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March 19, 2016
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by our three student-athletes from VCU, JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson. Gentlemen, we'll take questions.
Q. For all three players, and JeQuan if you could go first, what's it been like to play under Coach Wade and see his youthful countenance out there on the court?
JEQUAN LEWIS: It's been big time. Coach Wade is a great coach. He recruited me here and it's a blessing to be able to play for him.
MO ALIE-COX: Same pretty much. He just came and picked up where we left off last year and continued the success. We started out 5-5, but once we got comfortable in his schemes and everything he wanted us to do, we've just taken off from there.
Q. I was reading the transcript from last night's presser, and, Mel, you had said that you had sort of challenged the rest of your teammates, knowing this is your final year, be more aggressive, let it rip. I'm just curious, what's the message going to be for tomorrow's game? And all three of you could answer that, because I know it applies to JeQuan, because he was talking to you, but it applies to Mo as well.
MELVIN JOHNSON: Same thing. I mean, it's ideal if your leading scorer can put up the numbers that are projected of him. But at the same time, Mo looked me off yesterday and it was probably the best play of the game in my opinion, because he could have easily passed to me. I was wide open in the corner. We made eye contact, but he still went up and scored. And that's the mentality I want those guys to have, not to just look for me, if that's the case, but go ahead and make plays, because they're big time players as well.
JEQUAN LEWIS: I mean, it takes a load off MJ. Teams really pay him a lot of attention, and when other players get going, it kind of loosens him up and lets him be able to play his game.
MO ALIE-COX: Pretty much like what I said Thursday, we just want to stay aggressive. Games like this, aggressive teams are teams that normally do well and teams that have multiple players step up besides their best players, because it's going to take a whole team effort to win tournament games.
Q. Melvin, you guys, Virginia Commonwealth a few years ago was a Cinderella, mid-majors, hoping to spring the upset. You guys have changed that perception over the years. Has that changed the way you guys play in the NCAA Tournament? Do you play with more pressure? It seems like the higher seeds play with more pressure, don't play as free. Have you noticed the way the pressure that you guys feel in the NCAA Tournament when you get here?
MELVIN JOHNSON: Yeah, but it's not just about the NCAA Tournament. It's about how we carry ourselves on and off the court before we even get here. We expect to win all season long, and we carry ourselves like winners. So when we get here, we expect to win regardless who we're playing.
When you get to the last 32 teams in the NCAA Tournament, everyone is good, and you have Naismith Player of the Year candidates, et cetera, et cetera. So at this point you've just got to lace them up and play basketball.
Q. Melvin and JeQuan, for those of us who haven't watched you as much as your media has, do you guys play a similar style that Coach Smart taught defensively? Do you pressure as intensely as you once did under Coach Wade and what are the differences?
JEQUAN LEWIS: I feel like it's still the same, especially in the half court. It may not be full court pressure, but when we get in the half court, we really lock in and guard the ball.
MELVIN JOHNSON: Yeah, same principles as far as switching 1 through 4 a lot of the times, hedging hard with the 5, our concepts off the ball, same terminology. I mean, they're great friends and they learned from one another so you pretty much inherit the same type of game plan.
Q. You're basically playing a road game. What is the first thing you want to take away from Oklahoma?
MELVIN JOHNSON: It would be ideal if we could take away the crowd, but I doubt that will happen. But most importantly, we want to even out the start. I feel like if they get off to a great start with the kind of atmosphere they're going to have tomorrow, it could be a long night. But if we could just get out to an even start with them or better, that will be ideal for us, because we'll be able to take a few blows as the game goes.
But I think just altering that fast start that they have from the three ball and in transition is huge for us.
Q. Each of you could answer this, please, if you don't mind. I'm curious what you noticed or have had time to notice about what Cal State was able to do against Oklahoma that gave them a little bit of trouble? Because I know Coach Kruger had said after the game that they had them out of rhythm, their spacing was off. They weren't able to take advantage of Bakersfield's press. What did you notice and how can you try to use it to your advantage?
