Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Very Special G:TB Interview

Way back when we were the internet's fourth or fifth-leading blog about dipshittery and W&M hoops, author and CAA basketball insider Michael Litos took pity upon us and gave us love on caahoops.com, legitimately the world's best online resource for the conference's basketball action. He's been a long-time G:TB supporter, and one of the major reasons why we're now the internet's second-leading purveyor of W&M hoops-related dipshittery.

Litos, a VCU grad, moved on from the CAA this season as the Rams joined the A-10 and he took over as the team's radio color analyst. G:TB was fortunate enough to grab a few moments with him and his friends (all named Stella, oddly) to talk about his first season on the radio, CAA Hoops, and whatever dumb questions the Teej came up with. (See if you can guess which ones.)

Aside from Tony Shaver's mustache and W&M's erudite yet futile superfans, what do you miss most about the CAA?

That collage you made and sent me with Shaver surrounded by the Futile Superfans and Tom Yeager bathed in sunlight is very helpful, and the live caterpillar was a nice touch, but I still miss roadies to Wilmington.

Every year the schedule came out I either sent Ron Bertovich (Ed. Note - the CAA deputy commissioner for basketball) a bottle of wine, or drove to Patterson Avenue and punched him in the nose. You see, “VCU at UNCW” on a Saturday meant three full days in ILM. Great food, Wrightsville Beach, and college basketball are a savagely intoxicating mixture.

True story: we landed in the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania to play St. Bonnies and it was about 468 degrees below zero with a strong wind whipping rain (and our plane) sideways. When we finally got on the bus for the one-hour ride to Olean, Shaka Smart was the first person I looked for. I pleaded with him: "you've got to get Wilmington back on the schedule."

I hate to get all goofy on question number one, but I also very much miss the closeness and camaraderie of #CAAHoops. I'm not saying the A-10 doesn't have it, but it was a wholly different season from that perspective. I miss a lot of people and the basketball conversations we had. I miss going to road games and chatting with opposing fans and coaches an hour prior to tipoff, and the banter in emails and texts that weaved through the games, the season, the programs, and life.

I always used to say "we have it better" and in most every respect, we did. I feel like we all caught lightning in a bottle with that 6-8 year run but the reality of the world caught us. That's sad. It was an incredible time for anyone who followed the CAA.

Shaka Smart's been steadfast in repeating his 'don't mess with happiness' refrain? Is that good marketing, or does he really see himself making a long run at VCU? Do the changes in the college game (mids moving up into 'major' conferences, etc.) make such an idea more likely - will we see more guys like Shaka and Brad Stevens?

This is the first time I’ll put this in print: the next time I read that “Shaka Smart is different” or that “Shaka Smart is wired differently” I’m going to puke. On the spot. And make the writer come clean it up. I’m sick of that. That wholly disrespects who he is as a human being, other coaches who are thoughtful and not mercenaries, and thoughtful people in general.

People forget coaching college basketball is Shaka Smart’s career. Who—in any line of work—is made happy by chasing a BS opportunity? So yes, I can absolutely see Shaka Smart coaching his entire career at VCU. It isn’t as far-fetched as some may think.

However let’s be realistic: Duke or North Carolina opens up next year and he is gonzo. The thing that I believe gets shortchanged in all of this is guys like Shaka, Brad Stevens, Mark Few, etc. evaluate ALL PHASES of a job, not just salary and conference affiliation. People forget these guys are evaluating a career opportunity, not a college coaching job. There is a difference.

And let’s be honest: college basketball is very different. First, a conference doesn't necessarily define a program. Not anymore. I even think a conference protects certain programs—I’m looking at you, Auburn. These coaches are intelligent enough to see that. The conference as a be-all/end-all is no longer limited to six.

What’s more, the money has flattened out. You can bring home a few pounds of bacon at VCU, Butler, Saint Louis, etc. these days. Facilities for some schools continue to improve. More TV means more programming and more TV games for the “mid majors.”

I think it’s always a year-by-year thing for any of these coaches, just like you or me in our careers. (We can admit that, can’t we?) The gap that used to exist between a BCS job and any other is no longer wide, and it looks different.

