RICHMOND, Va. – It looks like Mo Alie-Cox was worth the wait.
Watching the 6-foot-6 freshman fly around the basketball court, slamming powerful dunks, blocking shots with his tennis racket hands, swallowing rebounds with his muscular, tree-branch arms, it’s hard to imagine the kinetic Alie-Cox – his dreadlocks flopping around as if they were hanging onto his scalp for dear life – as basically a man without a country last season.
Ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA last summer, the VCU freshman experienced the 2012-13 basketball season the same way many Rams fans did, from the stands. The Lorton, Va. native wasn’t allowed to practice with his teammates or even sit on the bench during games. He was on the VCU roster, but in a lot of ways, Alie-Cox was on his own team.
VCU Coach Shaka Smart met with Alie-Cox nearly every day last year after the freshman’s gym or weight room sessions to “try to give him some examples of things that would motivate him and things that were coming in the future.”
While Alie-Cox says he valued those conversations with Smart and his staff, there wasn’t a whole lot else that could be done to involve him in the day-to-day rigors of basketball season.
Instead, Alie-Cox was left to work out on his own with a training program designed by Strength and Conditioning Coach Daniel Roose. Alie-Cox may be physically impressive, but he says he had never seriously lifted weights before last year. When he finally did, he made some eye-popping – and muscle popping – gains.
Alie-Cox says he could only do about four body weight pull-ups when he got to college. The 250-pound Alie-Cox recently maxed out at 23. He also says he shaved three minutes off his mile run and can now bench press 185 pounds more than 20 times. Roose says that after returning to practice, Alie-Cox was able to squat all of the weight his staff could fit on the bar, nearly 600 pounds.
“When I got here, I was kind of weak,” Alie-Cox said. “I wasn’t weak (perhaps realizing that ‘weak’ is a relative term), but I wasn’t strong as I should’ve been. But now I’m one of the strongest guys on the team. I had natural strength. I didn’t have weight room strength.”
During his year away from basketball, Alie-Cox was also able get his academics in order. A criminal justice major, Alie-Cox made Dean’s List in back-to-back semesters and received a Black History in the Making Award from the Wilder School.
In the months away from the team, Alie-Cox spent a lot time with classmate Jordan Burgess, who was also ruled a partial qualifier, but could practice, and former Ram Heath Houston, whose basketball career was ended by a series of knee injuries. Burgess was allowed to sit on the VCU bench during games last year, so Alie-Cox and Houston would sit together in the stands. Houston, who can certainly relate to the feeling of having basketball taken away, marveled at how Alie-Cox dealt with the lost season.
“He handled it as well, if not better than anyone I can think of,” said Houston, who graduated from VCU in May. “While he was off the court he always kept a positive attitude.”
At first I was pretty bummed out,” Alie-Cox admits. “I was going to be just doing stuff on my own without the rest of the team. But as the year went on, I just got adjusted and made the best of my situation. I just worked real hard in the weight room and in the gym to work on my game.”
After a quiet start to the 2013-14 season, Alie-Cox scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds Nov. 16 against Winthrop, a performance which saw him hit his first career 3-pointer. He made his first career start Nov. 29 against Northeastern and wowed fans with five blocked shots. That effort gave rise to the irresistible nickname “Mo Alie-Blox”. He may be built like a linebacker, but Alie-Cox plays a lot like a goalie.
Although he’s technically an undersized post player at 6-6, Alie-Cox’s 7-2 wingspan gives VCU a defensive dimension it hasn’t had in years, a true shot-blocking, rim-protecting force. In Smart’s defensive system, a shot blocker like Alie-Cox can be crucial at the back end of the press.
“He’s the best guy we’ve had around the rim, protecting the basket since Larry Sanders,” Smart said following VCU’s win over Northeastern Nov. 29. “He’s not on Larry’s level yet, but for a freshman to block five shots, and then, he changed a lot of other shots, affected some other shots, and he’s doing a nice job finishing around the basket when he gets his opportunities. He’s still learning… but I’m excited for him, because he’s a guy that’s going to be a really good player here.”
Smart believes Alie-Cox’s year away from the game may have helped him in some ways.
“I think he did a nice job of handling that year the best he could, and he was very motivated,” Smart said. “He was allowed to start working out with the team when the school year ended, and we started individual workouts in late May, so he was chomping at the bit. He really has gotten a lot better. He’s come a long, long way. I know last year he would not have been able to play major minutes in some of these games like he is now.”
Although a year later than he would’ve liked, Alie-Cox has already become a major contributor for the Atlantic 10 Conference favorites. It’s an opportunity a year’s worth of perspective has helped him appreciate.
“It just means you’ve got to cherish the game even more,” he said. “Because being away from it is real hard. You never really realize what you have until it’s gone.”