JEQUAN LEWIS: I mean, Bakersfield did a good job of pressuring the ball and running them off the three-point line. Oklahoma's a great three-point shooting team. I feel like once you take them off that, you put yourself in a good position to win.
MO ALIE-COX: They were just aggressive. They were aggressive with whatever they did. The way they kind of messed with us, like on the offensive glass, which those led to the open threes that Oklahoma got. So I think if we do a good job on the glass, we can limit some of the threes that they get.
MELVIN JOHNSON: To piggyback off what Mo said, as crazy as it may sound, they were more aggressive than Oklahoma, and Oklahoma has a dynamic back side court. They played inside-out. They play the big man from Egypt. I don't quite know him, Hamdy. That's what we do with our big fella. Make inside out threes. If they double anything, just be the aggressors, I guess you could say.
Q. Melvin, talking with your athletic director earlier today. One thing he noted was that your relationship with Coach has really blossomed this year in how you guys trust each other. That in practice he'll kind of let you take over certain aspects and say things to the guys that maybe other coaches wouldn't let happen. How has that relationship developed through this year with you and Coach and you guys trusting each other?
MELVIN JOHNSON: I mean, it's been big time. He's had a lot of trust in me. He says it's a players' program. So a lot of times in practice if you see something, say something, and he'd rather it come from his senior leader. Like I said earlier, he's more of a father figure. Since that, he calls me, we talk about the opponents, we talk about things outside of that, and we just have a relationship where it's bigger than basketball. So when you establish that, after that, it's pretty much an easy trust factor.
Q. How much of the rest of the tournament do you get to see, and when you see other upsets does that inspire you guys or are you just playing your own game?
MELVIN JOHNSON: Yeah, we're just playing our own game. There's one or two major upsets. But outside of that, if you make it here, you're a great team. It's that simple. So everyone is playing like it's a one-game elimination. I expect nothing less getting to the NCAA Tournament.
Q. What do you think the key is to handling Buddy Hield tomorrow?
JEQUAN LEWIS: Just being aggressive. He's a great player. I'm sure we're ready for the match-up.
MO ALIE-COX: Just match his intensity that he brings to the floor and be with him step to step. He's a great shooter, so we can't let him get any clean looks.
MELVIN JOHNSON: Players make plays. He's going to make his fair share. He makes a lot of tough shots as well. For the most part, just being there in every shot, contesting and having a body between him and the basket at all times. Players are always going to make plays, so that's the best we can hope for.
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Coach Will Wade. Coach, your opening comments.
COACH WADE: Well, happy to be here. We've got a big challenge ahead of us tomorrow with Oklahoma. We had a crash course in learning about them last night and this morning, and they're certainly a terrific team with maybe the best player in the country, so we'll have our work cut out for us. But we're excited. Very, very excited about the opportunity, and look forward to playing tomorrow night.
Q. Given everything you guys have accomplished over the years, I understand that you're a lower seed, but do you guys play that underdog role or underdog card anymore? Or are you guys like, hey, it's just another game in terms of the level that you guys are at?
COACH WADE: Well, we're an accomplished program. We're an accomplished program. We're one of eight programs in the country that's been to six straight NCAA Tournaments. We've won 24 more games ten straight years. Us and Kansas are the only two programs in the country that have done that, so this is what we expect to do.
You're going to get thrown into these situations where you're in the NCAA Tournament and you play great teams. We consider ourselves a very good team, but not only that, a great program. So we'll show up and play. This is when we've done good work in the past, and we need to show up and put our best foot forward and do great work tomorrow afternoon.
Q. Will, you're one of the youngest coaches to win an NCAA Tournament game. Does that help you relate to players, and do you ever get mistaken for being someone else?
COACH WADE: Yeah, the bus driver for Village, the bus driver thought I was one of the players when I got on the bus. I said, no, sir, I'm the head coach. He said, really, you're making the decisions here? I said, yeah. I said, yeah, I am. But he liked it when I paid for dinner. I had the credit card to pay for dinner. He liked that.