Shaka Smart’s team won 27 games and finished second in a conference that sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, they won a game in the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, finished the season ranked in the national poll, and played on national TV something like 21 times. Toss in the competitive spirit of doing that at VCU versus a Notre Dame. You are in growth mode as opposed to maintenance mode. Now add in that your family is very happy in a middle-sized city where you are king, the media pressures are not taxing, and you made more than $1 million.

You’re leaving that for exactly what job?

But it isn’t just Smart. Any coach has these same opportunities. So yes, I think you’ll see more Smarts and Stevens.

Ginger, or Mary Ann?

Such an offensive, sexist, and downright trite but totally expected question. What’s next, plain or peanut M&Ms? Or better yet, how about Rose, Blanche, or Dorothy?

I will say PFChang's has a great Ginger chicken dish, and Mary Ann Moffet gave Dreyfuss that awful scar across his chest. So in that respect I'll have to go with Ginger.

What surprised you the most about the season as a broadcaster? What did you wish you'd known before you took the job?

The broadcasting part was easy, and I credit Robby Robinson, the VCU play-by-play guy, for that. He made it easy. All I had to do was to be prepared and describe what I saw. It’s exactly what I’ve always done, only this time somebody put a microphone in front of me so I had to watch my
language when helping the officials with their interpretation of the rules.

(And by the way, CAA fans, you may not believe this but it’s true. The CAA officiating was better than the A10 officiating. At least you know Bob Testa is going to call an illegal screen each half.)

I was surprised, though, at how little I actually knew about what goes into the 40 minutes we all love. The level of organization and attention to detail has to be high level. There are so many things you don’t immediately think about that have to fall into place, and each is connected to the other.

Every basketball fan should seek out and thank the SID, video coordinator, student managers, grad assistants, academic advisors, and everyone else that you don’t see sitting on the bench when the clock is running. Those people do an amazing and unheralded job, and if they screw up, it matters.

Again, I may be overly goofy here, but I don’t know that there’s anything I wish I would’ve known prior to taking the job. I very much enjoyed creating my own experience and watching what goes into a basketball program and its season. That includes learning what goes into a broadcast and when I should speak.

Don’t get me wrong, I have little notes everywhere that will help me do small things better, but there’s nothing huge. I tried my best to remain invisible off the air and intelligent on the air. Everything else was life.

On your journey to Brooklyn for the A-10 championship, was there any sleep obtained? Or no sleep (until arrival in Brooklyn)?

Well thanks to you I was more in the mode of the Avett Brothers, hoping Brooklyn would take me in. (Side note: they are playing in Richmond this summer, July 25. You are welcomed to join me.)

Sleep was easy during the season—the games were a ton of fun, but the travel was terrible. You would be surprised how quickly you move from place to place. The teams
are out of the locker room and on the bus and headed home in a flash. So you end up with a sprint, and I’m not one to sleep in transit. I’d get home and timber into the bed, sometimes after 3am.

If you ever have to go to New York take the freaking train. I had the best experience because I didn't have to deal with anything except crappy overpriced food in the food car.

Here's a note to the fans who whined that VCU wouldn't travel if the CAA tournament moved. You were wrong. Holy moley what a turnout.

I think I just wrote about 175 words without actually understanding nor answering your question. What exactly are we talking about here?

What was the best road environment you visited this year? Where do you never want to go again?

I could cheese out and say the Atlantis Resort, for no other reason than it was the Bahamas in November, but I won't do that. Plus, the resort was kind of Vegas By The Beach, and that’s not really my speed.

Saint Louis was easily the best roadie. They play in a great building that was filled, and it got loud. The fans were really into the game and took the viewpoint that their team never made a mistake. And that’s what you want. However the game itself absolutely stunk, and Saint Louis will never be confused with Wilmington. (Side note, part 2: Xavier was way overrated.)

Everybody said St. Bonaventure was such a terrible trip, but it was just fine. Oh it's out there, I mean out there, and the sun reportedly has not shone in Olean since 1957. But it wasn't all bad. We drove by the prison that housed Wesley Snipes, so we had that going for us. Tourism!

Rhode Island has great potential--the arena is steep and the seats right on top of you. I love buildings like that. They start winning and I can see that place becoming a zoo. The trip to ETSU was a dud--50 point wins are boring--but there's this old 1920s hotel across the street from the arena that's worth the trip. It's the anti-Marriott. Big rooms, old fixtures, just nice. Wait, does that even matter to you?

