VCU 81, Stony Brook 63…Or, And Now It Gets Serious…
This is becoming quite a trend.
Last night VCU blitzed a very good Stony Brook team 17-0 to open the second half in its 81-63 victory. The Sea Wolves didn't score for nearly seven minutes after playing the Rams, at worst, even in the first half. Stony Brook missed its first eight shots–at least six of which were highly contested–and committed five turnovers in its first 13 possessions.
Last Saturday, Boston College led VCU 17-16 with about five minutes to play in the first half. The Rams scored the final six points of the half and ran out of the locker room on a 27-10 spree over the first nine minutes of the second to put away the Eagles.
Against Virginia Tech, the Hokies shaved its deep 37-8 hole to 16 points in the first minute of the second half. A 13-2 run by VCU over the next six minutes ended any suspense. ODU led VCU 41-40 early in the second half but a 17-2 hurricane ran the Monarchs down I-64 east. Belmont led the Rams 50-44, also early in the second half, before a 22-2 run.
You get the picture. This VCU team, for whatever reason, is hell on its opposition in the second half. I'd wager there's some combination of the physical effects of havoc plus the mental fatigue of "they just keep coming." No matter, the first 10 minutes of the second half has served as the game-changer for this team.
Every now and again is more happenstance, the result of the momentum of any random game. However this is a trend. It's also worth noting as we glide into the A-10 season, which is going to be a bigger bear than you think. We will get into that later. It's also notable because last night's first half was no fluke. I generally stay away from locker room talk, but I will tell you this: one of the coaches said to me after the game:
"Just get those guys out of here. They are good. Really good. That was a better win for us than most people think."
There's rightfully a lot of words inked about the defense. Hold that thought for now. VCU forced 21 turnovers, but committed just nine last night. Over the past four games, the Rams have turned the ball over 35 times (8.75 per game) and forced 91 turnovers (22.75 per game).
And that's what I want to discuss–as impressive as the defense has been over the past four games, the offense has quietly become an efficient machine. I don't care what defense you play–zone, man, press, matchup, whatever–if you are turning the ball over fewer than nine times per game you are running solid offense.
Last night, Briante Weber posted 14 points, nine assists, and had zero turnovers. It looked that impressive. This came after a six-point, six-assist, and one turnover effort against BC. That's 15 assists and just one turnover in two games.
"He's developing the understanding that his primary job on offense is to get other guys good shots," says Shaka Smart.
As a team, five guys were in double figures. VCU made 22-28 free throws. Shot 47% overall and 40% from three. For the third straight game the Rams scored more than 20 points off turnovers. VCU assisted on 64% of its made baskets. Scored 1.17 points per possession. If you step back and look at the past four games, those numbers are consistent.
The fact of the matter is that everyone is a little bit better. This is a team effort, and everyone doing their part. The guys are embracing those individual challenges that lead to team success.
Weber is a little better running the offense. Rob Brandenberg went through a 2-17 skein from beyond the arc but has made 5-10 in the past two games. He is also defending better. Melvin Johnson is contributing more–VCU is 7-1 when he scores double figures. Terrence Shannon is putting things together. Treveon Graham is, well, the Freight Trein. Direct deposit.
Jequan Lewis continues to learn and play under more control. Ditto Jordan Burgess. Juvonte Reddic seems to have left Wofford and Northern Iowa in the dust. When Smart talks about getting better in practice, he is talking specifically to individuals, but also to the collective.
You are seeing growth. It isn't perfect and there's a ways to go–you see the warts as easily as I do, and Stony Brook will never be confused with the Miami Heat–but the feel is a good one. You know what I mean. There are segments during a game that make you want to pull your hair out, but you get in your car and think "I like what I'm seeing," even if you don't have a definitive measure other than the final score.
You have a choice today. You can focus on Puerto Rico or Georgetown or Florida State or Northern Iowa or shooting slumps or Reddic's activity level or three-point shooting percentages or sludgy first halves.
Or you can focus on 12-3 and a team that's playing far better basketball in January than December. And December was better than November. This team continues to take steps forward, and the list of college basketball teams that can claim the same thing is not a long one.
That's a good thing, too, because the A-10 this year is better than you think. It may be better than last year. George Washington is better. St. Joseph's is better. Dayton is better. UMass is ranked. St. Louis is St. Louis. Google the name Jon Severe, because even Fordham is better.
George Mason awaits next week, and there are plenty of words for that game upcoming. But after about 1,000 words here's what it all boils down to: I feel better about who we are this year than last year. I feel like it's a more tested team, and a team that has shown the ability to get better. Don't get me wrong–we're going to lose games. You will get very frustrated at different points. But I like this team. I like what I see.