When was the last time we approached Labor Day, and your assessment of the upcoming VCU basketball season was so chock full of hmmmm?
It’s like that ATM game where you are locked in a booth and a fan blows around twenties. There’s twenties EVERYWHERE and you’re flailing, grabbing, stabbing, and stuffing what you can in your shirt and your pocket and anywhere else you can gain some sort of certainty. It’s right there, but then again it isn’t.
We’ve got talent—that’s obvious. There’s the fire and energy instilled by the coaching staff. “We have some pieces that can make plays,” Mike Rhoades told me a couple weeks ago. “We have more playmakers and I can play different combinations of guys.”
Sounds great. But if we’re being honest, it’s a largely unknown chemistry experiment. When you factor in De’Riante Jenkins’ injury, only three players return—Jonny Williams, Justin Tillman, and Malik Crowfield—who played more than 20 games last season. Three. And the gas stove turns to 10 awfully quickly in the nonconference season.
There is a synthesis to a season’s outlook, the August mental gymnastics of “this guy will step into that guy’s role…this guy will get more minutes…this guy should score more” that does not earnestly exist. Not this summer.
So here’s my beautiful August Saturday evening shot at grabbing some synthesized twenties.
I’m not worried about scoring. This is not exactly a difficult conversation to have with a college basketball player: “We want to run more of the offense through you, and get you shots. I want you to shoot more and score more.” It happens every season on every team, and all the ambiguity in the world does not change this fact.
After the 2005-06 season, Nick George took his 17ppg overseas. George was THE offense on the last VCU team that did not win 20 games. The following season Eric Maynor became the focal point and added nine points to his scoring average. Jesse Pellot-Rosa added five points. Wil Fameni became eligible and chipped in nine points per game. In 2011-12, the year after Skeen, Rozzell, J-Rod, and Nixon took 45 core points into the sunset, VCU found a way. Juvonte Reddic added five points per game, as did Rob Brandenberg and Darius Theus. Troy Daniels was plus nine.
Clearly Williams and Tillman have a bond and an innate sense of each other. I’ve heard nothing but raves about Sean Mobley’s ability to impact space, whether passing from the post or perimeter, or scoring in those locales. Crowfield can shoot and Jenkins can score at all three levels. And here’s a data point for you. A coaching friend, who is not directly tied to VCU or the A-10 but knows Isaac Vann, told me “I don’t know your other guys intimately, but Isaac Vann could be your leading scorer. He’s that gifted offensively.”
My point: somebody is going to shoot the basketball, and it will go into the net. Don’t sweat where the points will come from.
I’m also not worried about on-court leadership. That’s dictated by the coaching staff, scouting reports, and the system, and it runs through Williams and Tillman. “On-court leadership” is a precursor to the whole scoring and defending thing, and I personally think it’s overrated. (Side note caveat: a good point guard keeps everyone involved throughout the game and “interested,” but on-court leadership matters when you find the hot hand and feed it, and when it gets to be crunch time, you’d better identify your bucketmaker and get him the ball. A leader does that every time.)
But I do wonder about off-court leadership. I admit that this may not be a problem because (1) I don’t know; and (2) it’s none of my business, but I do wonder. Darius Theus is rightfully well-regarded as one of the finest leaders to step on the court for VCU. But I’m here to tell you Theus’ impact and leadership off-the-court was of FAR greater impact than anything he did on the court, and Darius did great things on the court.
Besides, this is not a team that’s been with each other for multiple years. It isn’t like everyone knows their roles walking into the season. Williams and Tillman—should we just save typing and call them Willman? Tilliams?—are laid back dudes. I don’t know how much Theusizing they can muster. And maybe that’s a good thing for this squad, in the wake of last year’s intenseathon. Maybe it’s a great thing for them to hang out and have fun and work hard. Hell, it’s the persona of the coach.
So with all of that, we’re making Sweet 16 plans, right?
“Not hardly,” as Jacob McCandles would say about rumors of his death. There’s another side to the floor.
You’d better get used to giving up some open layups, the kind of holy crap jailbreaks that furrowed our brows before Will Wade turned VCUs preferred style into a tractor pull. It’s the nature of the beast. You trap, gamble, play wide open and shoot threes with long rebounds and you’re going to get beat sometimes. Remember Rule #1 of Reality of The Opposition: the other guy is trying to win, too, and they have talented players. They are going to beat us sometimes. It’s been two years since I’ve had these halftime conversations. I look forward to them again.
Keep this in mind: Rice played at the 16th fastest pace in the nation last season and chucked threes at a high rate. But the Owls of Rhoades were a bottom third team in terms of turning over teams and middling at best defensively (219th most efficient). They still won 23 games.
Why does that matter?
Chemistry. We always think about it on offense and in the locker room, but for this VCU team, this year, chemistry on the defensive end is going to be the ultimate arbiter of success. This team will be tough enough and scrappy enough, but missed assignments, missed box outs, and the newness of new personnel will keep those twenties out of reach.
In VCUs last “fast year,” 2015, the Rams turned teams over on more than 23% of possessions—11th best nationally. Steals come from pressure, but steals come from assignments and positioning. Same for rebounds. From the chemistry of doing your job and knowing when to help.
It’s boring and it’s a cliché, but get used to it: while everybody enjoys the fun of the offense, pay attention to the defense.
More on defense later. Now I’ve got the bug. #STDGA