Hard-working LaChance makes quick impact for Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt assistant basketball coach Tom Richardson was watching an AAU game in the summer of 2013 when a player caught his eye. This player was a little on the short side for a shooting guard at the Southeastern Conference level, he wasn’t overly athletic, not in the traditional sense, anyway, and his defense needed some work. But he could shoot—man, could he shoot—his high basketball IQ was evident even at first viewing, and he seemed to be the toughest dude in the gym.
It didn’t take Richardson long to come to a conclusion. Vanderbilt, in desperate need of restocking its depleted guard corps for the 2014-15 season, had to have Riley LaChance.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has known Richardson for years, dating back to when Richardson was Stallings’ assistant at Illinois State from 1993-99. Richardson replaced Stallings at Illinois State before reuniting with him at Vanderbilt in 2003. In the 12 years they’ve worked together in Nashville, Stallings has sent Richardson all over the world in search of a particular type of player—a Vanderbilt player.
Stallings trusts Richardson implicitly, so when he received a call from his right-hand man that summer day in 2013, he took action. Let’s offer this LaChance kid a scholarship, Richardson said. Right now.
So Stallings made an unusual move, for him. He called LaChance’s father, Tom, and did what Richardson suggested.
Tom LaChance laughs at the recollection of that first conversation with his son’s future college coach.
“He said, ‘I’ve never offered a kid a scholarship without seeing him, play,’ ” Tom LaChance said. “ ‘But coach Rich said if I didn’t offer this guy right away, I was crazy.’ ”
But before that formal offered was extended, Stallings had a question.
“He said, ‘Do you mind if I ask why Marquette and Wisconsin didn’t offer him?’ ” Tom LaChance said.
The question was legitimate. LaChance grew up in Brookfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee that’s about 70 miles away from Madison, home of the mighty Badgers. The question is even more legit after the first 11 games of LaChance’s college career, during which he started 11 times, averaged 12.3 points and 2.6 assists, shot nearly 40 percent from the 3-point line and put together consecutive 26-point games against Purdue and Western Carolina.
It’s doubtful that Marquette, under then-coach Buzz Williams, would have ever taken LaChance, who says Williams “recruited me very minimally.” Williams likes longer, athletic two guards, and he’s just as likely to find the one he wants tucked away at a junior college than a high school in his own backyard. But watch LaChance play, and he seems perfectly constructed for Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s system, similar in height, build, basketball smarts and shooting ability to any number of guards Ryan has signed.
“They recruited me minimally after my sophomore year in high school,” Riley LaChance said. “And after that, not at all.”
LaChance talks about Marquette and Wisconsin without a trace of bitterness or regret. LaChance’s father, who was a walk-on at Marquette under coach Kevin O’Neill and coached his son for years on the Ray Allen Select AAU team, isn’t bitter so much as puzzled.
“I’m at a loss for words why Marquette didn’t offer him a scholarship,” Tom LaChance said. “Wisconsin had us up to a football game when Riley was a sophomore, then completely stopped talking to us.”
Riley LaChance’s coach Brookfield Central High School, Mark Adams, offers a theory about why Wisconsin passed.
“Two years ago, [Wisconsin senior guard] Josh Gasser blew his knee out and missed his whole year,” Adams said. “He red-shirted. So that meant he was going to come back with two years of eligibility. And Wisconsin was stockpiled with guards.”
Plenty of other options
It wasn’t as though LaChance didn’t have college options. His first scholarship offers came during his sophomore season in high school, from Western Michigan. The WMU assistant coach who spotted him back then, Rick Carter, has since worked for Missouri and is now on Chris Mack’s staff at Xavier. He developed a close relationship with the LaChance family and thought Riley would be a star in the Mid-American Conference, if he could ever get him there.
“I thought he could be the freshman of the year in that league and an all-league player for three years,” Carter said.
