VCU Needs Offensive Punch to Live Up to ExpectationsPosted by Lathan Wells on January 4th, 2014
College basketball coaches are always stressing to players and teams that offensive performance should not dictate intensity or focus on the defensive end. If a player is struggling with his shot or having difficulty breaking down a defender, that frustration cannot be allowed to bleed over onto the defensive end. This has long been a basic tenet of basketball teaching, but if there’s one team in the country that has to ignore the notion, it’s the VCU Rams. Long known for their aggravating Havoc defense, VCU’s long-term success this season will rest largely on how well the Rams operate on the offensive end of the floor.
Friday night’s 81-63 win over Stony Brook in Richmond was a perfect illustration of just how important offensive potency is to the entire operation for VCU. If you’re going to overwhelm opponents with a full-court press for an entire contest, you have to be able to set up that press. The Rams, when they struggle to put the ball in the basket, can’t get into the defensive setup they prefer. This turns games into more of a half-court affair, like the first half of the match-up with the Seawolves. VCU carried only a one-point lead into halftime, largely because they shot poorly until the closing minutes (a decent 40.7 percent from the field in the half, but only 25 percent from three-point range) and were often unable to set up the Havoc. The team was cold from deep, and it allowed a talented Stony Brook team to hang in it and get comfortable. This is a disturbing trend in the Rams’ three losses this season, when they shot 29.3 percent, 35.7 percent, and 36.9 percent, respectively, against Florida State, Georgetown, and Northern Iowa. Obviously it’s tough for any team to win with shooting numbers like that, but even more so for a team that’s entire game plan is predicated on watching the ball go through the net and immediately shifting into pressing mode.
The second half against Stony Brook looked like the VCU that was ranked as high as 10th in the country in the polls at one point this season. They held their opponent to 33.3 percent shooting in the second frame and shot a much more efficient 53.8 percent themselves, including 54.5 percent from three. Once the threes starting falling and the press was set up, the Seawolves fell into the same trap that befell VCU’s last opponent, Boston College. In that game, the Rams carried a slim halftime deficit into the locker room (five points) before routinely turning their opponent over in half number two and pulling away. Teams are going to get frustrated by this defense, but all the more so when it becomes a full-court affair. The new foul rules make teams with active hands a bit more subdued, and this especially affects aggressive, risk-taking teams like the Rams. The rules are less formidable when the ball is in the air, such as when a team is forced to pass their way out of sideline-to-sideline traps. This is where VCU makes its living and why it owns lofty national standings in the turnover and steals metrics (the nation’s best in each).
The non-conference was unkind to the Rams both in victory and in loss. VCU swept its three ACC opponents, which at first sounds like a recipe for a fantastic RPI heading into the conference season. That is until you realize the combined records of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College is 21-19 to this point. This is a team, based on their three non-conference losses and the diminishing value of their marquee wins, that now has little choice but to be dominant in Atlantic 10 play. Their shooting is the key; if long-range specialists like Treveon Graham and Rob Brandenberg along with ascending sophomore Melvin Johnson, can start becoming more reliable from long range to complement the inside presence of Juvonte Reddic, this will be a team that lives up to expectations. VCU’s defense is undoubtedly its calling card, but it will be rendered less effective if the Rams are unable to score the basketball effectively and consistently on the offensive end.