Tremendous Guard Play Masks VCU’s Interior Weakness

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 19th, 2014

This year’s VCU team is considered Shaka Smart‘s best squad since he took the reins in Richmond some five years ago. The return of the majority of last year’s team coupled with three top-100 recruits helped the Rams to a #15 ranking in the preseason AP poll, the team’s second consecutive such honor. After two wins in its first two games of the season, it’s clear that there is a lot of talent on this roster. But there is also a glaring question shadowing the team: Can the Rams consistently win without offensive production in the post?

Alie-Cox and his fellow post players need to add offense to their defensive contributions (AP)

Mo Alie-Cox and his fellow post players need to add some offense to their defensive contributions (Associated Press)

The season’s first two contests — a convincing win over Tennessee and last night’s thrilling victory over Toledo — demonstrated more of what everyone has come to expect from VCU. The Havoc defense creates all kinds of problems for opposing offenses, and the Rams have a number of players who can hit the open three-pointer. In those two contests, the Rams have already created 40 turnovers and knocked down 20 threes. What’s different about this season’s team is that they lack a skilled big man who can provide a credible offensive threat on the interior. Juvonte Reddic and his 12 points per game are gone to graduation, and the players filling in for him have done little thus far to make up for his production.

Mo Alie-Cox is the sole big man in the starting rotation, and he has contributed only nine points through two games. Jarred Guest, Justin Tillman and Michael Gilmore have combined for 12 points as the frontcourt reserves. While all of these players have excellent potential, they too come with limitations. Alie-Cox is a brute force inside, but he stands at only 6’6″ and has a limited offensive skill set, making it difficult for him to match up against true centers. Guest is a senior but is still too lithe to bang with big bodies inside and often finds himself in foul trouble. Gilmore and Tillman are both freshmen, clearly learning their roles on the offensive side of the ball. The result so far has been a team living off the long ball and dribble penetration from its guards.

The good news is that the formula has worked to this early point of the season. Treveon Graham, an preseason Wooden Award finalist, has lived up to his billing with 37 points over two games and remains a legitimate inside-outside threat. Melvin Johnson, who averaged 10 points per game as a sophomore, has emerged as a bona fide star alongside Graham on the perimeter, erupting for 45 points with eight threes on the season. Briante Weber‘s return from a one-game suspension to run the point against Toledo showed that he’s improved his offensive game to better complement his defensive prowess. Those three players combined for 62 of the team’s 87 points yesterday, and 11 came from another guard in the starting lineup, Jordan Burgess. The four-guard lineup is clearly clicking for Smart’s Rams right now.

The question, of course, is whether this offensive style is sustainable. The Rams, who have led the NCAA in steals for three consecutive years, are always going to be able to lean on their defense. But their issues on offense last season were part of the reason they failed to live up to expectations. Even with Reddic in the lineup, the team shot a woeful 45.6 percent on two-point attempts last year, good for 308th in the nation. While this team is clearly more talented from a scoring perspective than that unit, it seems to be predicated on perimeter play from its guards. Teams that live by the three often do so out of necessity, and VCU appears to be in that situation right now. It’s early, of course, but Smart’s young big men need to mature quickly and the veterans need to provide more offensive contributions than they have to date. If the Rams hope to live up to the hype as possibly the best VCU team of all-time, they’re going to need their big men to become viable options on the offensive end as the season progresses. That simply isn’t the case right now.

Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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