Worst trip had to be Duquesne--I don't need to go there again. It wasn’t that it was overly terrible; just a big fat zero. And I know Auburn Hills was the NCAA tournament and all, but I don't need to go back there. The Palace was built next to a landfill, which is a true story and all you need to know.

Is Havoc materially better in the Siegel Center than elsewhere? How has the Rams' hoops culture contributed to VCU's ability to recruit at an increasingly high level? And what's that place like when Havoc is humming?

You need to clarify what material we're talking about. There's a difference. That crushed/pressed particle board they used to use for driveway backboards that fell apart after it rained five times and the rim ripped off, leaving that odd semi-circle at its base, is one thing. Spectra fiber is quite another.

Shaka Smart has said more than once he's never been at a place where the fans have such a personal connection with the basketball team. And the team knows it and appreciates it. They most definitely play better in front of the crowd because each feeds off the other. That building gets deafening, and the players eat it up.

I'm not a 17-year old kid, but I'd be fried-egg-eyed if I walked into a basketball game and there was 7,700 loonies screaming their fool heads off, chanting youdontwannagotowar and It’s Havoc You Fear and the pep band bouncing all over the place with a trombone player on stilts and that big Havoc Lives Here banner.

And that’s before tipoff.

The administration has done a phenomenal job embracing the culture and allowing it to germinate. A VCU home game is a festival. Some national guy wrote it's awesome because it just looks like everyone is having more fun. And it's true.

There were so many occasions last season where I literally took my headphones off so I could take it all in. I didn’t want to miss out. It’s what the home court experience should be.

And when havoc is humming, you can feel the energy. It isn’t a tingling that stands your hair on end. It’s like an invisible force that everyone shares, pulsing around the building and increasing at it reaches each one of the 7,700 people. Briante Weber makes a steal and everyone lets out those odd little noises that you emit when you’re not entirely sure what’s going to happen next, but it’s going to be good. And when a three-pointer is in the air, you can feel everyone inhale at the same time, ready to burst with a head-splitting scream when it splashes down.

The anticipation of what’s going to happen next grabs you and pulls you onto the basketball court alongside the players. It grabs your insides first, and then your skin catches up. It’s really something you have to experience.

On a semi-related note, we think ODU's making a big mistake messing with a great hoops culture in pursuit of football dollars. Was that inevitable as soon as the Monarchs decided to field a football squad, or are they the victims of their rapid success on the gridiron?

I totally agree with you. It was inevitable, because the funding issues surrounding football are so powerful and so necessary to compete. ODU did an outstanding job getting football off the ground and they’ve seen great success, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a negative impact on basketball. That’s the biggest difference in BCS and non-BCS affiliation these days—the TV money for football. I’ve long said you should play 1AA football, or BCS football. Anything in between is a tremendous risk.

Here’s the real problem. ODUs quick success in football will only hasten the vise grip it puts on the basketball program. They felt they had no choice but to move up right now, probably 3-5 years before they wanted to. That exacerbates every challenge. It wasn’t a bad decision because it’s what they wanted to do. It was in all likelihood a very good decision. But it was a football decision.

It was going to happen. Now it will happen more quickly.

Care to share any stories about this year's Rams, or are you keeping them all for a new book?

I wish I had time or money for a book (ahem, Ed McLaughlin...you could solve both those issues).

I don’t know that there are any real stories that would be of interest. More moments, and there were a lot of them. I’d love to tell them all, but it wouldn’t feel right. Sorry.

Here’s a college kid story.

Before every game, one of the student managers lays a towel at the corner of the scorer’s table, right beside the bench. One night our radio position was at that corner—a great position because we get to hear the coaching staff and players, but a terrible position because Shaka Smart stands all game and he’s always in the way.

This is art made from used chewing gum. Carry on.
Anyway, the manager lays the towel down right in front of me, and I of course wonder why. I found out quickly. Briante Weber chews gum the whole game, but not when he’s actually in the game. When Weber gets off the bench to check into the game, he takes his gum out of his mouth and places it on that towel. When Weber comes out of the game he takes his mouthpiece out and puts it on the towel, replacing it with his gum. Because Weber is frequently in and out of games, this gum-to-mouthpiece-to-gum switch occurs over and over and over.

So I spent that entire game with either a live piece of chewing gum or a slobbery mouthpiece 12 inches from my face.

