VCU was not as bad as made out to be during the last four games; and yesterday’s win does not mean the Rams are suddenly a Final Four contender. The GW win was reaffirming for the concept we’ve discussed all season–what can be–but there’s much work left to be done. Still, I like the trendline with Engine 21 on the floor.
It’s funny. Everybody says Shaka Smart is a very good basketball coach, and that he has talented assistants, but we never really discuss why. Oh, there are the results–Smart is VCUs winningest ever head coach, he’s had four assistants (in five years) get their own head coaching job, and there’s the matter of that Final Four and four straight trips to the NCAA tournament, two of them after stepping into a better conference. And Smart’s impact on the kids that play for him is well-documented.
But from a basketball sense, other than the H-Word, what do we point to as evidence of the X-and-O prowess of Smart? I present Exhibit A, yesterday’s sample of Smart’s in-game coaching ability:
GW went into its 1-3-1 zone defense, It was right on time, just after the under 8 media timeout of the second half. VCUs first possession resulted in the precise reason GW plays that zone. JeQuan Lewis tried to throw the ball over the top of a Patricio Garino and Yuta Watanabe double team, and Garino’s deflection turned into a GW layup. It cut a double-digit VCU lead to 58-53 and the crowd rose to its feet. To that point the Colonials had done a very good job responding to VCU punches, and it was a very entertaining game.
The next VCU possession, Lewis gave a head-bob and dribbled through the double-team before it could arrive–a quick decision to attack the defense before it could attack you, a scouting report tip I’m sure. Lewis broke free and threw a counter pass–back against the flow of the play–to Melvin Johnson, who buried a corner three.
Shaka Smart called a quick time out. It was curious, because you never really know what’s going through his mind, and that was a classic Momentum Three from The Melvin.
It didn’t take long to find out.
After Garino stuffed home a putback, Lewis dashed into the frontcourt before the defense could get set and missed a three, but it was a good shot. Mo Alie Cox–who we will talk about in a few minutes–had also outhustled his man down the court. Cox grabbed his sixth offensive rebound of the afternoon and was fouled on his putback basket.
The next trip down VCU ran a set play, a play I’m certain was drawn up in that timeout. The Rams ran Treveon Graham over a high ball screen. Everybody has seen that action from VCU. Only this time, there was a second screener. We played 34 minutes and not shown that look. GW was prepared for the first screen, but had no idea on the second screen.
Graham was wide open from 15 feet, and when a GW defender rotated to close the gap, Graham found Doug Brooks in the opposite corner from where Johnson had drilled his bonus shot. Swish. VCU held a 57-46 lead on the discombobulated Colonials.
In that span, we saw a game-preparation win (counter pass to open man); a program approach win (attack before the defense gets set), and a game-management win (the double-screen tweak).
That’s poise not panic, and that’s the VCU bench outmaneuvering the GW bench. Yes the players have to execute the plays and they rightfully get credit for that. But I’ve seen enough basketball to know when one guy outcoaches the other.
In the VCU college basketball system the people are protected by two separate but equally important groups: the point guards, who investigate open spaces, and Mo Alie-Cox, who prosecutes the offenders. These are their stories.
We love Mo Alie-Cox for all the right reasons. He’s a fun, engaging kid, and an athletic freak who blocks shots and nearly pulls the rim to the floor on his powerful dunks with toussled dreads flying everywhere. He will graduate in three years.
But let’s make one thing clear that’s being hidden by the adoration–he’s become an effective basketball player, a weapon. If he isn’t already in the conversation for the A0s all defensive team, he should be bubbling on the radar soon.
GWs Kevin Larsen, a preseason second team All A10 player, has faced primarily Alie-Cox twice this season. Larsen has scored a total of four points and grabbed 16 rebounds. In comparison, Cox has 20 points and 16 rebounds in the matchup, making 7-10 field goals. It isn’t a one-opponent anomaly.
St. Bonaventure’s Youssou Ndoye, averaging a double-double, had 13 points and eight rebounds, but spent most of the afternoon shying away from Cox. Ndoye was 5-15 from the field, settling for an array of 15-foot jumpers instead of mixing it up in the paint.
George Mason’s Shevon Thompson, another 6-11 big averaging a double-double, had six points and 16 rebounds against Alie-Cox. He was 1-4 from the floor.
Richmond’s Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, who had scored in double figures in five of the Spiders’ previous seven games going into the VCU game, had six points and six rebounds on 2-6 shooting.
Larsen’s futility bookends those three performances.
Smart was effusive in his praise for the point guards. JeQuan Lewis had one of those games where the numbers don’t pop out at you, but his ability to manage the game was outstanding. And Jonny Williams played a game with a high degree of growth. Yes he established a career high in points (9) and tied his career mark for minutes played (15), but Williams was a far better decision-maker.
Doug Brooks just makes me smile. The kid hit 4-6 from three and had 14 points and–get this–seven rebounds. At times Brooks looks like the kid who is riding his bike downhill the first time after the training wheels are removed–you feel like there is about to be a spectacular crash–but in the end he makes plays. That’s all that really matters–there are no style-points judges in basketball.
SwagMel. ‘Nuf Ced.
Do I really need to write one single word about Treveon Graham?
No, I don’t. You know. They know. Jim Crews knows.