Pretentious Preseason Pretext…
The whole This Guy versus That Guy storyline to the Black-and-Gold scrimfest never made much sense to me.
"I can't wait to see The Melvin try to take Briante" may have been exciting to others, and that's fine, but it produced a decided meh in my noggin. All I can think of in this situation is how Johnson looked on defense trying to guard, well, anybody. I wanted to see Briante shoot the ball, and I didn't care who was guarding him.
Pick an individual matchup, it didn't matter. Reddic vs. Shannon? Graham vs. Burgess? Lewis vs. Weber? Meh. And meh. And meh. Reddic grabbing 12 rebounds? Yeah.
For me, the Black-and-Gold game was about seeing progress in the areas that were deficient in the returning players last year. But mostly, the most important thing to me was to see the new guys. I know more about hairstyles than basketball prowess from this group, so my eyes were trained on them.
Here we go:
Nobody had a better night, in my eyes, than Terrance Shannon. The kid does things on the court. Doesn't matter where he is on the floor, either. In one sequence he blocked a three-pointer, then grabbed a reboud, then beat everybody down the court for a breakaway. He's strong with the ball around the rim, too.
You want to find an example of a kid who "has a nose for the ball" and "knows how to play the game?" I present Shannon. He has a skillset VCU didn't have last year. Shannon is all additive.
My favorite play was a loose ball that bounded high into the air, one of those 50/50 balls coaches talk about, and Shannon was able to body his man in midair and volleyball spike it to Melvin Johnson for a layup.
We're going to really, really like JeQuan Lewis. Forget his nine turnovers, except for this point: Lewis went man-on with Briante Weber and Weber stole the ball from him exactly zero times. The first trip down the floor Weber was in Lewis's pocket, and it was notable that Lewis never once looked at Weber. Head up all the way.
Okay, don't totally forget the nine turnovers. Lewis threw some passes that made you immediately wonder: why in the name of all that's right with the world would he try that? That's Lewis being a freshman. He has a ways to go, but you can absolutely see his talent level is above most freshmen.
Let me tell you a story. One time about eight years ago Jeff Capel was talking about his freshman point guard. The kid had unbelievable skills, but was also a turnover machine in practice. Capel was a little concerned if he threw his freshman point guard to the wolves and he turned the ball over in a game, he may break the kid's confidence, which was part of the point guard's overall skill set.
So Capel endured the wrath of impatient fans while he brought you-know-who along slowly. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting one kid is like the other. What I' saying is that there's parallels in how the kid's game may be fostered.
Smart mentioned in his introductions that we are going to love Douglas Brooks, and I believe it. The thing that stood out for me is that Brooks is a calm player on the court, much more so than a freshman should be. It's worth noting that at one point Smart hollered at Brooks to "calm down, man" but it looked to me like Brooks was reading a book.
Brooks didn't have a particularly good shooting night, but he was solid with the ball, made good decisions, and didn't appear overwhelmed by the moment–not even when Smart was giving him a hard time. In fact, on his very first possession, Brooks pump-faked a three and drove straight to the basket and made a tough leaner.
(Which reminds me: Smart yelled cross-court to get Terrance Shannon's attention at one point, and Shannon turned and shouted "Sir?" back to Smart. I'm old school. I love that stuff.)
Jairus Lyles impressed me, if only because I had no expectations. Lewis is a little slow to get his shot off, but it's pure. I mean P-U-R-E. He also displayed an exceptional awareness of the court–he knew where players were and he found them. He seemingly always made the right pass, whether it was no look, a skip pass, or dump down. Lyles reminds me a little bit of BA Walker.
It came in spurts, but we saw what kind of impact Jordan Burgess can have on the basketball floor. The first half sequence of two steals and scores was a lightning strike, and Burgess had two nice drives in the second half. He is going to be the kind of player that fills a boxscore. Here's the other thing: Burgess barely rested and he was never breathing hard. He is going to physically overwhelm opponents.
While Brooks and Lewis are high risk, high reward freshmen, Burgess is a metronome on the floor. Steady as she goes.
Mo Alie Cox struggled, but having to body up Juvonte Reddic and rotate to help on the slashing Brooks, Burgess, and Rob Brandenberg is not an easy task. If this were 1986, Antravious Simmons would be a beast. Simmons showed a solid back-to-the-basket game and grabbed every rebound he got his hands on. He doesn't look out of place.
As for the other guys, what really needs to be written about The Melvin. There's a comfort to his game that will partner with his natural skill and swagger.
And at some point I've got to figure out how to write about The Freight Trein. All he did was knock down a 15/10 double-double. The guy is like direct deposit. You don't ever really see the check, but the money is in the account.
Also of note, both teams played a few possessions of zone, working on a 2-3 and late in the second half a 3-2 look. File that away for now, but be prepared to talk about it later.
We've got guys that can score, lots of them, and in a variety of ways. Depth and fouls won't be an issue this year, and as I mentioned to a few people last night we've got last year's team with 3-4 things last year's team didn't have. I left The Stu all smiles.
However I did see one thing to note: now it's obvious what Smart is talking about when he brings up the team being connected. With multiple scoring options and multiple lineup possibilities and multiple modes of attack, the kids have got to be on the same page in all areas.
This is related to gameplan and execution, but also in terms of temperament. It's easy to have fun and cede control and glory when things are going well. But you have to be very connected when things don't go well. Growth becomes an important word.
Apologies for the disjointed nature (and all typos)…it was a late night and early morning. We're all ramping back up to game speed.
One final thing that was obvious, and credit Robby Robinson for the thought: the RamNation loves this basketball team. Torrid. There were 3,200 people on a dank, rainy Sunday night that came to see them play each other in an abbreviated scrimmage. It's what Smart is referring to when he says words to the effect of "I've never been at a place where the fans and players have such an intimate relationship."