Three Down, Three Up…Lots to Go…
We’re going to have some big fun in Atlantis, and I’m talking strictly basketball. Seven of the eight teams are top 100 in KenPom’s rankings and five of the eight are in the top 35. The combined records of the teams sit at 20-3. Here it is:
VCU (35): 3-0
Baylor (21): 3-0
Michigan State (20): 1-2
Saint John’s (89): 2-1
Old Dominion (107): 2-0
Wichita State (22): 3-0
LSU (88): 3-0
Louisville (7): 3-0
And as much as you’d like to dive in and analyze the what-needs-to-done vs. the what-cannot-be-done in order to find success, I think it comes down to the most basic three facets of basketball:
It’s a funky ballroom setup with odd lighting. You literally walk down a carpeted hotel hallway, hang a left and walk through big double doors, half expecting to stumble into a motivational speaker or pharmaceutical sales meeting, and get hit smack in the face with the back of the bleachers. You find an aisle and PRESTO! a basketball court appears, just below a decorative chandelier. It makes for interesting optics.
Four seasons ago, in VCUs big win over Memphis, the Rams shot 52% overall and hit 6-11 threes in the first half. VCU led by 14 points at the break and held off the Tigers.
VCU lost a tight game to Duke and shot 33% overall and 4-18 from three. VCU then lost a tighter game to Missouri and shot 41% overall and 30% from three.
Side note: shot selection is insanely important. You want to make a higher percentage of your shots? Then take higher percentage shots.
Discipline is at a premium this week, especially for the freshmen. Lord knows they are going to have great careers, but if I have one criticism in the first three games it’s that they keep trying to do things they could get away with in high school that won’t pass muster on this level. The level of competition is rising dramatically. Samir Doughty cannot go one-on-three against Baylor. Bad things will happen, including Doughty sitting beside Rasheen Davis.
This is no different than any game, any season, any situation. I’m a huge proponent especially of offensive rebounding. And it takes on greater importance this week when you factor in the possibility of a bevy of errant shots.
If VCU is able to get second and third chances, that’s, well, second and third chances to score. It also demoralizes an opponent as much as any single play on the basketball court. You play good defense for 30 seconds, force a tough shot, it misses. And then you have to do it all over again–or the offensive rebounder is in an attacking position because of the scrambled nature of a missed shot. Either way, it’s not good.
And we want to be the demoralizers, not the demoralizees.
This is pure math. Let’s say there are 70 possessions in a game. You turn the ball over 20 times. That means 29% of the time–almost one-third of your possessions–you give it up without a chance at scoring.
Side note: to circle it back to the first point about shooting, a bad shot is exactly like a turnover, and sometimes worse because your guys are out of position and an opponents’ runout could lead to a layup.
Let’s do more math. Will Wade’s goal for total turnovers in a game is typically 12 or fewer. Based on our previous sample of 20 turnovers, that’s eight possessions you get to shoot. Let’s say you make a reasonable three of those eight shots, for six additional points.
Six additional points against Oklahoma last year and VCU is in the Sweet 16. Now, I realize it isn’t that linear, but I wanted to bring some quantification to “turn it over less.”
Sometimes–and I know this will shock some of you coming from me–we can overanalyze things. This is one of those times. You see, it’s about playing simple, basic, HARD basketball.
I don’t want to say VCU needs to ugly it up to be successful this week, but it’s a distant cousin. Things like box outs, solid screens, fighting for every inch, and trapping the ball like a mom protects Christmas gifts is critical. It’s like I tell Robby on important late-game defensive possessions: we don’t need heroes, we need basketball players.
We just need to play like it’s a one-possession game with 52 seconds to play for all 40 minutes. And sometimes that means getting ugly.
So what do you think of this season to date? Now is a good time to stop and ponder.
We’ve been spoiled with an alpha dog for as long as I can remember. That guy does not seem to exist and it’s different. VCU has SEVEN players averaging between 7.3ppg and 10.7ppg. The Rams are shooting 53% overall and 41% from three. The assist-to-turnover ratio is upside down.
It’s odd and a team dynamic we are not used to seeing, but I’m good with it. I’m also good with the uneven but slowly improving play. It signals that we’re headed in the right direction. It doesn’t mean everything is perfect and it’s downright bad at times, but you know what else? VCU is 3-0, headed to a historic house of horrors–anyplace with clear blue water in November.
Here’s the other thing that makes me hopeful: we have not yet seen the good side of either JeQuan Lewis, nor Mo Alie-Cox. Let that marinate while you wring your hands at a close road win over Liberty and a closer-than-you-wanted win over Asheville. The presumed two best players on the team have barely left the station, and VCU has avoided the gutpunch loss.
Put another way: Jordan Burgess is shooting 50% from three and The Doug Brooks Experience has been one of the most disciplined, focused players. That makes me laugh, considering what we can become when the freshman start to figure things out and Lewis and Alie-Cox play up to their customary level.
Let me clear about one thing: like a fine wine, please give these freshmen some time to breathe. Yes, Malik Crowfield is far more advanced than a typical freshman. Yes, De’Riante Jenkins put a 14/10 double-double on the board the other night. Yes, Samir Doughty is a classic bucketmaker with an uncanny ability to score at the rim.
But these kids are going to struggle at times. They are still trying to figure it all out. Don’t lose perspective of the body of work. I don’t want to hear “what’s wrong with Jenkins” three weeks from now. There is nothing wrong with Jenkins. You can’t frame him and judge him by one game against Binghamton. He–and all the freshmen–are going to have crappy games because they are freshmen.
Keep an eye on their progress, the erosion of the crappiness and slow settling in of prodigious collegiate careers. Treveon Graham was 1-16 and 3-23 from the field to start his career. Rob Brandenberg was going to redshirt. And Kendrick Warren posted 10 double-doubles and average about 16 points per game his freshman year.
You don’t know, so let them grow. The worst thing you can do is compare them to players from the past. Different players grow at different rates, so let that happen.
Like the entire team three games into the season, it’s framework. It tells you some things and it’s fun to try to put it into perspective, but don’t make sweeping judgments about players or the team based on a three-game mini-season. It’s a fool’s errand.
We will return from Atlantis next weekend and all will neither be lost, nor won. Remember, it was less than 365 days ago VCU was 5-5 and everybody thought they knew what that meant, and everybody was wrong.
So enjoy this for what it is–three great early season games, and we get to watch our guys grow as a team. And with that said, I say this: it will sure as hell be a lot more fun watching them grow in a couple wins.