VCU 86, UMass 68…Or, Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here…

Sometimes, the calmness surrounding Shaka Smart is striking.

His team had just finished an astoundingly devastating second half–six minutes of which could be detailed in Chapter One of The Book of Havoc–to run away from UMass 86-68 in an amped-up Siegel Center.

It was a havocian performance for sure. In the first 6:11 of the second half UMass was 0-5 from the field, 1-2 from the foul line, and committed seven turnovers. VCU grabbed six steals in those six minutes and shot 8-13 from the field. The run was 21-1.

A five-point deficit had become a 15-point lead so quickly, fans never had an opportunity to sit back down after getting halftime refreshments. And while there remained nearly 14 minutes of game time, you could see defeat on the UMass players. The building reeked of havoc.

It got worse. The run would get to 44-12 in the first 14:08, punctuated by a vicious follow slam by Juvonte Reddic, and then one more from The Big Buddha. The noise level was deafening. It was havoc personified, and Smart had every reason to be emotionally charged.

Smart's the guy that gets into defensive stances. Whoops it up to get the crowd going and his kids bouncing. But as we walked across the floor for a TV interview, Smart held a steady gate and steadier gaze. I commented to him that I had not seen a better six minutes from VCU all season. Smart was nonplussed.

"That's what we're capable of doing," he said flatly, "when we're locked in and playing the way we want to play."

The immediate reaction to that run was that Smart had some sort of fiery halftime speech for the guys. That he ripped into them for not playing as aggressively as they could. That they were on their heels. That the locker room would have to be repainted today.


While Smart was handling TV duties, I asked Darius Theus about the locker room during halftime.

"Nah, it wasn't anything unusual," said Theus in a voice that carried all the emotion of ordering lunch. "More some positioning things, ball screen stuff. We felt good about the way we played and we just needed to take care of some little things. We liked the pace of the game."

About 15 minutes later, Smart addressed the media with that exact message:

"I said, 'The reality is guys, there are some fixable things that
occurred in the first half that if we address we can really go on a run
on these guys. The style of play is to our liking. Over the course of a
40-minute game, that’s going to be to our advantage.'"

Advantage indeed.

So Shaka Smart's big halftime rah-rah speech was more a calm, tactical edit. While we all enjoyed the fun and frolic of a fast first half, and stressed about what the second half would bring, we didn't notice someone had unlocked the gate.

In the second half the wild dogs of havoc were unleashed.

Statistics That Jump Out at Me

24-8 = 16. This was the turnover differential–an outstanding number. What's more, VCU had three early turnovers, and only two more through the middle stages of the game. Three final turnovers came in garbage time.

12-0; 15-4. These are the points in the first half and second half for Freddie Riley and Raphaiel Putney. Both were knocking down everything in the first half, but the combination of fatigue and those defensive tweaks Theus mentioned shut them down. Putney's points were in garbage time.

15 and 11. VCU is now 20-0 when forcing 15 or more turnovers. And the Rams are 12-0 when Rob Brandenberg scores 11 or more points.

44-12. That's just an amazing second half run. Had to restate it.

The Curmudgeon's View

In honor of the Valentine's night victory, I've got nothing but love today. In reality, here's what this game provides: a plethora of teaching moments when the coaches eat up the game tape. UMass had a few wide open looks from three due to poor rotations, and the Rams aren't boxing out on rebounds as voraciously as early in the season.

But that's the job of coaches. The job of fans: recognize when the team played well and took a step forward.


Stars of the Game

***Melvin Johnson. This kid can score in so many different ways. Nobody is surprised at his breakout, 18-point performance, but two other things struck me. First Smart appreciated Johnson's approach to the game, that Johnson is figuring it out. Second, as the players filed out of the locker room Johnson was one of the first. Four different teammates stopped and hugged Johnson before he was whisked away for postgame media duties.

**Rob Brandenberg. Early in the season Smart commented that he didn't evaluate Brandenberg based on shots and points. We see now what he meant. Brandenberg responded to a terrible first half by becoming MORE aggressive in the second half. He had a personal 6-0 run that included two steals to open the second half. The rest of the team fed off of that. You saw what happened.

*Treveon Graham. Was that the quietest 19 points you can remember? Graham added six rebounds–all in the first half. In fact, outside of Troy Daniels's three early bombs, the Rams sat atop Graham's shoulders for most of the first half. That's what studs do.

Bonus Quote

Rob Brandenberg, on the atmosphere last night:

"It's indescribable. Playing in front of these fans, they're great. It's just a lot of fun. It's a rush. Get stops, guys going crazy, you feel like you can't get tired."

Here endeth the lesson.