But I think it helps. I'm a little bit more aware of what they're going through or what's going on, and I have a pretty good pulse of what goes on with the team. I spend a lot of time with them. We go out to dinner a lot with certain guys and certain groups of guys. So it's important to me to spend time with the guys, try to reach their hearts, try to get inside of them, help them out as best we can, because it's a crazy world and our guys have a lot of stress on them.
Sometimes we think why is he not playing well? Why is he not doing this well? Well, there's a lot of other stuff going on, and it's my job to figure those things out and to help those guys. So I enjoy that part of the job. That's why I got into this. I was a secondary education major. I was going to be a high school history teacher and then I just kind of moved up in college basketball.
At heart I'm a teacher. My mom was a principal for 30 years. So I enjoy helping our guys move forward academically, helping them move forward off the court. I do think my age helps with that. They'll tell me some things that maybe they wouldn't tell other folks, and then you've got to keep that confidentiality and help them move forward through those situations.
Q. You talk about you've got a program that's accomplished and has done a lot and ranked with virtually anyone. But it wasn't always that way. You guys went to the Final Four as the longest of long shots. Is there a difference in the way you guys play in the NCAA Tournament now compared to then in terms of your mindset, in terms of pressure or carefree or whatever the case may be?
COACH WADE: Well, I do think what you're getting at is we -- or what I think you're getting at is -- I agree with it in principle. I do think we have an accomplished program, but I do think we let our hair down and play a little bit. We play loose, and play like we're an underdog, though we don't necessarily see ourselves as the underdog all the time.
I mean, we've got -- I'm not trying to compare, but we just opened a $25 million practice facility. It's as nice as any practice facility as anybody's got in the country. It's hard to be an underdog when you've got the sort of facilities and infrastructure that we have.
But on this stage, I think most people view us as an underdog and we'll play that role and let our hair down, play as hard as we can and see what happens. We don't view ourselves like that. We view ourselves as one of the top 20, 25 programs in the country, and I think our winning and our record over a longer period of time has substantiated that. I think the Final Four maybe drew more attention to all of that.
But we had great teams in the '80s. We've been to eight out of the last ten NCAA Tournaments, so we've been very successful. But when we get here, yeah, we just let our hair down and go play. We're not in a Power Five Conference. We don't have the name recognition of an Oklahoma or some of those folks, and we don't necessarily have star players. We haven't had a lot of star players over our runs. We've got gritty, blue collared, hard-working people. That's what our university is, that's what our team is, that's what our fan base is. That's who we are. So I think that combination of people and not having stars.
We don't have a Buddy Hield. We don't have those type guys. But we've got a good team. We've got a really good program, good infrastructure and a great family at VCU. I think we play for those folks. And when we get to the NCAA Tournament we just play as hard as we can and see what happens. We've had some success doing that.
Q. Yesterday, your smaller lineup, your quickness, your athleticism you used to your advantage very nicely. Is that something that you think you can use again against Oklahoma or how impactful do you see that being against a team like Oklahoma?
COACH WADE: Yeah, one of our strengths is we can play a lot of different ways. So we can play -- we're a little bit different than a team from our league. Usually we can play two bigs. We can play Alie-Cox with Hamdy, the kid Ahmed Hamdy. We can go 6'8", 6'10" on the front line. We can play Tillman or play really big or really small with Burgess and start the kid Billbury at 6'4". So we've got some versatility.
So what we like to do is, like yesterday, for example, we went into the game thinking when they went small, we were going to go big because we wanted to pound the glass and try to pound them inside. Well, they started running some action where we couldn't stay big because they were picking on us and driving some of our bigs because of what they're running, so then we countered and went back small.
So when you have a lot of different ways you can play, we settled in and said, okay, we're going to play small and try to beat them small, which we were able to do. So we'll see. It depends on how the game goes. We'll try big, we'll try small. See what's the best fit for us, and play that way. But I do think the versatility of our roster and the interchangeable parts we have on our roster helps us feel our way through things.
