The VCU Rams recently landed 2017 top-100 recruit Lavar Batts. This commitment proves yet again that the more things change around the program, the more they actually stay the same… if not better.
There are layers to this, but to simplify the rise of the Rams, the university has been lucky enough to have success beget itself over the years. One coach builds on the foundation of greatness left by the coach before him.
Jeff Capel was fine, then Anthony Grant began VCU’s run of dominance in the CAA. Shaka Smart turned that run from low-major dominance into national coverage and a transition into the Atlantic 10, and now Will Wade has managed to not miss a beat through one season with the university.
It’s all gravy, rainbows, and unicorns… and rather shocking when you think about it. How often does a mid-major have a continued run of excellence after losing coach after coach after coach? The VCU athletic department deserves a standing ovation, because it has “hit” correctly on each coaching hire.
VCU’s 2016 recruiting class, one that can be considered Wade’s first sincere attempt at recruiting out of Smart’s shadow, is a fine but unspectacular one. Ranked the 43rd best in the nation by 247Sports, the Rams acquired small forward De’Riante Jenkins (44th in the class), Marquell Fraser (298th), and Malik Crowfield (225th).
With the loss of several key players from a great team last season — one which featured mostly “Shaka Smart’s guys” — the future of VCU was arguably up for grabs despite Wade proving last season he was a competent in-game coach. That’s why the above class is so important. He needed to show — at least in theory — he can be another one of those VCU coaches who can beget success.
As it tends to be with all coaches, every recruiting class will be vital for Wade if he wants to sustain VCU’s continued run of excellence. Coaches are important, but it is still the players on the hardwood who win games.
That’s where Batts comes in.
He becomes the program’s first commitment of the 2017 class. While it does very little to tip the scales as far as recruiting service websites’ power rankings are concerned, it is Wade’s second top-100 recruit in less than a year — Batts obviously joins Jenkins to make that happen.
It is worth noting that this is all future-building, but still insanely important. Wade could ill-afford to have his career with the Rams start with ho-hum recruits. If his 2016 class was subpar and/or his 2017 class didn’t begin to quickly appear strong, the perception of the program would have started to change.
Not that it would be fair, but a nation would have no qualms in expediting the narrative of Wade falling short of Smart. After all, the latter is currently with the Texas Longhorns, recruiting and coaching at a high level. If Wade were to stumble just a little bit, people would notice. Furthermore, they would want to try to explain it.
Unfortunately, since nuance is rarely allowed in sports, that explanation would likely paint Wade in a less than flattering light.
It is akin to something out of a hot-taker’s dream scenario: Wade, while working in Smart’s increasingly growing shadow, could not do what his predecessors have. He was incapable (so the line of thought goes, however untrue it is) of parlaying a previous man’s success into even more for the program.
He would be dubbed a failure without having a chance to prove the hot-takers wrong.
Batts, as well as the entire 2016 class and anyone who accompanies him in 2017, prevents that from happening. They are, at least indirectly, safeguards from that discussion.
It goes as far as allowing Wade to have a down 2016-’17 season.
Since the team is losing so many key players from a squad that went 25-11 last season, a drop-off is expected. The addition of many potentially good-to-great players over the next two seasons should wash away most cynics’ criticisms if the Rams do fall short this year.
College basketball, especially on the recruiting trail, is a game that deals in the realm of perception. Coaches need that perception to paint them and their programs in a positive light, on and off the hardwood. For VCU and Wade, Lavar Batts helps in that area.
Every program and its fan base must take each small win — on the hardwood or on the recruiting trail — while it can. Otherwise, the idea of what that program is becoming can change in the blink of an eye.
VCU’s identity isn’t changing — or if it is, it’s changing for the better. Will Wade is solidifying his hold on power, and accordingly, his ability to sustain what Shaka Smart built.