RICHMOND, Va. -- As the clock wound down on another in a series of uncomfortably tight contests between regional nemeses, the contrast was unmistakable.
Virginia Commonwealth's "Rowdy Rams" had turned the packed 7,700-seat Siegel Center completely screaming yellow zonkers, except for a small (yet loud) pocket of dark navy: a few hundred Old Dominion fans who had made the short trip from Norfolk. The players were caught up in the heat of play, the teams exchanging metaphorical haymakers: 3-point shots, steals, taken charges. The officials, beads of sweat gleaming on their foreheads, strained to make the correct calls; the local media sat on the edge of its collective seat, pens hovering and quivering millimeters above paper.
But in all the loud and sweaty tension, one man stayed cool and dry in the storm's center, standing still and silent along the home sideline. As his hungry Rams pressed hard, fought for every loose ball and attacked the basket in erasing a 12-point second-half deficit, the Rams' leader stayed, for the most part, motionless and emotionless.
"We try to create an atmosphere in practice where our guys are used to a style of play," explained first-year VCU head coach Anthony Grant. "My job in the game is to try to stay focused and make good judgments, and make the adjustments necessary to put us in a position to be successful. I'm just focused on helping our team win."
All of Grant's cool-headed adjustments worked -- VCU prevailed over their I-64 rivals, 80-75. Once the seats were empty and the fans had spilled out into downtown Richmond this past Saturday, Grant's Rams stood tall as the best team in their league. Nearing the halfway mark of the league's 18-game schedule, Virginia Commonwealth sits atop the standings with a sparkling 8-0 record and a seven-game overall win streak.
Last year, the Colonial Athletic Association was the breakout mid-major conference, placing teams in the Final Four of both the NCAA (George Mason) and the NIT (Old Dominion). VCU spent the season on the periphery of the magic -- 19 wins and a five-game win streak in January couldn't buy it a moment's mention in a conversation dominated by ODU, NCAA snub Hofstra, conference tourney champion UNC-Wilmington and Mason's Kryptonite Kids.
But the 2006-07 CAA has suffered from an extreme case of collective Jekyll-Hyde Syndrome so far. Resurgent Drexel, a perpetual hard-luck loser in the 2005-06 campaign, has enjoyed shock wins at Syracuse and Villanova, but severely damaged its at-large hopes with a 27-point loss to these same Monarchs last week. ODU, for its part, had its own big road upset (Nov. 19 at Georgetown), but has had to balance that seven-point win with a seven-point loss last week at league underling James Madison. Honeymooning George Mason has won five straight league games, but that streak has only served to dig it out of an 0-3 hole. And Hofstra has featured one of the best backcourts in the nation (Loren Stokes and Antoine Agudio, 41.1 combined ppg), but the Pride ranks among its most mediocre frontcourts (30.1 team rpg, 227th in Division I), and took early résumé -killing losses versus Charlotte, Hawaii and Manhattan.
These Rams haven't been immune from the swings -- their 16-3 overall record contains a trio of nonconference losses to Xavier, Appalachian State and Toledo. But since league play has begun, few teams in the country have been hotter: Of the 11 schools that remain undefeated in their conferences, VCU is the only one with eight wins.
And while a quarterfinal exit in the conference tourney shut the Rams out of the 2006 postseason, they can now get all the first-hand accounts they want. Over the summer, former head coach Jeff Capel leveraged four years and 79 wins into the Oklahoma job vacated by current Indiana sideline-pacer Kelvin Sampson. In stepped Grant, a decade-long assistant for Billy Donovan who helped recruit and develop four NBA first-round draft choices, and who recently helped engineer Florida's 2006 NCAA title run (as well as its decisive Final Four victory over George Mason).
"A lot of my experience under coach Donovan, I've tried to feed off of that," said Grant. "I've been a part of some great teams and some great rivalries. But in terms of adjustments in my first time through the league, we just try to prepare as best we can and make use of the experience we have. We're just trying to get better every game."
Grant's first Rams team has improved steadily, getting after it on both sides of the ball. The Rams score a CAA-high 78.3 points per game and allow only 63.3. In tempo-free terms, VCU owns the nation's 36th best marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency, scoring 1.08 points per possession and allowing a mere 0.90 points per defensive possession. It's a backcourt-driven squad, with three guards -- seniors B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa, along with sophomore Eric Maynor -- combining for 30 points per ballgame.
All three press hard on defense and aren't afraid to dribble-drive on offense, but there's nothing reckless or ball-foolish about the way they play. In a statistical reflection of their coach's cerebral cool, the Rams lead the CAA in team assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.18 to 1, and only turn the ball over on 16.8 percent of their possessions -- the ninth-best mark in all of Division I.
"I think we're getting there as far as the style of play we want," said Grant after the victory over Old Dominion. "We want to be aggressive, we want to be an uptempo team, a team that creates the style of play that's in our favor. We made strides tonight."
The three other CAA hires haven't been quite as fortunate in the stride department so far. Among the three other new head coaches in the league, Bill Coen and Monte Ross are still in the very early stages of overhaul projects at Northeastern and Delaware, respectively. And after Bill Brownell's jump to Wright State, the first year of Benny Moss' rule at UNC-Wilmington has devolved into a 4-13 (1-7 CAA) disaster; poor shooting, injuries and culture-change shock have taken the Seahawks from defending champs to the very bottom of the league standings.
But VCU's toughest tests still lie ahead. There are a pair of key games at George Mason and Drexel later this week; two wins would all but assure a prime Feb. 17 BracketBusters opponent on TV at the Siegel Center when the announcements are made next Monday. But also consider the Rams' date at Hofstra the following Wednesday, and it's clear the road doesn't get any easier.
"There's no talk in our locker room or on our staff about our record right now," said Grant. "We really do have to take it one game at a time, because we know how tough each one is going to be."
And it may be all the more tough considering that all the conference's heavyweights have so far endured punishing body blows to their at-large hopes, setting the stage for what might be the hardest-fought, bloodiest, most exciting battle over a single NCAA Tournament bid in recent memory. But through it all, Grant stays cool and focused.
"I'm quickly learning that this is an extremely competitive conference," said Grant, very calmly. "There's great players in our league, great coaches in our league. It's a challenge every single night, you've got to come ready to play every single night because anything can happen, And so far, it has."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.