Carter hoped LaChance would go unnoticed by upper-major schools, but he wasn’t counting on that happening.
“If you walked in the gym and saw him play, he never passed the look test,” Carter said. “He still doesn’t. You’d think, if you didn’t know him, that the kid couldn’t play high-major basketball. Then you see him in the course of a [high school or AAU] game play against better athletes and bigger kids and come up with 25 points, nine assists and six rebounds. He knows how to play the game.”
Tom LaChance would have loved the chance to drive across town and see his son play at Marquette. The 70-mile trek to Madison would have convenient, too. But in retrospect, he thinks the fact Riley wasn’t offered by the two major in-state schools was the best thing that could have happened for his career.
“It turned out to be a blessing,” the elder LaChance said. “[Marquette and Wisconsin] not offering made him the player he is today. It made him get in the gym, work even harder, become that much better of a player.”
LaChance’s work ethic was already legendary, and it didn’t come as a result of Tom being a stage father. Though he coached his son for several years on the AAU circuit, he never pushed, prodded or forced. He didn’t have to.
“I never pushed Riley into basketball, never was a slave driver,” Tom LaChance said. “I remember saying something to him one time when he was about 10. There’s no free lunch, no magic formula. The best players are always the hardest workers.”
Young Riley took that to heart, and the gym became his second home. At times, it seemed as though it were his primary residence.
“In my 14 years at head coach [at Brookfield Central], I’ve had some very good point guards,” Adams said. “All of them were hard workers. But nobody ever put in the time Riley did.”
Tom LaChance likes to tell the story about how, one Fourth of July, Riley postponed going to a family picnic in favor of working out a kink in his jump shot, clear evidence that basketball had taken over his life. Other sports couldn’t lure him away. He dabbled in baseball and football for years and could have been a good high school quarterback, but his passion was basketball.
“I wanted to dedicate all my time to it,” LaChace said. “I wanted to be able to play at the level I wanted to play [in college]. I knew it was going to take a lot of time and effort. I didn’t want other sports interfering with that.”
Limitations, what limitations?
LaChance doesn’t compare physically with the kind of shooting guard that might turn up at Kentucky—he’s 6-foot-2 and doesn’t possess blazing speed or explosive jumping ability—but before his high school career was finished, LaChance turned himself into an ESPN Top 100 recruit. There are numerous tales of LaChance’s exploits on the AAU circuit, in full view of recruiting analysts and college coaches.
“There was one AAU team that had a highly athletic player who had an offer to go to Maryland,” Adams said. “Riley put up 40 on him. They started changing guys off of him, but it didn’t make any difference.”
LaChance had a knack for playing to the occasion.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder, in a good way,” Tom LaChance said. “He’s not a flamboyant kid, but in the July [recruiting] period going into his senior year, there were a number of kids ranked higher than him that he flat-out destroyed in AAU ball. The more that happened, the harder he worked, the better he got, and the more offers came his way.”
Though Marquette and Wisconsin weren’t interested, other high major schools began offering scholarships. Minnesota wanted him. So did Iowa. Creighton, whose coach Greg McDermott always surrounds himself with smart, crafty jump shooters, worked its way into LaChance’s final three schools. Iowa, which signed Brady Ellingson, one of LaChance’s AAU teammates, also had a chance.
And then came that fateful day in Las Vegas, when Richardson, working off a tip from former Vanderbilt assistant King Rice, now the head coach at Monmouth, spotted LaChance. Richardson couldn’t believe how perfect LaChance’s game was for Vanderbilt’s system. He couldn’t wait to get Stallings on the phone.
Stallings was quickly convinced, despite not having seen LaChance play. Richardson’s opinion was good enough for him. And though Stallings was originally curious why Marquette and Wisconsin hadn’t already grabbed LaChance, that didn’t stop him from offering a scholarship.
“I think sometimes when you recruit, you look for reasons not to want a guy,” Stallings said. “Sometimes, for whatever reason, you look for reasons to like a guy. I think we liked what Riley was more than we didn’t like what he wasn’t.
