On the surface, the win over Northeastern didn't appear as "blue collar" as Shaka Smart termed it to be. It wasn't a classic rock fight with the Huskies. VCU shot 59% in the second half, and both teams shot 50% for the game. The final was 79-66. The game had a flow to it, that beauty that we all love about college basketball.
So what exactly was blue collar about this win? NUs Scott Eatherton had 10 early points but the VCU defense adjusted and slowed the attack of the talented big man. Reggie Spencer is a game-changer, and he was held to two points and four rebounds. VCU grabbed 13 offensive rebounds. Rob Brandenberg did not shoot the ball well but had five assists and zero turnovers.
There's your blue collar, th little things that go into winning, and the Rams are going to need every bit of that attitude against Belmont. The Bruins are a hard-playing, hard-cutting, hard-screening, three-point shooting machine. Head coach Rick Byrd was a 20-game winner during Ronald Reagan's first term. He knows things.
Oh, and there's this little tidbit: Belmont has won 23 straight games (and 44 of 45) in the Curb Events Center. Granted they haven't seen very many VCUs in the visiting locker room, but that's a remarkable number. They don't lay eggs.
Belmont is 7-1 and owns a win at North Carolina. They've scored 81 points or more in every game but their lone loss to that bunch located off Three Chopt Road. And with all that said, I like this matchup.
Belmont isn't big and not particularly long. Two of their three tallest players shoot threes. Assuming VCU is able to guard the three-point line I like every head-to-head matchup.
JJ Mann (18.1ppg, 5.4rpg) stands 6-6 and is a shot hunter. He hit five threes against North Carolina and has 15 on the season. He will probably get a giant dose of Rob Brandenberg and I'd expect he sees a double-team as he comes off screens.
Though he stands 6-9, Drew Windler (13.9ppg) is a ridiculous shooter. How ridiculous? 23-36 (64%) from three ridiculous. The Rams will keep a hand in his face at all times, but also–and very importantly–attack him when on offense and make him defend. Windler will have to face either Reddic or Cox. Good luck.
Craig Bradshaw (12.5ppg) is a tough player and solid combo guard and Blake Jenkins (7.3ppg, 5.0rpg) an athletic 6-8 post player. Both are the high motor guys that make those around them better.
Dear Reece Chamberlain: I see your 4.9 assists per game and your 10.9 ppg. I also see your 2.6 turnovers per game and would like to introduce you to Briante Weber. You met him briefly in your four turnover game last season.
In all seriousness, Chamberlain and his backup, freshman Caleb Chowbay, could be in for a long day. The Rams have to defend the perimeter with abandon, but making the lives of this duo miserable will go a long way towards cutting off the shooters.
Evan Bradds started the last game for Byrd and plays the role of the Robbins kid from Richmond last year: glue guy. He's the ultimate in eight points, four rebounds, pure boredom but purely effective. Bradds shoots 69% from the field and 84% from the line. VCU has to keep anything from being easy.
Nick Smith is the freshman version of Windler: he is 6-8 but prefers to shoot threes. And finally the game may be too fast for Chad Lang. He stand 6-11 and goes 285 pounds and can be effective when he catches the ball in the deep post, but I don't see much of that occurring.
VCU is likely to see a pile of zone. The Rams three-point difficulty is glaring, and the offense is clicking on full tilt when Brandenberg is able to turn corners at the foul line. Zones clog that high post because you turn corners into waiting defenders. Because of that, early shooting matters. VCU must knock down a couple shots to loosen the zone and force a man defense.
When we get into halfcourt sets, this is the kind of game Juvonte Reddic can own. I'm talking an 18/15 double-double. Quite frankly, this is also the kind of game where upperclassmen need to play that way. Reddic needs to be in beast mode, but Graham, Weber, and Brandenberg must also "be themselves."
VCU is deeper and more athletic, but it cannot forget the basics. It's that blue collar mentality–you have to work until the job is done. If VCU defends for 30 seconds, you can bet Belmont will exploit those final five seconds and fire a three. Similarly, the Rams cannot get funky on fast breaks or get ahead of themselves and try to be too fast. VCU has to simply make plays.
That's how you win on the road, in a tough environment. Smart said it last night–we will find out how far this team has come against Belmont. This will be another win that's better than the branding would suggest.
Guard the line with discipline. Knock down a few shots. Box out. And come home with a win. You know, blue collar.