So here we are, at 3-3 after an
Atlantis trip that is easily the toughest three days VCU will face all season. You don't play the #17, #5, and #13 teams on successive days without leaving with some sort of parting gift. If anything, this three-in-three gauntlet has the Rams prepared for the
rest of the season. They will face no tougher situation all year, and that
That holds true for the RamNation
who showed up in numbers and impressed everyone associated with the tournament
for their, uh, active noise. Well done, and everyone I spoke with had the same
teeth-gritting, brow-furrowing, head-nodding reaction of not being sure how to
process what happened.
Losing stinks, but as written after the Duke loss, losing happens at this level.
While there’s a lingering
disappointment and frustration in losing two games—at least one of which was very winnable—I come away with a
positive vibe from this team. A lot was learned, tested, and exposed over these
three games. The coaching staff has a much better feel for strengths,
weaknesses, and deficiencies in this squad. When Shaka Smart says, as he did
after the Missouri loss, that he has
to get better, this kind of pressure-driven understanding of his team is a
vital part of that growth.
To wit: Smart is a coach that
preaches players earning minutes in practice. However he threw freshman Justin
Tuoyo into Saturday’s fray, admitting after the game that Tuoyo hadn’t earned
the game minutes but Smart is searching for production from the four spot.
That’s growth for both player and coach.
We also saw that the defense is
clearly ahead of the offense, and ahead of schedule for itself. Duke was never
fazed by havoc but still struggled to score efficiently. The VCU halfcourt
defense smothered the Blue Devils. Mike Kryzyzewski used the word "terrific" seven times in his postgame presser in reference to VCU.
Havoc was on full red alert against
Memphis—Tigers point guard Joe Jackson came into the game with two turnovers in
61 game minutes. He had seven turnovers in 20 minutes against VCU before
fouling out. The Missouri game fell somewhere in the middle, mainly because
Phil Pressey is the best point guard we will see all season.
The takeaway: the VCU defense was
largely successful in three separate methods…full havoc, half-havoc, and no
havoc. That’s important between the ears—the kids now know havoc is a
multi-faceted animal; it’s more than just a press and they can be successful as
a defensive team without creating double-digit steals. It gives them the freedom to attack when they smell blood in the halfcourt, or fullcourt.
On offense, the theme of the weekend
was getting open shots but not knocking them down. True.
I think this is where we miss Brad
Burgess. To me we seemed to lack a shot hunter, a rattlesnake that will take
the basketball, tell his teammates to get out of his way, and go score the ball
by creating his own shot either behind the arc or with a drive to the hole. We
had too many late shot clock situations that ended badly.
(Side note: Treveon Graham is going
to be that guy, I have no doubt, but he isn’t there yet. Graham needs to
improve his ballhandling, and add some acid to power the freight train.)
One thing, too, that must be framed.
Shaka Smart has said on more than one occasion that he credits Anthony Grant,
John Brannen, and Tony Pujol for instilling a fiery competitiveness in Joey
Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Ed Nixon, and the gang. That group took the floor
believing they would win every game they played, but they all had to develop
that competitive spirit over time—remember Rozzell dropping that three on
Kansas and woofing at the Jayhawks bench? That doesn’t happen before Rozzell’s
This team is earlier on that
learning curve, but I ask you this—could there be a greater lesson learned
about competitiveness than playing Duke (they play H-A-R-D) and
Missouri/Memphis (elite athletes that challenge everything you do)? Thanks to
this weekend, the kids have a greater understanding of what that means in deed,
not word, to compete on this new level.
This team faced a Duke
squad that has two 6-10 kids who can handle the ball. Missouri threw elite
athletes, an all American point guard with ridiculous court vision, and a 6-7
kid who could bomb threes at us. And we were right there with them.
Heck, Memphis threw a similar team at the Rams as Missouri and VCU whipped them. Don't minimalize the importance of front-burnering the success. It helps to give this team a certain resiliency because they know they can win at this level. Everyone from the top down is in the right frame
of mind to take those lessons learned and turn the page. Move forward.
I wonder if any of us
should’ve expected anything different. VCU wasn't playing Bethune-Cookman. This is November. Of course there are
blown defensive assignments, sloggy offense, searches for answers to
deficiencies. That makes this year like every other year in the history of
The lesson: adjustments need to be made, but the bar in
which we begin to make needed adjustments has never been higher. Take pride
that this occurred on the sizable stage and not in a half-empty gym in
Harrisonburg. (And nobody got hurt in the process.)
That’s why I think we’ll
be fine. VCU is a team that gets better as the year progresses, playing its
best basketball in March. That’s the whole point, right? To win in March?
Look at it this way. VCU is 3-3 and you have a salty taste in your mouth. You
had to be brain dead or the world’s greatest optimist if you felt good leaving
Charleston last year. Seton Hall and Georgia Tech were mundane basketball teams
and both took it to us pretty good, and we left there 2-2. But by March VCU hung a 22-0 and 32-4 start
on Mason and broke Drexel’s 19-game winning streak. Then, two weeks later the
Rams dropped a five seed and nearly beat Indiana to get back to the Sweet 16.
yeah, a 1-2 weekend cuts, and it hurts. Still.
But it’s like cutting your
finger with a knife while chopping vegetables for a gourmet meal. You learn to
not do that again, slap a band aid on that sucker, and keep moving forward with
the meal. And at some time in the future that meal comes out of the oven
complete and warm, and you eat like a king.
don’t want to lose sight of what Juvonte Reddic accomplished this weekend. He
battled two top 15 NBA draft picks to a stalemate. Reddic blunted Memphis’s
Tarik Black, rendering Black largely ineffective. Reddic followed that by
plopping a 16/13 double-double on probable-lottery pick Mason Plumlee. And Missouri’s
Alex Oriakhi left the arena last night with more head nods of disbelief than
points and rebounds. There’s
a certain fire in Reddic’s underoos when he gets the ball in the block, and he
grabbed some man rebounds in traffic this weekend. He didn’t have that last
Graham, in different games, set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and
steals. Graham had a very good weekend, as did Rob Brandenberg. Melvin Johnson,
I think, took a step forward.
area that will undoubtedly see attention is point guard. It’s clear Darius
Theus is trying to do too much. Theus dribbled too deeply into the paint with
no place to go multiple times over the weekend, and fired at least two passes
into the backboard support. The good news is that this is a mental
adjustment and—cliché alert—let the game come to him. Teddy Okereafor is
retreating too much in halfcourt sets. Teddy is doing a good job protecting the
basketball but we lack flow when he’s directing halfcourt offense.
was the first team this year to outrebound VCU. Wichita State battled to a tie,
and the rams outrebounded their other four opponents.