What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Do you mean an African or European swallow? See, now you’ve made me miss the CAA again. Bastard. The A10 just didn’t understand Monty Python.

What must happen for VCU's recent run of success to be sustainable?

For all the arguments and the over analysis and Excel spreadsheets and thinking and hand-wringing, it comes down to one thing: winning. Everything else will take care of itself if you win. Winning is the bass player in the jazz ensemble of success.

You win and people get fired up. People get fired up they give money to support the program. That money helps build facilities or charter flights, which helps to attract better recruits which ups the talent level which leads to...more winning. More winning leads to more people who want to be involved with the program, and those people have wallets.

I’ve oversimplified the cycle of success here, but you get the point. You can argue all you want about NBCSports versus ESPN television contracts, but neither truly matters when put against the pure value of winning.

For VCU, it’s kind of the Xavier model. You have to continue to make progress off the floor, and on the floor. That means both building the practice facility, and getting back to the Sweet 16. That’s sustaining. It all goes together.

What’s the best thing about knowing the G:TB editorial staff?

The prestige. Groupies. Knowing I'll always get the best seat in a restaurant and never have to pay for a drink. All I have to do is flash the G:TB sign with both hands like you taught me, and the world is my oyster.

It pays off for the team, too. VCU was losing to Xavier by 17 in the second half, and I flashed my G: TB sign to Chris Mack. He sighed, called timeout, and six minutes later VCU was in the lead.

But I should not say that. The first rule of G: TB—never talk about G: TB.


Marls said...

Mrs. Marls just asked if the first photo was DLC.

rob said...

the first rule of gtb is really hurting our marketing efforts

Greg said...

Compelling and rich.

Greg said...

Also, if you haven't seen Michael Shannon's dramatic reading of the crazy sorority letter....well, do yourself a frickin' service and watch it right now.

Mark said...

In past the point of being bitter about being hit with the stomach flu again and beginning to worry how it's going to negatively affect my trip to New Orleans. I need to recover fast. There is far too much booze and food to be consumed for me to miss out on.

Clarence said...

Feel better fast, Mark. Gotta be healthy for the Fest.

Clarence said...

So MGL caught the Python bit but not the Beasties part, eh? 1 for 2's not bad.

T.J. said...

it appears that way, tho it is probably on me for not asking the Beasties question properly

rob said...

he did redeem himself with the avetts reference, though

Squeaky said...

I'd imagine this song would be played at Unit M at 1 or 2 AM to clear out what few ladies were left at the house back in the old days.


NSFW - language

Jerry said...

Lots of words about sports. G Will says, not piffle.

If we're looking for piffle, I'd like to see a groupies ranking for the GTB writers. Most, least, hottest, weirdest, sharing...all the regular categories.

Come off it Greg! You can't see the forest for the trees!!!

Mark said...

Jerry's doling out assignments now? Sure. Why not?

rob said...

i have both the most and the least

TR said...

Barcelona needs to get their shit together. Nobody wants an all-Germany finals in the Champions League. Even if it's fun to hear announcers yelling "Schweinsteiger" for 90 minutes.

And I hope you all saw highlights of Van Persie's first half hat trick y/day. Ridiculous finishing, even if he was offsides for two of them.

rob said...

the volley from rooney's long pass was among the most remarkable athletic feats i've ever seen. it was absurd.

Danimal said...

watched the sorority letter vid last night..i endorse it wholeheartedly.

speaking of bars, a new one opened across the street a few months back called "the shim sham room". owned by the only thing the jags have going for it - its mascot, jaxson deville.

Jerry said...

I hope Per Mertesacker takes a dump on his face in the middle of the field on Sunday.

zman said...

You speak Valyrian?!?

Danimal said...

That would not end well. Seen that before.

rob said...

quinn mcdowell retweeted me. from australia. we're all global, and such.

Jerry said...

Big time.

rob said...

he's leading the sbl in scoring and three-point shooting. so there's that. i believe the sbl is a minor league feeder for the top aussie league.

Squeaky said...

There are some nice items, hats and t-shirts, you can buy where all the proceeds goes to the 1 Fund for the marathon victims but this is not one of them. A blue wife beater with the slogan "Massachusetts invented America". WTF.

TR said...

Unfortunately, the Boston tragedy means I may have to permanently retire my "Boston Sucks" shirt.