Things have changed at VCU. Not long ago the Rams were a gritty underdog who could just as easily get blasted by Western Michigan as upset a ranked team. Those losses hurt, but we all knew they were a possibility. The wins felt amazing, and after knocking out a 6th-seeded mediocre Duke team in the NCAA tournament, we felt like our lives were complete. But with a 2011 Final 4 run and elevated recruiting classes, expectations–not to mention overreactions–have increased.
VCU gutted out a home win last night against an experienced Eastern Kentucky team that was picked to finish atop the Ohio Valley Conference after winning 25 games this past season, yet to many Ram fans, in some ways, it felt like a loss.
Make no mistake, the Rams have struggled to hit shots (including free throws) and have played a swiss cheese half court defense the majority of this season, yet have jumped out to a 7-2 start with road wins over a ranked UVA squad and against a talented Belmont team that took down then-No.12 UNC in Chapel Hill, and doing so despite returning just six players from last year’s team. Despite their shooting woes, the Rams have scored 78 points per game (the exact same average as last season), and are once again one of the stickiest-fingered squads in the country, leading the nation in steals percentage while ranking third in defensive turnover percentage against a pretty tough schedule (SOS ranks 45th nationally). Five Rams are averaging double-digit scoring (one more than last season) and three other players have posted double-digit games including three of those from freshman, JeQuan Lewis.
As Ram fans, our focus more often than not is mostly on the black and gold. We see the preseason ranking, catch a few blowout highlight scores from other top teams and wonder, “why isn’t VCU having as easy of a time as these other top squads?”, but ask so more often than not in a vacuum. The truth is Bill Walton and Co. aren’t out there playing under John Wooden. We live in a new era of college hoops with a high level of parity, and as fans of a team once considered just another mid-major underdog, you’d think we’d have learned that there are more good teams in college hoops than the one’s who’s pictures came on Pizza Hut basketballs when we were kids (Anyone remember those? Great outdoor ball).
Take a look at how the current top-25 has struggled at times this season.
1. Michigan State – lost by 14 to a UNC team that lost at home to Belmont (a team VCU beat on the road). Trailed Ivy League Columbia by 4 at the half in a home game.
2. Arizona – Trailed Drexel (remember them?) by as many as 19 points, eventually pulling away in the second half but not until trailing as late as with 7:20 left to play.
3. Kentucky – Were down four at the half against Cleveland State in Lexington and didn’t take the lead until there was just 2:08 left on the clock. Led Eastern Michigan by just three points at the half in a home game.
4. Syracuse – Trailed St. Francis (NY) with just 1:40 to play before eventually taking the lead and winning by six in front of 23,000+ Orange fans.
5. Ohio State – Led American by five at the half of their game before pulling away. Led Ohio at home by just six with under five minutes to play.
6. Kansas – Beat UTEP by four, led Iona by five at the half at Allen Fieldhouse.
7. Louisville – Have played a cupcake schedule and lost their only game to a top-25 caliber team, UNC (once again, who lost to Belmont).
8. Wisconsin – Beat Green Bay by three points. Scored a sensational 48 points against UVA.
9. Oklahoma State – Lost to a Memphis team they blew out earlier in the year. Escaped Butler by two points.
10. Duke – Led ECU by two with 5:15 to play. Were tied with Vermont with 2:23 to play before pulling away with the one-point home win over the now 3-6 Catamounts.
11. Wichita State – Have played a very winnable schedule (SOS ranked 67th currently) and were only threatened when they trailed SLU with under three minutes to play before eeking out a 5-point win.
12. UConn – Have four wins by two points or less including a 72-70 neutral court W over a 3-5 Boston College team that has a loss to Toledo and needed OT to defeat Sacred Heart.
13. Oregon – Have played the 155th ranked strength of schedule but boast wins over Notre Dame and Georgetown. Led UVU (not UVA) by four at the half in a home game.
14. Villanova – Beat Delaware by just four in a home game.
15. Florida – Have one good win against Florida State, but have lost their two other tough matchups (UConn, Wisconsin)
16. Memphis – Lost their only road game by 21 points (OK State), but later beat them on a neutral court.
17. Iowa State – Beat BYU by 2 in Provo. Have played one other tough game outside of that, a 77-70 home win over Michigan.
18. UCLA – Escaped Drexel with a five-point win. Were tied with UC Santa Barbara at the half in a home game before going on a run with eight minutes to play that would turn a tie game into a 13-point win.
19. Gonzaga – Lost to Dayton…who’s off to a good start, but finished 12th in the same A-10 VCU finished 2nd in last season.
20. Baylor – Led Charleston Southern by three points with just under one minute to play.
21. UMass – Trailed Eastern Michigan with 13:28 to play before going on a run to pull off the road win.
22. Michigan – Lost to Charlotte (a team VCU beat on the road last season).
23. Iowa – Trailed Omaha at the half in a home game.
24. San Diego State – Won at San Diego (a team with a loss to IUC) by one point.
25. Dayton – Needed a buzzer beating three-pointer to defeat the IPFW Mastadons, 81-80 in a home game.
I have been just as guilty of overreacting as the worst Rams fans (ask the VCU Athletics Sports Info Department), but even in times of extreme head shaking have learned to–as Shaka would say–respect the process, but in my position as a blogger who has learned that teams often look a lot different in February/March than they do in November/December, so trust in the coaching staff to do their jobs to get the players where they need to be. With Shaka Smart and Co. at the reins, that’s not that hard to do.
I understand the frustrations at times Ram fans, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey, and rest assured that when the calendar flips to March, our boys will be ready.