“I think some people might have looked at him and said he’s a little undersized and he’s not athletic and he’s minus this and minus that. And we looked at him and said, ‘here’s a guy who’s tough and completes, and can really score and knows how to play. And those were just the things we could tell before he got to Vanderbilt.”
Dish it out, I can take it
Rick Carter, the Xavier assistant coach who, when he worked at Western Michigan first offered LaChance a scholarship, was confident LaChance had what it took to excel at the highest levels of the college game. Carter knew all about LaChance’s work ethic.
“Anything a college coach tries to put him through,” Carter said, “he’s going to be harder on himself. The hardest thing about most guys when they get to college is that they’ve usually been the best player at their previous school. They’ve never been criticized, never had their game picked apart. Riley’s had that every day of his life.”
Stallings has been impressed with LaChance’s work habits, but equally impressed with his willingness to be coached.
“This kid stays after practice every day,” Stallings said. “I’m not talking about some days, or most days. I’m talking about every day we’re out there. He’s great to coach. Phenomenal.
“I’ve told people he receives criticism and praise exactly the same. It doesn’t faze him other than he receives it with an open mind and open heart and then goes out and does what he’s been told to do.”
One of Stallings’ first edicts for LaChance was to improve his defense. “When he first got here,” Stallings said, “he couldn’t guard his butt with both hands. But he’s already turned himself into a capable defender. To me, that’s been as impressive as his scoring ability.”
When it came time for Riley to choose a college, Tom LaChance didn’t want to make his son’s mind up for him. But he offered a strong opinion about Vanderbilt.
“I just said, ‘if you ask me, coach Stallings is a great Xs and Os guy,” he said. “ ‘If you go there and you work hard, he’s going to make you better. The stars are aligning for you.’ I was positive he could go there and play right away, and with the other good young players they had recruited, they were going to be relatively good right away.”
LaChance was right. His son leads Vanderbilt (8-3) in minutes played, by a large margin, and has quickly made an impact. Against a good Purdue team, LaChance scored 26 points, leading Vandy to victory and earning SEC player-of-the-week honors. He matched that total the next game as the ‘Dores beat back a pesky Western Carolina team with a furious second-half surge.
Those back-to-back 26-point games came after an 0-for-6 shooting effort from 3 in a loss to Baylor. That sent LaChance to the gym, where he adjusted a flaw in his mechanics and then went out and knocked down 8 of his next 12 3s against the Boilermakers and Catamounts.
LaChance has a shooter’s mentality. If the ball’s not going in, the only solution during a game is to keep firing it up. The practice floor is the place for fixing problems. After Baylor, one minor adjustment was all it took to get LaChance back on track. For two games, he was in that zone all shooters seek but seldom enter.
“It’s kind of a surreal feeling,” LaChance said. “Almost like an out-of-body experience. You don’t even realize you’re doing what you’re doing until you look back. When you’re in that zone, you just try to stay aggressive.”
A bright future
LaChance has teamed with four other Vanderbilt freshmen—point guards Wade Baldwin and Shelton Mitchell, shooter deluxe Matthew Fisher-Davis and swingman Jeff Roberson—to give the Commodores an influx of energy and a backcourt transfusion to join a strong frontcourt led by sophomores Damian Jones and Luke Kornet and fifth-year seniors James Siakam and Josh Henderson.
Stallings, a demanding coach who can be a bit grumpy at times, has been smiling more this season than at any time in recent memory. He loves his team and looks forward to the next four years of coaching Baldwin, Mitchell, Fisher-Davis, Roberson and LaChance.
“They’re a fun team to watch and a fun team to coach,” Stallings said. “Especially lately, we’ve gotten to where the ball starts moving and we’ve gotten on some runs that have made the game a ton of fun. That’s a good reason to smile.”
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