Peeking over the last slices of pumpkin pie, a daunting opening slate of December games loomed above the VCU Rams.
The ominous schedule featured three consecutive contests away from the raucous confines of the Siegel Center, before the Rams would return home to play host to a Top-25 opponent aiming to exact revenge.
The apprehension was justified.
VCU managed to outlast Middle Tennessee State for a hard-fought, if not disjointed, road victory before dropping the next three games. A 1-3 slide that not only blemished the tournament resume but also exposed a team, in the midst of transition, searching for identity.
At times during that span the Rams’ play was as ineffective as it was lackluster. Offensively, both their .908 points per possession and 39.7 effective field goal percentage would crater at a sub-340 level of basketball.
It would be difficult to imagine a team playing less efficiently.
Yet just two weeks ago, in the shadow of that trying four game stretch, VCU head coach Will Wade reaffirmed faith that the Rams were close.
“I know what we’re doing now is going to work. We’ve got the right formula now…we’ve just got to do it better.”
“We’ve Got The Right Formula Now”
What the Rams are doing now, is exactly what Wade outlined in his introductory press conference when he took over the program in April – taking shots near the basket, shooting open 3-pointers, and getting to the free throw line. Wade’s self-proclaimed “favorite formula” is also predicated on avoiding an excess of less efficient shots – i.e. 2-point attempts from distance.
In that respect, Wade is introducing a healthier diet of shot consumption.
Based on shot location data I have logged over the last two seasons, when compared to field goal attempts during the 2015 out of conference schedule, VCU has eliminated 27.3% mid to long-range 2-pointers, and increased looks near the rim by nearly 37.0%.
A determined effort to probe the lane and get looks closer to the basket should pay dividends. It represents an increased opportunity for the Rams to draw fouls and, as defenders turn their attention to the penetration, creates passing lanes to find open 3-point shooters.
Since the day he arrived, Wade has been recognized as a coach informed by data – an “analytics guy” that uses numbers to find efficiency. This particular allocation of field goal attempts is fundamental to that school of thought. Given the apparent on court buy-in, it’s fair to recognize this shift as an indicator of early success in the Wade era.
“We’ve Just Got To Do It Better”
While the Wade Formula has produced a healthy distribution in shot selection, the Rams haven’t exactly optimized the returns. Yet.
Despite the early season attack mode, VCU struggles around the basket. They have been lousy on all 2-point attempts, converting on just 45.0%, and particularly bad closer to the rim with a troubling 50.0% conversion rate. Per kenpom.com, the Rams are getting blocked on 11.3% of all 2-point attempts (most of which come right at the rim) – a rate that ranks 277 of 351 teams. But as league play begins, Wade has hinted at a bump in effectiveness, anticipating more favorable interior matchups in the Atlantic 10. VCU certainly encountered plenty of size and athleticism during the out of conference schedule.
For an undersized team braving the clump of bodies in the paint, getting blocked is simply going to be a way of life. Compounding the low conversion rate and high block percentage, the Rams also haven’t seen a favorable uptick in whistles. VCU is currently hovering around the 21st percentile in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) at 31.7%. So while the Rams are on the right path by increasing their looks around the basket, the results in the paint still represent a significant area for improvement.
Prior to the season I wrote about the value of the assist – particularly ones that lead to 3-pointers. Last year, VCU was second to last in the Atlantic 10 in assisted 3-pointers, per hoop-math.com. The Rams have lifted that rate up from 79.5% last season, to 86.1% thus far in 2016. In fact, the 51.5% overall assist rate (A/FGM) is as high as the Rams have tallied since the 2011 season – the last year before the man they called Freight Train rolled into town. Without Treveon Graham, most of this team will need the help of teammates to create open and efficient shooting opportunities.
This season I have attempted to track whether missed 3-pointers would have potentially been assisted. Like all assist stats, this is a subjective observation so please take these numbers with a grain of salt. By my count the Rams have made 14 (11 from Melvin Johnson) out of 52 unassisted 3-point opportunities – an abysmal 26.9%. That leaves 87 makes on 216 assisted 3-point tries – a red hot 40.3%. Quite the contrast.
Admittedly I did not see a lot of Korey Billbury at Oral Roberts, but I imagine his 3-point numbers have benefited greatly from being a part of Wade’s formula. Billbury’s strength is undoubtedly putting the ball on the floor and getting into the paint, where he’s adept at creating space with his head and shoulders. He doesn’t have the frame of Graham, but his game is similar in that way. But what he can also do is knock down an open 3-pointer. While just an average career 3-point shooter (34.6%), Billbury is knocking down 42.1% of shots beyond the arc this season. In part this comes from Wade’s ability to find Billbury open, assisted looks, particularly in the corners where he is shooting a combined 58.8%.
VCU beings Atlantic 10 play tomorrow with an approach rooted in efficiency. Although the out of conference schedule didn’t produce high-quality wins, Will Wade has helped facilitate a shift in the Rams’ style that will eventually yield results. The formula is right. As the team adapts and the dynamic continues to coalesce, the wins will follow.