No matter which website I check, or which corner of my brain I search, the ledger for VCUs trip to New York says 0-2. That is an inescapable fact.
Yesterday’s 74-73 loss to Wisconsin is particularly teeth-grinding, as it was right there for the taking. A slow start–VCU trailed 22-11 and looked like it wanted to be outside Madison Square Garden securing a good vantage point for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade–and a second-half shooting slump were the big contributors.
Doug Brooks, not more than a whisper from a DNP-CD on Friday, changed the game with his on-ball defense of Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig. That was evident. Brooks continually jumped Koenig’s dribble drive, and the other defenders overplayed passing lanes, which made for a clunky Wisconsin offense.
The Badgers scored those 22 points in the game’s first eight minutes and managed 15 points in the half’s final 12 minutes. VCU, meanwhile, shook off its Life Is A Cabaret approach, scoring 32 points in that final 12 minutes. There was a discomfort to Wisconsin’s attack.
VCU took on that mantle through stretches of the second half, settling for harried jumpers as the Badgers adjusted its defense.
In the end, VCU was one stop–or one basket–from victory. Ugh.
I can’t write another word without giving every manner of praise to The Melvin. He isn’t even close to the same player as last season, and it’s a stunning transformation. Yes, Johnson has scored 20 or more in three straight games; and yes, he is shooting 54% from three–many of his scud missiles would make Troy Daniels smile.
But it’s everything else. Johnson is a commanding court presence, played point guard for much of yesterday’s gut-wrenching loss, and is defending at a higher level than people see. The kid is doing it all.
Here’s what matters: both Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan–two coaches who know a thing or two about basketball–stopped in each handshake line to say a few words to Melvin Johnson.
Questions were indeed answered this weekend, but maybe the answers were not what we thought they would be.
I don’t know “the deal” with JeQuan Lewis and his second half benching. Wade made it fairly clear in his postgame comments, but this much became perfectly clear: the fabric of VCU basketball is not sewn with positive reinforcement and motivational quotes. It isn’t an H-Word brand.
Nope. Not anymore. Will Wade is not messing around. There is a way his team is going to play, and it isn’t like previous teams.
We saw that the WFWE brand of VCU basketball is based on grit. Execution. Toughness. And not that fake, preening toughness so common in today’s world. I’m talking the kind of toughness that comes forth when things are difficult, not easy. It’s the kind of toughness that shows up because it has to, because the moment calls for it and you are up to the task. It’s what Duke’s floor slap meant before it became an overused punch line.
You want an H-Word? Try hellacious.
This team is clearly farther along and playing at a higher level than past VCU teams who have bombed out in an exempt tournament. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I would know what to do if VCU traveled to some far off arena in November and won a bunch of games. It’s like a rite of passage now to drop a couple early season games and then be forced to assess where we are.
The team is coming around to the way Wade and his staff want it to play much faster, and with much more toughness, than I would’ve thought. Think about it this way: Korey Billbury and Ahmed Hamdy accounted for 95 minutes, 48 points and 18 rebounds in the two games. These are the two new guys Wade brought in, two new guys who don’t have the “old way of doing things” as a reference point.
They were also, outside of Johnson, VCUs two most effective players this weekend. Those two kids are making an impact and we haven’t yet sat down to Thanksgiving turkey. Lewis’s second half benching was a signal not only to JeQuan, but to everybody on that roster. There’s a way VCU plays basketball, and it isn’t the old way.
Side note: Jordan Burgess and Mo Alie-Cox had better weekends than statistics would show. Burgess guarded guys bigger and stronger than him all weekend and did a wonderful job, and Cox is a victim of his freakish strength. Too many times Cox had to peel guys off his body before making a play. It will be interesting to see how that develops this year.
Two losses stink. They matter. VCU has to start winning these games. But I hit the New Jersey Turnpike last night feeling good–no make that FEELING VERY GOOD–about this team and its ability to win these games.