- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
IN LaSANDRA WINGATE'S household, nothing was safe from her son's sleight of hand. Whether it was a warm roll on er dinner plate or his sister's favorite toy, young Briante Weber always knew how to snag what he wanted. Especially candy. Time and again, when Wingate would try to reward his good behavior with a sweet from the candy jar, she'd realize he'd beaten her to it. Staring up at her with his tiny balled-up fist, he'd reveal his latest score with a burst of laughter. "Gotcha!" he'd boast in a high-pitched squeak.
"He always had quick hands," Wingate admits. "I told him, 'You need to use them for good.'" Turns out, that advice was spot-on.
Weber is now a sophomore guard at Virginia Commonwealth, and he has, with deference to Liam Neeson, a very particular set of skills that makes him exceptionally dangerous -- and a perfect fit -- at VCU. He is the best bandit in the nation, playing for a team that steals the ball more often than any
other. As a freshman, he led the nation in steal percentage, which measures how often a player swipes the ball. And this season he's doing it again, at a historically dominant rate. He averages only 22.6 minutes and six points per game (through Jan. 16), but that's fine: For coach Shaka Smart, everything is going according to plan.
Out of necessity, that plan is unorthodox. VCU is not at the level of UNC, Kentucky or Kansas. The Rams don't recruit in the same circles, draw prime-time TV slots or produce as many pros as those powerhouses do. Yet over the past two seasons, they've been every bit as threatening in March, with a Final Four berth in 2011 and a Round of 32 appearance last season. This year could be more of the same, with a squad that cracked the USA Today coaches poll for the first time in the regular season and is a favorite to win the Atlantic 10 in its first season as a member.
How? Because of guys like Weber. And because of a coach who is both committed to playing an unusual style -- a relentless combination of full-court pressure, smothering half-court man-to-man and pace-pushing offense -- and unusually disciplined in adhering to core philosophies that enable his system to thrive. Smart has a keen awareness of which qualities matter at VCU and which don't, and that's what helps him unearth unconventional recruits who don't necessarily fit traditional basketball archetypes. After all, Smart's system not only discovered Weber, who had no other Division I offers as a high school senior; it has allowed the guard to thrive. Weber is now among the best sixth men in college hoops, a player whose spark off the bench is more like a nuclear blast. By capitalizing on hidden talents, Smart seems to have unwittingly created a blueprint for mid-majors to prosper.
Sixth man Briante Weber is more than VCU's king of steals -- he's the perfect example of how Shaka Smart's recruiting style can turn unconventional strengths into success come March.