Q. You and Steve Prohm and Matt McCall all came up through the student-manager track. How does that accelerate your learning of the business, and did you dominate any manager games?
COACH WADE: Our managers are like Top 5 in the country in the KPI deal. They posted it all over the place. I told them if we can get them to work as hard at that as they did in playing, they'd stay after practice and practice themselves. But we didn't have the manager games when I was coming up. We just tried to trade gear. I had game shorts from all the ACC schools when I was at Clemson.
I think being a manager gives you a different perspective on things. You get to see how things work in the office. You get to see just totally different aspects of the recruiting part and the overall picture as opposed to just playing, playing, playing all the time. So I do think it has some advantages. I was able to learn a lot.
My kind of niche was camp. I knew how to run camps. So Coach Purnell, when he needed a graduate assistant, he felt like he was going to start losing money on his camps, so he kept me on as graduate assistant to basically run camps. And I was able to parlay that into learning more about things. I think managers are responsible people, and for the most part they can do a lot of everything. That's what you have to do as head coach. You've got to be able to juggle a lot of balls and keep a lot of balls in the air and play a lot of different roles and wear a lot of different hats. I think being a manager prepares you for that.
Q. I think the assumption is because you served under Shaka that Oklahoma will see sort of Shaka's defensive intensity from the jump. You'll be in the back court and pressure for two hours. Is it that much of a mirror image?
COACH WADE: No, no. We've adjusted. We don't -- I mean, we press probably 30, 40% of the game, but we play what gives us the best chance to win.
Our fans call it half court havoc now. We're much more in the half court. We use our length and athleticism in the half court more to create steals and create turnovers.
Now Oregon State was the best in terms of lowest turnover percentage in the Pac-12. They do a great job handling the ball. We only turned them over six times yesterday, so it's not like we created a ton of turnovers. But we don't press a ton. We'll press some. Usually it's three-quarter court press or token pressure. So, no. I mean, we really try to guard in the half court, be vigilant in the half court, rebound the ball, and not open ourselves up to lay-ups and runouts and some of the situations you can get in when you full court press.
I'd like to press and play like that all the time. But we lost Briante Weber and some really good players. Any press looks good when you have Briante on the top. He's showing that in the NBA right now with the Grizzlies.
So there are some similarities to it with how we play in the half court and how we deny and how we go about it. But it won't be 40 minutes of full court pressure tomorrow.
Q. Aside from the obvious, which is Buddy Hield, what makes Oklahoma tough to guard?
COACH WADE: Well, they've got other good players. It's not like it's a one-man band. I know he gets a lot of the attention, as he should, averaging 25 a game.
The other two guards are really good. The big kid, 12, he blocks a ton of shots which leads to transition opportunities for some of those other guys. They've got some bigs, Buford and 00 Spangler, who can make shots when they need them to. They're good enough from three where if you've got to go out there and cover them a little bit. So they've got a versatile, interchangeable roster.
I think one thing that's underrated is their defense doesn't get talked about a lot. They do a good job defensively. They're top 25 in the country adjusted defensive stuff, advanced metrics with their defense. Their offense is top 15, so that's what people score 1.15 a possession. But that's what people get caught up in. But their defense is good. They're simple, they do what they do. They're very good with what they do. So I would say their defense and their other parts are a lot better than people give them credit for.
Q. How do you think you guys will handle basically playing a road game? How do you want to take away from Oklahoma first?
COACH WADE: Well, first off, we need to guard the three-point line very well. I felt like yesterday sitting in the arena Oklahoma gets a lot of confidence, almost like the fans are disappointed when they hit a two. I feel like they hit 10.5 threes a game, they shoot it 42% as a team. That's phenomenal. But I feel like we're top 30 in the country in three-point defense, so it will get tested to the max tomorrow. So we need to really, really guard the three-point line. If they barrage us with threes, the roof will come off the place.
