When Will Wade was hired at Chattanooga in May, he had a vision for the program that he wanted to build.
Just 31 years young, Wade had spent the last four years as an assistant on Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU, watching the way that the basketball-mad community of Richmond embraced ‘Havoc’. It originated as a style of play. It’s turned into VCU’s brand, the culture of a program that has since been embraced by the school and the students and the city at-large.
Chattanooga sits in what Wade calls a “melting pot of SEC schools”, close enough to places like Knoxville and Athens and Tuscaloosa that the city is loaded with various alumni but far enough way that they don’t get swept up in the furor over one school or one team. In other words, the folks that wind up in Chattanooga will have different allegiances when it comes to “FOOTBAWL”.
But when it comes to college hoops, they’re Chattanooga fans.
When Wade interviewed for the job, that was part of his pitch. As he called it, ‘Chaos’.
“When you’re a mid-major, you need a brand or a calling card,” Wade, the third-youngest head coach in Division I, told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “I knew that’s how I wanted to play when I was fortunate enough to get a head job.”
“We needed a name for it, and when I interviewed for the Chattanooga job, Chaos kind of came to mind. It has a ‘C’ in it, we have a ‘C’ as our logo. It just kind of fit.”
‘Chaos’ has a defined set of goals that aren’t all that different from what you would expect from a typical VCU team. Relentless full-court pressure, live-ball turnovers leading to layups, offensive rebounds, three-pointers. As much as anything, however, the biggest objective in a system like this is conditioning. Be in better shape, wear your opponents down, and eventually that pressure is going to get to them.
Two-thirds of the way through his first seasons with the Mocs, Wade’s finally got his team winning games. Ronrico White’s return has coincided with a 10-game winning streak, one that has them sitting at 8-0 in league play as they head into a key conference showdown with SoCon stalwart Davidson on Thursday night.
It’s an impressive turnaround for a team that went 4-8 in non-conference play, especially when you consider the fact that ‘Chaos’ really hasn’t been all that chaotic to date.
“We’re not where we need to be defensively,” Wade said, and Chattanooga’s ranking as the 271st-best defense, according to KenPom, would back that statement up. At this point, the Mocs are playing a style that closer to that of Louisville or Villanova than VCU. They run a zone-pressure designed more to control tempo than to force turnovers, dropping back into a matchup zone. For a coach that swears by extended, man-to-man pressure, the fact that his team is playing a different style successfully has even surprised him.
“Defensively, we stumbled upon this matchup zone,” Wade said. “We’re not getting a ton of steals or anything like that.”
“Offensively, we’re pretty close to where I’d like to be. I’d like to shoot a little bit better from three, but our identity is pretty close to what we want. … We play very, very fast. We lead the league in scoring, get up and down the court.”
The star of this Chattanooga team is Z Mason, a 6-foot-6 forward that’s averaging 18.5 points, 9.5 boards and could very well end up being the SoCon Player of the Year. But according to Wade, their most important piece is White. “He’s a high-IQ player,” Wade said, but it’s more than simply understanding the game or understanding reads. White, a 6-foot-3 sophomore point guard, is terrific in the pick-and-roll, and Chattanooga runs a ball-screen heavy offense. During this 10 game winning streak, he’s averaging 15.3 points with 23 assists and just nine turnovers.
“When he was hurt, we had a freshman point guard [Greg Pryor] who ended up playing 25 or 30 minutes a game, and it was almost a perfect start for us,” Wade said. “He was our only option, and he played a ton so he has a lot of miles on him. He’s game ready.”
At this point, ‘Chaos’ is not where Wade envisions it being a couple of years down the road, but that’s what tends to happen when a coach takes over a new program. He inherited the players this team, he didn’t necessarily recruit them. There’s a fairly distinct skill-set — and mindset — needed to be able to thrive in that style of play.
It’s not for everyone.
“There’s a big adjustment in terms of [the players] trusting me and us and what we do, and us as a staff of trusting them,” Wade said. “To their credit, they figured it out. The buy-in’s been there, but it went up ten-fold once we started winning. There was a lot of blind faith.”
Wade even admitted that he was surprised by how quickly they’ve found success. “I couldn’t have envisioned that we would come together this quickly or this early. We’re probably a little bit ahead of schedule.”
Regardless of what schedule the team is on, the city has taken notice. They drew 6,648 fans on Saturday, the most since Steph Curry’s Davidson team came through town back in 2009. The 11,310 fans they drew in two games last week eclipsed the season total for five other teams in the conference.
“A fan told me the other day, ‘I haven’t seen this many people where Chattanooga basketball stuff since the Sweet 16,'” Wade said. ‘That was in 1997.”
“That’s the vision for what we’re trying to build here.”