BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When is a game more than a game? For VCU, it’s usually when the game is in New York.
On Saturday, another opportunity for the game within the game presented itself. VCU beat back ACC foe Boston College 69-50 at Barclays Center with an outstanding defensive performance. That’s an effort worthy of its own discussion, but that’s not what’s being discussed here. What was significant about VCU’s appearance at the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival is how the Rams, and the program as a whole, benefit from even playing that game to begin with.
If you’re a casual fan, or just someone that wants to focus on the happenings on the court, there was plenty to enjoy in VCU’s win. But if you’re interested in all facets of the program, then it’s a worthwhile venture to consider the value of events like this one.
Let’s deal with the obvious first. Saturday’s game was a chance for VCU to play a neutral site game against an ACC opponent. The Rams have experienced difficulty scheduling home-and-home series with schools from conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and the like. Rather than accept an inequitable 2-for-1 split – or worse – the next best thing has been to play teams on neutral floors. This is fast becoming a staple of the Rams’ non-conference schedule.
Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart said VCU learned of the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival through organizer Chris Spencer of Basketball Tournaments, Inc., who is one of the men behind the Las Vegas Invitational and other similar college basketball events. Assistant Coach Mike Morrell is in charge of scheduling for VCU, and looks for opportunities just like this one to give the Rams both balance and NCAA-resume building opportunities.
But there’s more to consider; everything from recruiting to media exposure to the Atlantic 10 Championship in March.
New York is a basketball recruiting hotbed, and an area where the Rams would love to grow roots. VCU sophomore Melvin Johnson is a native of the Bronx and became one of Smart’s first top-100 recruits. This fall, the Rams signed top-50 recruit Terry Larrier of the Bronx and Johnny Williams, who is a Richmond native but currently plays at St. Benedict’s Prep across the river in Newark, N.J.
The Atlantic 10’s decision to hold the conference tournament at Brooklyn’s sparkling Barclays Center only added to the league’s appeal, and by association, gave each member a presence in the New York area. Every March, the A-10 is on stage in New York. Saturday’s game was another chance to get on that stage, for New York recruits to take notice of VCU, to have a presence in the city. The mere association with New York strengthens VCU’s national profile, and it’s likely not lost on prep stars like Larrier.
“I think so,” says VCU senior Rob Brandenberg. “When I go back to my high school days, when I was getting recruited, you factor in a lot of things. You factor in the conference, the conference tournament is in Brooklyn, so I know that gets a lot of New York prospects, whoever VCU’s looking at, excited. So I think that does have something to do with it, conference tournament venue, where they play, exposure.”
“For Melvin [Johnson] to be able to come home is huge,” said Smart, recognizing that players relish an opportunity to return home and play in front of friends and family. “There are other kids we’re recruiting from up here, so it’s definitely something they notice.”
Recruiting is all about building a future, but there are other benefits to playing in New York that offer a more immediate return.
The game allows VCU’s current players to become acclimated with Barclays Center and with the New York vibe and form a comfort level with both. The idea is that when the Rams return for the A-10 Tournament March 12-16, they’ll be that much more at home with their surroundings.
“I think it’s big,” Brandenberg said. “We’ve played what, four games here, so when we go to the A-10 Tournament, I don’t think it’ll be more of a sightseeing, ooh, ahh. It’s just, alright, we’re here. It’s time to get down to business, time to win a championship.”
“We play our league tournament here, so any time you can get on the court and have a good experience, it’s a good thing,” Smart added. “I think this is something that, when we walk back in this building in 2 ½ months or however long it is until we play the league tournament, there will be a familiarity that we’ll have that we would not have had if we hadn’t played this game.”
It’s a nice byproduct of a game the Rams would want to play anyway. While merely playing a game at Barclays is not some secret weapon to win a championship, it can’t hurt, either. Besides, in a close game in March, a little bit of comfort could go a long way.
It’s all part of the experience of VCU Basketball. Players admit there’s a novelty about New York, considered a Mecca of hoops, and that all contributes to the sheen of the VCU program.
“Just being up at Barclays, being in the atmosphere up here, it’s always fun to be in New York,” junior Treveon Graham said.
“There’s something special about playing in New York, about playing in this great arena,” says Brandenberg. “As a basketball player, you just got so excited to play in these types of games, and this type of venue, so it wasn’t an issue getting up for this game.”
Playing in New York is not panacea, but it is another cog in Smart’s machine. VCU is becoming a national brand, and this was an opportunity to build more equity. In that respect, the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush is kind of like Wall Street to VCU – a road to prosperity.