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Time Out With Jeff Capel

The VCU men’s basketball coach on teaching defense, statewide bragging rights and respecting Mom.

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At 29, Capel’s the youngest coach in Division I college hoops. He’s used his youth and experience — remember the half-court shot at the buzzer against Carolina? — to sell players on an aggressive, defense-first philosophy. That defense has given the Rams a Colonial Athletic Association title, beating George Mason a week ago for the right to play one of Capel’s old Atlantic Coast Conference rivals, the Demon Deacons.

But more important, Capel’s resurrecting VCU basketball. We caught up with him last week to find out how.

Style: After the George Mason game, was it the first time VCU students rushed the floor?
Jeff Capel: Actually, a little bit earlier in the year. We played UNC Wilmington at home and the students rushed the floor. Not as many as they did against the conference tournament on Monday night against Mason.

Obviously you talk regularly with Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who built one of the greatest programs in basketball at Duke. What advice did he give you when you took over as head coach?
The first thing he told me was you have to hire a great staff. And your assistants, they have to understand their most important job is to make you look good. … All of those things that I learned as a basketball player at Duke have helped me in my relationship with my wife, in my relationship with my brother, in my relationship with my friends, my relationship with my team. Those are the same lessons that I’m trying to pass on to our guys. … I tell every guy in our program, ‘We can help you become a successful basketball player. Our most important goal is to help prepare you for life after basketball.’

You are not going to have the same access, in terms of recruiting, as Duke and Carolina and other big programs. What do you look for when you go out and recruit?
We want to find guys that obviously are talented, but B, I want to find guys that love to play, that have a passion for playing. … And then we look at their character. One of the things I do when I watch a kid play, I always like to sit right across from them. I like to sit right across from their bench. I like to watch how they interact with their coach. I like to watch how they interact with their teammates during timeouts. I like to watch how they interact with an official if an official makes, you know, a questionable call against them. We try to get to know these guys as much as possible. The rules are different from when I was being recruited, because you can’t do it as much. You can only make one phone call a week. When I was coming up you could call as much as you wanted.

How do you compensate for that?
You got to do a lot of homework. One of the big things that I do like when I go into a home visit, I love to see how a kid interacts with his family, especially his mother. If he talks back to his mom, then he ain’t got a chance here. If you talk back to your mother, then, to me, you don’t have any respect for anyone. So that means you’re going to talk back to anyone. That’s a huge turnoff for me.

How do you get these guys to buy into a defense-first mindset?
Certainly playing time helps (laughs). Our guys understand that if you want to play you have to play defense. It doesn’t matter how good they are offensively. …

You aren’t going to shoot the ball well every night. You just aren’t. That’s something that you can’t control. The one thing that you can control in basketball is your effort. And defense is a lot about effort. You have to want to play defense. You can do some drills to teach a proper defensive stance and improve your footwork, but defense is desire.

How important is it that VCU gain equal footing with the University of Richmond, which has gained more prominence over the years? There is a cross-town rivalry.
We don’t compare ourselves with Richmond. If you look at the programs, over the last three years we’re the winningest program in the state of Virginia. VCU is better than U.Va., better than Richmond, better than anyone. We are the winningest program. We have more wins, we have a better winning percentage than any team in this state. So, we don’t feel inferior to anyone. I don’t base what we do compared to what Richmond does. I have a lot of respect for their program. I love Coach [Jerry] Wainwright. I think he’s a great guy, I’ve known since I was in the sixth grade. If you look over the last three years it shows that we’ve been really good. We’ve laid the foundation to be very good for many years to come.

That victory Monday night, how does this compare with your days at Duke?
The only thing that I could compare it to was my first year at Duke, when we went to the Final Four. That experience was surreal. And more so for me because the Final Four was in North Carolina, at home for me. And also I played a big part of that as a freshman starting with Duke and having the chance to play for a national championship. But this experience has been one of the most incredible experiences in my life. They’ve never experienced it. That was the greatest joy that I had just watching our players, watching the joy they had, watching how proud they were.

How far can VCU go in the tournament?
I think we can be a dangerous team because we believe — because we are good defensively. And we’ve been a pretty good offensive team all year. I think we can. It’s about getting hot at the right time. With us winning eight games in a row, it seems like we’re pretty hot right now. The big thing will be that first game. If we can win that, then we’ll worry about the rest of them.

If you were a betting man, who wins it all?
Obviously you have to look at Duke. You can look at probably four ACC schools, and I think they have a legit shot. Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest. Certainly I think you have to look at Connecticut. Connecticut may be the most talented team in the country. You also have to look at Gonzaga, Saint Joe’s, Stanford. … S

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