"Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory." –Sun Tzu
There are perhaps three games in every season where I truly believe the officiating may have an impact on the outcome of a game. This is one of them.
UMass is built on finesse and open court play. They love to play fast–the Minutemen are second only to VCU in most possessions per game in the A10. They are a pretty team. In order to slow that speed, length, and athleticism, VCU is going to have to play a more physical brand of defense.
If the officials are allowing contact it is a good thing. If they choose to call things tight, well, that ain't so hot. So keep an eye on the early stages of this one to see how many whistles blow. But that really that cuts both ways. The Rams are going to have to play physical, pounding, concrete-screen-setting, grinding offense. That means getting the ball into the post, where those same whistles will go their way.
So that we are perfectly clear, this is no set up. Unless they make a ridiculous charging call, there is no blaming officiating for anything. The reality in college basketball is that games are called a certain way, and both teams must adjust to the way each game is being officiated.
All I'm saying is that "let them play" favors the Rams.
These two teams play the fastest pace in the conference–VCU is #1 with almost 71 possessions per game and the Minutemen are #2 with more than 69 possessions per game. UMass' celerity matters as they will turn the ball over, but when they hold on to the basketball they are dangerous–they are second in the A10 in shooting percentage.
Ego matters–nobody blocks more shots than this UMass team and VCU will play in front of an amped up, sold out crowd. The Rams are going to have to play very confident basketball. They cannot let themselves get down or frustrated when plays don't go their way.
This is especially true for momentum plays like lob dunks and blocked shots. UMass thrives on those momentum plays, so VCU has to keep their wits about them.
Chaz Williams (15.4ppg, 7.3apg), the diminuitive yet arctic blast of a point guard, can shoot from deep but is most dangerous when attacking the rim. Williams has the ability to score, but carries uncanny court vision. He is third nationally in assists and was preseason A10 all defensive team.
VCU will have to play him tough in ball screen situations which free him for space to operate. However the Rams also must stay in front of him in open court and transition situations.
Williams is the go-go guy but the team's mental state is embodied in the preying mantis, Raphael Putney (10.1ppg, 5.5rpg). We kid with kindness because Putney goes 6-9, 185 pounds and has the kind of build that makes grandmothers shake their heads. Putney is a bit of a freak, though. He is a deep threat, shooting 38% from three, but is super-athletic and loves lob dunks and open court. Obviously this means VCU must play physical with Putney and not give him space to be comfortable.
When Putney is good, UMass is very good.
Cady Lalanne (12.9ppg, 8.6rpg) has reduced his output of late but he is a load in the paint. Lalanne is a better version of GWs Kevin Larsen because he is more physical and is a better shot blocker. He has 10 double-doubles on the year. The Reddic vs. Lalanne matchup may end up being the deciding factor, if one can get the better of the other.
Sampson Carter (10.9ppg, 4.6rpg) is UMass' version of the glue guy. Carter does a little bit of everything to a good degree of skill and is strong enough to be a presence on the glass. He's also made 27 threes on the year. He's scored double figures in three of the past four games and 18.0 ppg in past two games.
You know Derrick Gordon (8.7ppg) because VCU played him twice his freshman year at Western Kentucky. Gordon is a big time driver with a strong body, so the Rams must focus on keeping him out of the lane.
Trey Davis (8.6ppg) was a train wreck in last year's games because he was a freshman. But Davis has really stabilized this lineup and is a workable backup to Williams. Davis is always looking to attack and score and can shoot with range (35-91 from three). He is averaging more than 10ppg in A10 play and is 12-24 from three in past six games and second on team with 12.4 ppg. Davis has 29 assists and two turnovers in that time.
Kellogg's X-factor is 6-8 Maxie Esho (8.3ppg), a very athletic four man and the alter ego to Carter. He can crash the glass and make very good in-between plays.
Sum It Up, Knucklehead
This smells like a game of runs, more so than most. For VCU, it's the ability to withstand the home team's haymakers. VCU has to ugly it up. I'm talking physical basketball where they fight through screens and force travels and draw charges. Mo Alie-Cox needs to channel his inner Mitch McGary when setting screens.
Havoc should force passes to the cheerleaders, coaches, and me. The worse this game looks the better it is for the Rams. The Minutemen don't grind and VCU has to make them grind. Don't get me wrong, I'll take the live ball turnovers and breakout plays. Alternating body blows and head shots will take down a very good UMass team.
A few notes:
- If the game is close, UMass is shooting just 58.8% from the free throw line in their past three games.
- If they are behind, note that UMass has been trailing in the final five minutes in five of their seven A10 wins.
- They can spread it around: UMass has had four different leading scorers and three different leading rebounders in the past five games. However they've had the same starting lineup in every game this season.
- But they go how their stars go. Lalanne is a difference-maker in the block. And the one common thread in all of their losees is that Williams did not lead them in scoring.
Enjoy this game for what it is–two high level, NCAA tournament teams playing on ESPN on Friday night in late February. The building will be jumping, and the players will be pumped. This is another game in which I'll likely remove my own fingerprints wringing my hands by the under 8 media timeout in the first half. You should do the same.
We will worry about "what it means" some other time. For now, we live in the moment. We live in those 40 moments tomorrow night.