrangler—but the kid has star written all over him. And that doesn’t include the non-skills stuff. He is a vocal leader as a freshman and plays with as much spirit as anyone—including Tillman. He will yell, pump fists, get going. Fun player to watch and a “VCU guy” through and through.
Bonus: Rank your top five Arenas to call a game at (A10 or other)
That’s really good because I’ve never really thought about it. Outside of the Siegel Center because that’s home…
1. Dayton: they take care of you there, and it’s always more fun when the building in which you’re calling a game is full. Atmosphere matters. Their fans like to simply talk about basketball—there’s none of the “we’re great and you suck” mentality—which I always appreciate. Really good local pizza.
2. Madison Square Garden: I’m old and old school traditional. I loved every bit of this one for no other reason than it was MSG.
3. Bonnies: I’m not being an ass kisser here. Fans care so there’s that vibe, we sit in the first row of the fans so we’re a little bit raised from the court and can see better but are still close to the action so I can pick up on what the coaches are saying/doing. It’s jammed a little tight—see what you can do to help me there.
4. Old Dominion: it’s a quick drive so I can take my wife and we make a weekend out of it. The Ted is a nice building that has fixed its wireless problem and they serve good food. Gravelly-voice PA guy is my favorite. Get to pal around with old friends from our CAA days. We mostly win there, which is always fun.
5. Any nonconference tournament in the Caribbean: Has nothing to do with basketball. I call a game, and then go to the beach, in November, and eat fresh seafood. Nuf Ced.