We’ve all had long rides home up 64 west. Whether it’s tunnel traffic after a win, or a combination of anger and spite after a loss, leaving The Ted has never been completely pleasant. Yesterday’s dinnertime run may have been the most confusing. In the wake of the 73-67 defeat to That Team From Norfolk, there was much to ponder.
Then again, there wasn’t.
ODU executed. VCU did not. Period. End of story. The Monarchs were given chances, and they seized those opportunities. A 17-2 first half run propelled by a torrent of threes provided a margin ODU refused to give back. And funny enough, though it seemed hopeless for a long time, it didn’t have to end that way.
VCU trimmed the margin to six with a minute and one-half left to go, and Jeff Jones called a harried timeout. A hush fell over the ODU faithful. As the ODU players walked off the court, and they walked right past me, you could see the fear in their eyes. The Monarchs had dominated the game–led by double digits for 27 straight minutes–but here we were with 90 seconds to play and it was a two-possession game that felt even closer.
Enter havoc, the Mariano Rivera of late-game defense. It typically produces a steal and VCU basket against a tiring and mentally-frazzled opponent. We’ve seen it time after time, and you felt like it was about to happen again.
Except this time Aaron Bacote, who will prop his grandchildren up on his knee and tell them about the day he was perfect from the field and scored 31 points in beating his rival, blew right past Briante Weber. Bacote, even more inexplicably, outran Weber down the court, and when no help defense arrived (again inexplicable), Bacote laid the ball in the basket. ODU calm was restored. I could see that, too.
That single play obviously didn’t beat the Rams, but it typified the afternoon in my mind.
The epitaph: an awful combination of VCU bricks–misfiring on 15 of the first 17 threes; a stagnant offense–five total assists, three by Mo Alie Cox, in the first 32 minutes; and a lack of defensive urgency that led to open shots.
There’s nothing wrong with the way VCU approaches offense and defense. This is the same system that produced 137 wins in Shaka Smart’s first five seasons. VCU is one of only three teams to win 26 or more games in each of the past three seasons.
It works and I will defend it to my core.
But here’s the harsh reality: there is no offense or defense that will work if you don’t run it properly and execute. All of them–fast or slow, man or zone–are beautiful to watch when they work, and a scourge on basketball when they don’t. Right now, we’re not executing, with enthusiasm, on the level needed to succeed.
This is the strategy Smart has chosen, and this is the strategy that works, assuming execution. Here’s what I mean: the inability to rotate to cover a three-point shooter has nothing to do with system. It has everything to do with want-to and an understanding of positioning. If Mike Lonergan’s GW players don’t rotate in their 1-3-1 zone, they give up an open three. But there’s a reason that’s Lonergan’s choice–when the players execute, it’s a devastating defense. Same with havoc.
(Side note: making 59% of your free throws has nothing to do with system. Bricking threes has nothing to do with system. The Rams ran classic pick-and-roll with Alie-Cox four times and it produced three turnovers. That isn’t a system breakdown.)
This is going to be a highly unpopular sentence, but I believe it: from a pure offensive and defensive ability perspective, Rob Brandenberg is extremely replaceable. He just is.
But what we’re missing, and what isn’t easily replaced, is Brandenberg’s fire. Intensity. Unwavering belief in doing what he is told by the coaching staff. Seniorness.
Brandenberg was not as much a very good defender as he was a defender who was mostly in position. Havoc is an ecosystem where offense relies on defense, defense relies on offense, and all five players need to be in harmony. That’s not easy in any November, and it’s certainly not easy when you’re replacing 50 minutes and two seniors with wholly untested freshmen, and sophomores trying to manage not being a bit player.
Besides, this isn’t new territory. Here’s what I wrote, last year after the Belmont game:
If I’m Shaka Smart, and I think we can all agree and exhale in Thanksgiving glee that I am not, I’m running tape of the first five minutes of the Belmont game over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. The VCU players’ eyeballs would bleed with that tape.
The Bruins swished three three-pointers in the game’s first two minutes, and were 7-8 from the field (and 4-4 from three) in the first five minutes. They weren’t exactly falling out of bounds with a hand in their face, either. Belmont jetted to a 20-10 lead before VCU realized “hey, we may want to play a little defense.”
After that grotesque display was burned into their minds, I would pop in a tape of those two minutes in the Georgetown game, where the Hoyas couldn’t cross halfcourt. Rob Brandenberg actually was smiling in mid-dribble things got so very havocy. I’d show them the difference between playing spirited VCU basketball, and playing basketball.
But wait, there’s more. After the Georgetown loss in Puerto Rico, I wrote–hysterically with a reference to the previous season:
Regarding this basketball team and this weekend. My takeaways: we need to shoot the ball better and we need to grow defensively. It’s actually quite simple, and it’s not a foreign concept.
Has there ever been a season in which we didn’t say the very same things? Here’s what I wrote, just last November after returning from a 1-2 trip to Atlantis:
However the three-point shooting performance cannot be written off. It has become a three-game skid that is a combined 17-66 (25.8%) from beyond the arc. Troy Daniels seems a little sluggish the past two games in particular
The frustration we all felt at the rim-clangs this weekend has less to do with being a poor shooting team and more to do with margin for error.
The margin for error playing the top teams in the country is razor thin. VCU could get away with a poor shooting night or havoc lite night in years past. This new neighborhood is more demanding, more cruel, and less forgiving. You’d better make plays or you will lose. It’s that simple.
VCU is not a bad shooting team. “Shooting” is not a problem. The difference is that the lulls against lesser competition are escapable. Great teams make you pay, and we paid. Two more defensive possessions that don’t break down and two shots go in that did not, and either Duke or Missouri may have turned out differently.
On offense, the theme of the weekend was getting open shots but not knocking them down. True.
VCU may not be the 10th-best team in the country and probably never was. Heck the Rams weren’t even ranked until later in the year last season and ended up with a five seed. My point is that the bridge jumpers are using Puerto Rico and the ranking as the basis for their sky is falling argument. I’m saying those two pieces are largely irrelevant.
The point is that this team and this season really is no different than any other. It’s the expectations that got all cockeyed. Shoot better. Defend better. VCU is a flawed team but not fatally flawed. It is no more flawed than any other VCU team in the past.
It’s hard, right now, on the final day of November, to have a positive attitude about what you are seeing on the floor from this edition of the Rams. But it was hard last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that we lost four of the final five games of the season.
Every frickin’ one of them ended up with an NCAA tournament berth.
You are right to have questions and frustration is justified. But we’ve been here before, this Angst of November phase to the season. Things worked out just fine before, and I think we have enough data to have full confidence in this staff and these players.