Well that was a fun 22 minutes of basketball. And then Jay Wright called timeout.
It was a first half that lived up to billing–both teams traded blows, both teams shot 12-29 but poorly from three, and both teams grabbed five offensive rebounds. It finished 32-30 and it was fun. As a VCU fan you had to like the position. VCU trailed by that deuce but played a swath of the first half without Treveon Graham.
The second half opened with a jolt. Villanova committed three turnovers in all of the first half but gave it up on their first two possessions. VCU scored the first six points of the second half and Jay Wright called that damned timeout.
It happened at 18:35 with VCU leading 36-32. By 16:18 it was 48-36 Villanova, a 12-0 run. By 14:35 it was 54-39, a 22-3 binge. And then it was over. Four minutes. Four stinking minutes. One-tenth of a game.
Wright devised a masterful plan to defend VCU: double-team Treveon Graham every time he touched the ball, run Melvin Johnson off the three-point line and then run a second defender at him, and dare anybody else to beat you.
The Rams had done well-enough in the first half circumventing this strategy; it wasn’t Picasso, but sometimes you have to give the other guy credit. That’s how it goes in high level basketball games. But for four minutes VCU forgot who they are. As Shaka Smart said in postgame, the players tried to hit home runs.
At this level, four minutes can decide a game. And basketball will always be a team game.
There is one statistic that bears that out: tonight, Michael Gilmore had more assists than Briante Weber. VCU isn’t winning many games with that.
On the other end, VCU was a step slow in defensive rotations and Villanova made them pay in the worst way. That’s what is particularly galling to Smart. There is no questioning that this team has firepower. They were good enough to have a top 15 opponent do its darndest to take its two best offensive players out of the game, and VCU still led by four points early in the second half. I’m not worried about the offense.
But in that flurry by Villanova, VCU, for whatever reason, stopped playing defense. They were slow on rotations, and didn’t challenge shooters. That’s just not VCU basketball. (Then, it was exacerbated by players trying to make 8-point shots.)
This was the first time this team has been truly punched right in the teeth. It didn’t respond well and that sucked. But here’s the thing, and there’s no escaping it:
Last year it was Florida State. Two years ago it was Missouri. Three years ago it was Georgia Tech. In the Final Four year it was South Florida. In Shaka Smart’s first year it was Western Michigan.
Shaka Smart teams have taken lumps in November and lost games we all thought they would win. Every single year. And every single year his teams have improved throughout the season and played its best basketball in March.
A wise man mentioned tonight that Shaka Smart is the country’s best coach between December 1 and December 31. I buy that. It’s a growth mentality, and we have five previous seasons of evidence–four NCAA tournaments and a CBI title–that Smart understands the things he needs to do now that will begin to pay dividends when the calendar turns.
It’s why I will sleep well tonight.