The anthem echoes through the body of That Animal, and it haunts the visiting team. It opens up their minds with a chorus before beating into their souls a staccato refrain. Its words are less a lesson and more a warning.
It travels, too, packed neatly into cars and busses so that it’s full-throated when the venue allows. This year, more than any other year in Shaka Smart’s tenure, the anthem is nonfiction.
You don’t want to go to war with the Rams. Don’t start no stuff. Won’t be no stuff.
Heed its message.
We will get to last night’s un-freaking-believeable basketball game shortly.
However before that, I have to say that this team, this collection of young men, is exactly the kind of team we want to root for. They pour their minds, hearts, and souls into what they’re doing. They care. They play for each other, an uncommon element in college basketball.
I’ve written about its certain sonofabitchness of late, but it’s more than that. The fortitude of this team is on display nightly, and it stirs the emotions swiftly so that the anthem becomes real.
I’ll go to war with this bunch. Any season. Any day. Any time.
It isn’t perfect. Those same kids left three-point shooters open and shot poorly on their offensive end last night. Shaka Smart says that basketball is a game of mistakes, and the Rams make them. Sometimes they make enough mistakes that it costs VCU a win, and sometimes there are not-quite-enough mistakes to bring about a loss.
But I want to ask you a question that I want you to ask yourself: what is your standard for the appropriate number of mistakes in a basketball game? Go on, think about it. What is it?
Here’s what I mean. Kendall Anthony is an 80% free throw shooter and made one of six last night. He committed six turnovers, including a galling (if you’re a Richmond fan) pass to Doug Brooks. So, what is your standard for the appropriate number of mistakes for a VCU opponent to make who is an all A10 player?
You can say VCU got a gift from Anthony, got lucky. Or you can say VCU harried Anthony into those turnovers and got him so tired he couldn’t make those free throws. Similarly, were VCUs 15 turnovers a product of good defense, or bad offense?
It’s the game, man. It happens. The truth is always going to reside in the middle somewhere. Our guys make mistakes. Those guys make mistakes. Some are forced. Some are unforced.
That’s why response is so darned important to winning. That’s why forgetting inevitable mistakes and playing with a clear mind matter. That’s why execution and details matter, and why–as you will read in a minute–three first half possessions matter.
It works both ways.
That goes in the macro sense as well. VCU is 21-7, and I could argue we are three rebounds, three single plays, from 24-4. However the reverse is true. VCU trailed in the final minute of a win over Northern Iowa. What if Jordan Burgess does not hit the three and Treveon Graham does not make the layup at Saint Louis? The Rams trailed Rhode Island by five in the game’s waning moments. I could make the argument that VCU is also very close to 18-10.
My point: we’re a lot closer to 24-4 than 18-10, and given the fact that every game exists in its own realm and the line between winning and losing is razor thin, 21-7 is probably right.
And the makeup of this team, it’s resolve and character and refusal to call it day, ever, is the difference.
One final question: is your happy/sad ratio this season 21/7? Probably not.
And with all that said, college basketball is a results game. You win, or you lose. There are no ties. And last night we lost because those mistakes, no matter where your acceptability line resides, were too many to overcome.
Let me get two items out of the way up front:
- When up three with seven seconds left, I foul. Every. Single. Time. It requires three things to go right for the opponent, including a little luck. College basketball players are too skilled to leave it up to burying one three to tie. Treveon Graham sent the game to overtime that way, so whose strategy was the wrong one, Smart or Mooney? And the most cruel irony: two seasons ago, on this court, VCU did not foul and Darien Brothers bombed one in. Cruel fate last night, but the right call.
- Graham may or may not have been fouled at the end of the second overtime. It was 50/50 at best and I don’t know that I blow the whistle there. However my issue is that you can’t make the call on a marginal–50/50 at best–charge/block, and then decide to let things play out on that final play. Raymie Styons did not make a bad call, but that was bad officiating. There is a difference.
And while everyone will look to the end-game for the differences in winning and losing, for me it occurred early. On balance, VCU played very good defense. Richmond scored 52 points in regulation while shooting 50% from three and essentially 50% overall (20-41). I’ll take that every night.
The problem was three possessions. Three. And it was the exact same problem: with Kendall Anthony scorching down the lane, a VCU guard swept in to help, leaving ShawnDre Jones open from beyond the arc. All three times Jones swished that three. The correct play, and we saw it in the second half, was to force Anthony to either shoot a high degree of difficulty shot over Mo Alie-Cox (who blocked two shots in the second half), or force a pass back to the perimeter.
Those mistakes put VCU into the hole it was forced to climb from, and playing from behind, especially on the road, is a dangerous mixture. When you hear Shaka Smart talk about shoring up the little things, this is a prime example. You can’t fault the effort, and you can’t fault the execution as a whole. But you can’t relax at this level.
As for the offense, I’m less concerned about the assist total (6). In fact, VCU has had more than 10 assists only twice in seven games against Richmond since joining the A10. The Spiders defense forces an offense to play a lot of isolation–their weird zone is extremely good with help defense and never flexes too far out of position.
Sometimes games come down to making shots, especially against a team that forces a great deal of 1-on-1 play, and 3-19 is not passing muster any more than 3-20 in the first game. My concern is another phrase we’ve heard consistently from Smart: be shot ready and be confident. On more than one possession I felt a VCU player either wasn’t ready to shoot, or passed up an open three. Hesitancy is a damning trait in a game of aggression.
It’s tough to process. This is a better offense, against a tougher schedule, than last year’s team. So there’s a cognitive dissonance that surrounds 3-19 from three. The percentages say that VCU is not a bad shooting team, but there are clearly bad shooting nights. I don’t know what you do with that. I really don’t.
With a captip to CBSSports’ Matt Norlander, I’m going to quote Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, whose Rams team was nipped 60-59 in the final seconds by Davidson last night:
“That was like having your heart ripped out of your chest and then throwing it on the floor and having it stomped on,” Hurley said. “We’ve got to keep our perspective here, as bad as it hurts. We’re in a great spot, we’re excited about the rest of the year. We just can’t allow this loss, the way we lost it, to demoralize us.”
That’s where I’ll reside. With a bad shooting night on the road, VCU was dental-floss-close to winning. It stinks, but my goodness it’s fun. You really can’t savor the wins unless you appreciate the effort and competition from both teams in losses. And I don’t want VCU to be a paper tiger in three weeks, whaling away on Towson and Delaware all February and feeling good about ourselves.
Side note: I won’t try to describe the action of the last 10 minutes of regulation and both overtimes, because words are insufficient. I’ve never seen a game with such twists and turns. If you missed it, you missed out. Grab a knife and fork, Myron Metcalf, and chew on that game–defensive basketball can be very exciting.
We’ve reached a part of the season that, quite frankly, is tasty.
There’s a four-way tie for first place in the A10 at 11-4, and VCU is one of those four. Three of the four losses have been at the buzzer or decided in double overtime.
The Rams have Dayton at home on Saturday, who is part of that tie. VCU then heads to Davidson, who is part of the tie. And then it’s senior night against George Mason. If you can’t get excited about that, well, you’re dead inside.
And then we go to Brooklyn, followed by an octet of potential venues. Tasty. Steak and Stella, my friends. Steak and Stella.
Ah, March. I’ve missed you.