Don’t Doubt Shaka: Can VCU Make Another Run?Posted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2011
I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Sunday’s BB&T Classic.
New year, new team. Somebody tell the press. “Half the questions from the media, even now, December 4, are about last year” said VCU coach Shaka Smart after Sunday’s 75-60 win over George Washington in the first game of the BB&T Classic. “In our mind, last year’s over, and it’s not gonna win us any games this year.”
Fair enough, Coach. But while VCU can’t carry over any wins from last season, what it has replicated is the same style of play that took the Rams on their historic run to the Final Four. Just like last year, this year’s team relies on a frenetic, turnover-generating defense with heavy ball pressure. And just like last year, the offense is not built around a super-efficient field goal percentage. Rather, the Rams will try to beat you with second-chance points and three-point shots.
Despite losing four starters to graduation, VCU showed on Sunday just how effectively the current team can execute this approach. Against a GW squad undergoing its own transition — from coach Karl Hobbs to coach Mike Lonergan — VCU generated 17 turnovers and turned them into 21 points. They torched the Colonials from the three-point line on 12-24 shooting. And while GW did a better job of keeping the Rams off the offensive glass in the second half, VCU built a 17-point first half lead on the strength of a 39% offensive rebounding rate.
VCU also showed how its guard-oriented lineup can exploit teams that struggle to contain dribble penetration. The Rams spread the floor and use a heavy dose of ball screens, hand-offs, kick-outs, and pick-and-pops to get into the lane and find open shooters. No one benefitted more from this offensive execution than senior guard Brad Burgess — the team’s lone returning starter — who scored 24 points on 8-15 shooting. By his own post-game admission, the key to Burgess’s offensive outburst was simply having “a lot of wide open shots.”
The Rams also return maybe their most important weapon from last year — head coach Shaka Smart. Credit Smart and his staff with a key pre-game tactical tweak that helped VCU’s guards with their dribble penetration all game. Having noticed that GW tends to go under ball screens, they instructed their players to alter the angle of their ball screens, making it especially difficult to for GW to pick up the ball-handler after the screen. As Smart explained after the game, this played a key role in allowing VCU’s guards to get into the lane, collapse the defense, and generate open looks.
So do the Rams have a chance to pull a Butler and embark on a second straight Cinderella trip to the Final Four? To be sure, we shouldn’t place too much weight on Sunday’s performance. As Lonergan suggested after the game, his own team’s defensive failings had a lot to do with VCU’s success: “They did a good job running the same play. We did not do a good job defending it.” And to date, the Rams have lost all three of their games against power conference opponents (Seton Hall, Georgia Tech, and Alabama).
Still, despite the personnel turnover, the Rams could surprise us all yet again. They were picked to finish behind Drexel and George Mason in the CAA. But both of those squads have struggled somewhat in the early going, and the conference race appears to be wide open. If the Rams can continue to execute Smart’s game plans, it would be no surprise to see them capture the CAA’s auto-bid for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. And then, as they showed us all last year, anything can happen.