Virginia was bigger than VCU at every position and it showed. Their point blank shots looked easy, and their guards were able to shoot over the Rams. The 74-57 final score was much closer.
Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon were studs, but it was how Virginia played that was more impressive. Virginia’s calmness, even in the face of havocy turnovers, is a differentiator. The scores may have been similar, but this Cavaliers team is WAY better than Villanova.
Virginia bludgeoned VCU on the boards, 35-21. I’m not as concerned with the rebounding: (1) Virginia didn’t miss many shots, and when they did VCU did a good job limiting second chances. UVA had five offensive rebounds. (2) Did I mention Virginia was really big? (3) VCU grabbed nine offensive rebounds.
The VCU offense, for the most part, ran brilliantly against the vaunted pack line defense. Sure, you can point to a handful of late shot clock heaves, but what game does not have such possessions? The other team is trying, and they are playing defense as best as they can. This was one of the best defenses in the country. It happens.
But VCU committed just seven turnovers in the game, and ONE TURNOVER in the second half. (Side note: the crap palming call on JeQuan Lewis that changed momentum was VCUs only second half turnover.)
The Rams assisted on 15 of 23 made field goals. Shaka Smart made a tactical change at the half and had Mo Alie Cox slip his high screen and cut down the lane. Big Mo scored three of VCUs first five field goals of the second half. Because of that, the UVA defender was a step behind in defending the high ball screen the rest of the game–he had to respect Mo cutting–and that gave VCU guards the room to get into the lane and pitch to Treveon Graham for all three of his threes.
I’m not afraid to say VCU put on an offensive execution clinic for much of the afternoon.
However we didn’t knock down shots. It’s that simple. And yes, making shots is part of execution, but I’m not here to debate that. VCU made just 7-24 from three (29%) and 23-60 (38%) overall in That Animal. VCU made 51% overall and 41% from three in the two prior games at home. That just makes me grit the dentin layer off my teeth, to play so well and miss shots.
Smart said two things yesterday that stood out to me.
First, he agreed that Cox was effective in the second half, but that the big man had no shot attempts in the first half because the guards were not getting Cox the ball. That slip-screen tweak produced three scores for Cox, and Smart said he and the other coaches need to ensure Cox is getting the ball. The renewed post touch focus will help balance an offense that’s already improving by leaps and bounds.
Second, he noted that our style of play is give and take–you don’t just get to reap the benefits of havoc. Layups and dunks at the back end will happen and you will have to learn to live with it. When you consider Virginia had 16 turnovers and epitomized sink-or-swim against the defense, I’m good there.
However the halfcourt defense was again a problem. Too many times VCU players tried to shoot gaps and missed, and Virginia made them pay. Briante Weber was the worst offender, but I remember The Melvin overplaying twice as well. There is no system that can defend a guard wide open in the lane on a power play.
What’s more, there are times when a VCU defender is more concerned with putting his nose on the ball than his feet in front of his man. One instance yesterday Devon Hall, a freshman, dribbled across the lane and around three defenders and dropped a dime for a dunk. A VCU defender was “sort of” there the entire time. However because the defender didn’t win the last step and cut off Hall, the dribbler continued until an opening emerged.
That’s discipline and fixable. The other hard fact is that for all of the chaos Weber creates, he has never been a tremendous defender of the dribble-drive. It’s inherent that his recklessness produces as many challenges as steals. Finding that balance is a big step forward in terms of overall effectiveness of the halfcourt defense of the entire team.
It’s natural to look at the VCU performance in wins with a positive bias, and to look at VCUs performance in losses with a negative bias. It’s never as good, or bad, as we tend to think. It’s especially difficult to have a clear head after getting handed an emotional loss in That Animal, a place VCU had won 22 straight times and that we’ve sold out 53 straight times.
I hated it. When Graham hit that third three to bring the game to 59-55, I took off my headphones and for a few seconds soaked in the noise; the energy; the passion. There is no place like That Animal. Everything that happened after that garbage palming call still burns the bile in my body.
And with that said there will be losses and there will be disappointments. It’s life. We have to keep our eyes trained on trajectory and fill that joint the 54th time.
I know VCU was better on offense yesterday than against Illinois State, and it was better against Illinois State than Old Dominion. The press will continue to be hit or miss. The halfcourt defense? That needs the most attention in my humble opinion. Later this week we will get into some specifics of what that means to me. (Hint: it’s less overall defense and more stopping the ball early.)
But I like the trajectory of this team, and I like what I’m seeing out of Justin Tillman and what seems like a maturing Melvin Johnson. We’re just not playing Stetson anymore, which may have masked deficiencies we now see. I still harken back to something I hate to harken: February 2011. That Rams team lost at home to James Madison, culminating in a four of five losing skid.
Let me repeat that: James. Effing. Madison. February. At. Home.
And with that, I’m going to buy a Christmas tree and pour some single malt egg nog.