You know, in terms of playing a road game, that same bus driver I was telling you about, we landed, I asked him. I was a geography major, not a very good one, but I thought Oklahoma or OU was like 45 minutes, an hour from here. I said, OU is here? He said, yeah, it's 18 miles down the road. I thought oh, goodness. That's when we landed. And I saw Oklahoma run out yesterday and it was a sea of red. You know, we just need to keep the game manageable.
I thought with Bakersfield, they barraged them with two quick runs, one in the first half, one in the second that gave them the lead they needed to. We need to keep it manageable and not let them bury back-to-back threes or consecutive threes and be good with our offense where we can slow it down a little bit and keep it within manageable working margins most of the game, and then get it down to the end of the game and see what happens.
But we've been a good road team this year. Our road record in our league was very good. We've been a good road team and we'll need to draw on that experience and draw on some of those experiences. But it will definitely be a big challenge for us.
There is a lot of enthusiasm for Oklahoma basketball right now, as there should be, and we'll need to play well and weather three or four storms with the crowd and with their team.
Q. In Oklahoma, weakness was exposed yesterday. They don't do a good job of containing Egyptian big men. Usually that's not a problem for a team.
COACH WADE: Yeah, they've got back-to-back Egyptian bigs now.
Q. Can you talk about Ahmed and his Egyptian background and how he helps you? It looked like he had some moves yesterday?
COACH WADE: Yeah, that's an astute observation. No, Hamdy's been great. When we got the job, we lost some players and we were scrambling like eggs trying to find some guys. We found him in a junior college down in Texas. He's been very, very good for us. He's from Alexandria, Egypt. He came over, lived with a host family in Houston, went to the University of Houston.
When Coach Dickey got let go at Houston, he went to junior college and we were able to sign him out of junior college. He's had some big games for us against a league team. George Mason, he scored 16 points. He played really well against Duke in Madison Square Garden when we played them earlier this year. He played well against Wisconsin in the Garden when we played them. So anything we get from him is a bonus.
He did a nice job yesterday. He doesn't like to pass it. So when he gets it, it's going up. It's going up one way or the other, it's going up. I think him and 42 from Bakersfield have that in common. But he's been great for us. We're excited to have him.
I think as we move forward he's going to be a really good player for us. He's got another year or two with us, and I think he can be a good player for us.
Q. You mentioned earlier the importance of getting to know these guys as players and getting in depth with them in that way. When you first got brought on, how were you able to earn their trust? What were the things you felt had you to do as a first-year guy to get on that level with them?
COACH WADE: Well, I knew most of them from being an assistant. So Melvin and Mo -- and Mo sat out a year and Jordan Burgess sat out a year. I knew most of them. I recruited JeQuan, I recruited a lot of the juniors. The freshmen that are here now, I recruited all of them because we signed them all in the spring. So it was the junior class who I didn't really know.
And Johnny Williams was already committed to us when I was an assistant. He's from Richmond and he had been committed for two years, so I developed a good relationship with him.
The only guys on our team that I didn't know were Mike Gilmore and Justin Tillman. I was really close with a lot of the seniors who were leaving, and Melvin and I were really close. I stayed in touch with Melvin even when I was gone. We stayed in touch for a long time. So I didn't have to do much. Spread the word, this is what you're getting. This is what he is. He's going to tell it like it is. It's going to be hard. It's going to be disciplined. It's going to be this, it's going to be that.
I'm glad those guys stuck around. It was pretty quick. I like familiarity, so I knew a lot of the folks, I knew a lot of the players, I knew a lot of the administration. Just made it pretty seamless coming back.
Q. Have you talked to Shaka since his game ended last night?
COACH WADE: I know him better than that. No, we talked before the game, and I'll touch base with him at some point this week. No, no, I haven't. I've talked to one of their assistants, but that's about as close as I'll get to touching that at this point. That's some way to lose. We came out and we were watching film and came out into the hotel lobby to watch the end of that game.
Watched Saint Joseph's from our league who got a huge win over Cincinnati. Very happy for Coach Martelli and the Hawks. Yeah, that was something else. We'll touch base and talk down the line here in a week or so. But I feel for him. That's tough. That's tough.
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