You can see Will Wade’s future from here.
You don’t need a crystal ball to see another NCAA tournament trip for Wade and VCU or the likely interest from Power 5 schools in the Rams’ latest coaching prodigy.
You do need to crane your neck around the animated contrabass bugle player, and the rest of the brass section in the VCU “Peppas” band in the end zone of the soldout Siegel Center, to watch the team on the floor.
That’s where you see a smart, veteran group that plays with an urgency on defense and an aggressiveness on offense.
The Rams, 23-5 after Wednesday’s 64-50 home win over St. Louis, are “fast, physical, aggressive” according to St. Louis coach Travis Ford.
“That’s a good team,” Ford said. “They play hard, and Will does a good job of putting them in position to use their strengths.”
Wade’s short-term future is clear. The Rams are tied for first place in the Atlantic 10, with a 13-2 conference record. A trip to Dayton on March 1 might decide the conference race. Wade’s VCU team handled Archie Miller’s Flyers 73-68 in Richmond on Jan. 27.
The Rams, No. 26 in the RPI, are on track for their seventh straight NCAA tournament bid (Duke and North Carolina are two of the seven other programs that can say the same).
Wade’s long-term future does require some reading of the tea leaves. The N.C. State job is already open, and others from the SEC (Missouri, LSU) and Big Ten (Indiana, Illinois) are likely to follow. Like Shaka Smart, Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel before him at VCU, Wade is ticketed for a bigger job at a Power 5 conference school.
At 34, he is already in his fourth season as a head coach. He has a 48-16 record at VCU and won 40 games in two seasons at Chattanooga. Originally from Nashville and a graduate of Clemson, Wade will be a valued commodity on the coaching market. His annual salary, a reported $1.6 million, also puts him in the affordable category of young, up-and-coming candidates.
“He has made people believers everywhere he has been,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who hired Wade as an assistant at the Ivy League school in 2007.
Tall and slender, Wade looks young enough to still be a graduate assistant at Clemson, where he got his start in 2005, after serving as a student manager for former Tigers coach Oliver Purnell.
Looking for a young go-getter, Amaker was directed to Wade by current Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry, who worked with Wade at Clemson.
“We needed guys who wanted to grind,” Amaker said. “In addition to being a terrific person, Will’s a tireless worker. You can’t outwork him.”
After two years with Amaker in the Ivy League, Wade was hired by Smart, another former Clemson connection, to be an assistant at VCU. He was with Smart for four years at VCU before taking the top job at Chattanooga in 2013.
N.C. State, which fired coach Mark Gottfried last Thursday, is still in the early part of the search process. Athletic director Debbie Yow said she expects to have to wait until after the NCAA tournament to find Gottfried’s replacement.
Yow has tried before to lure a coach from VCU. In 2011, when looking for Sidney Lowe’s replacement, Yow pursued Smart and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Smart took the Rams from the “First Four” play-in round in the NCAA tournament to the Final Four. He rejected a contract offer from Yow and re-upped with VCU. A block behind the Siegel Center in downtown Richmond is the $25 million VCU Basketball Development Center, a tangential result of N.C. State’s pursuit of Smart six years ago.
Smart stayed at VCU for four more seasons after the Final Four run and took the Texas job in 2015. Wade was hired to replace him.
Wade inherited a deep roster, which includes three senior starters, from Smart. Wade led the Rams to a 25-11 record last season and the second round of the NCAA tournament, with a win over Oregon State and a loss to Oklahoma (a Final Four team).
Wade, noted for his strength as a recruiter, has enjoyed the benefits of the state-of-the-art practice facility. His current recruiting class is ranked by ESPN in the top 25 in the country.
This season, he has also enhanced his reputation as a strategist. The depth of his preparation is remarkable. In his back right pocket he keeps a handful of play cards, almost like an NFL offensive coordinator, with meticulous notes and in-game scenarios.
The wild ending to VCU’s 54-53 win over George Washington on Feb. 8 was not by accident. Down 53-52 with 0.4 seconds left, Wade set up a press break from under his own basket.
“Coach Wade is a whiz,” guard JeQuan Lewis said after the game, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “He’s got plays for days.”
Wade had Lewis set a screen along the baseline to free up forward Justin Tillman for an inbounds pass. George Washington’s Collin Goss ran over Lewis and was called for a foul. Lewis sank both free throws to give the Rams the win.
“Hole in one” is what Wade calls the play, and the Rams run it regularly in practice. Even by VCU’s recent lofty standards, Wade is proving to be one of a kind.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Head coach: VCU, 2nd season (48-16)
Alma mater: Clemson (2005)
Annual salary: $1.6 million
Previous stops: Chattanooga (head coach), VCU (assistant coach), Harvard (assistant coach), Clemson (graduate assistant, director of basketball operations)
Record as head coach:
NCAA 2nd round