RICHMOND, Va. – Every VCU game, there’s a war being waged on the floor. Although there are two teams battling on the court, there’s another, potentially more combustible, conflict playing out inside Rams’ sophomore guard and Disruptor-in-Chief Briante Weber.
Steal or not to steal? Gamble or stay put? Play at a 100 miles an hour or 70? It never ends, and it can often be the difference between Weber chopping the legs out from under an opponent or veering wildly out of control.
“Oh, it’s so hard, trying, just looking at the ball. It’s right there. You’ve got to have it,” said Weber. “You’ve just got to channel it on the inside. Nah, discipline, discipline. I’ve got to talk to myself. But sometimes I lose that and try to go for it, and I put my team in a bind…and I’ve got to channel it back.”
Every night, it’s those two Webers, playing tug-of-war for control of his abilities. Friday night, Weber’s dual personalities met in the middle and launched a record-breaking defensive performance. Weber grabbed 10 steals, smashing the previous school record of seven, and tied a career-high with 13 points in VCU’s season-opening 80-57 win over Florida Gulf Coast. Those 10 steals are the second most in Atlantic 10 Conference history. The kicker? Weber did all that in just 18 dizzying minutes.
Weber’s display came as no surprise to anyone that watched the Rams last year, when he led the country in steal percentage. There was a palatable sense that it was only a matter of time before Weber did something memorable. Okay, almost nobody was surprised.
“Ah shoot, I was just as shocked as everybody else,” Weber said after the game. “I wasn’t counting. It’s just something that I can add to a record book. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about being a team player and going out and doing what Coach Smart wants us to do. The steals will come.”
And they did. Weber played just five minutes in the first half, but already had three steals at the break. In the short time he was on the floor, he set the tone for VCU’s relentless defensive performance. The Rams forced 16 turnovers in the first half alone and scored 22 points off those miscues on the way to a 46-20 advantage.
Even as the Rams sagged in the second half, Weber whipped around the court, his head on a swivel, his motor like an Indy Car, and created mayhem. He stepped in front of defenders to intercept passes. He dove on the floor for loose balls. He deflected everything and exasperated Florida Gulf Coast at every turn.
“I’ve coached in the NBA and in the ACC, he’s as quick and can change direction and cover ground as well as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Eagles’ Coach Andy Enfield, just the first of many to heap praise on Weber Friday, said. “He’s got long arms, but it’s his anticipation and quickness to get his hands on the basketball. I’ve been coaching 17-18 years and he’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”
VCU fans knew Weber was special last year when he racked up 77 steals in 18.7 minutes per game. His 7.01 steal percentage, the frequency of steals versus the number of possessions he played, was the highest in the country in more than four years. His steal percentage Friday was 31.3 percent.
“There’s nothing like it,” said teammate Rob Brandenberg. “Bri is one of those people that just brings energy. I tell Bri all the time, ‘be a game-changer’ because he has the ability to do that. Not a lot of players do that, change the game. The thing about it is, he can do that without even scoring.”
Change the game he did. The Rams scored 33 of their 80 points off turnovers and outscored the Eagles on the fast break 20-8. VCU owes much of that to Weber’s knack for making plays.
Weber says he developed a taste for this type of thing early on in his basketball career. As an eight-year-old in Norfolk, his AAU team pressed all game, every game. It suited him well. He took on the mindset of a hunter, stalking the open range.
“[I] prey. Just, like a tiger on a rabbit,” Weber said. “I just prey. Just prey. I just see something and I’ve just got to have it. Some people want it. I’ve just got to have it.”
There were plenty of times last season when VCU Coach Shaka Smart would have to try to be the arbiter of Weber’s defensive inclinations. While he knew Weber’s ample defensive tools, he also saw a player often consumed by them. The steal is the sexy play. People don’t talk much about the player who stays in front of his man and cuts off the baseline.
Ratcheting down the aggressiveness doesn’t come naturally to Weber. He’s rarely stands still, anywhere. Even when he’s on the bench, he’s rarely on the bench. He often just stands down on the end. He usually chews gum when he’s out of the game and leaves it on a towel at the scorer’s table when he checks in. He always has to be doing something. Harnessing all that energy isn’t easy.
“The coaches, every time I go down there, [are yelling] ‘discipline, discipline.’ That’s all they’re screaming,” said Weber, who also noted that he once had 13 steals in a high school game. “It’s my mind, in my head. It’s just me, sometimes I get caught up trying to hit the home run play, so I’ve just got to channel it and I’ll get back to it.”
Every night, a war wages on.