VCU’s Win Over Northern Iowa Does Little to Mask Defensive Deficiencies

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 14th, 2014

Sometimes a team, if it has enough overall talent and a few breaks, can win a game in which its major flaws are exposed by an opponent. That’s exactly what happened in VCU’s thrilling double-overtime 93-87 win over an excellent Northern Iowa team on Saturday night in Richmond. Coming in, VCU’s detractors were wondering how the team dubbed Shaka Smart’s best since he took over the Rams program in 2009 could be a mere 5-3 and out of the national rankings already. The answer(s) to that question surfaced early and often against the Panthers; luckily the Rams’, buoyed by an always boisterous home crowd, overcame their nagging issues on the defensive end to win.

Shaka Smart's Rams got a much-needed resume-builder, but defensive issues remain (

Shaka Smart’s Rams got a much-needed resume-builder, but defensive issues remain (

VCU’s HAVOC defense is now a nationwide buzzword, and their pressing style can be utterly infuriating for opponents. But what has caused this Rams team to struggle in the non-conference schedule is the fact that once that press is broken or has been rendered impossible to set up, they’re a subpar half-court defensive team. Coming into the Northern Iowa matchup, the Rams were allowing opponents to shoot nearly 41% from three-point range. For a team that loves to chuck from long-range themselves, that can negate any good three-point shooting night they have. They’re not a whole lot better inside the arc, either, mostly because they take chances with their guard-heavy lineup and don’t have any true rim-protectors on the roster.

Consider the Rams’ three losses this year, to Villanova, Old Dominion, and Virginia. All three of those teams boasted veteran guards that were not easily shaken by HAVOC. The results were that VCU found itself playing a large majority of their defensive possessions in each game in the half-court. In those three losses combined, VCU’s opponents shot 57% from inside the arc and 39% from three. The assist-to-turnover ratio for the aforementioned three teams in their wins over the Rams? 1.4-1, pretty good against a defense boasting to be one of the hardest to crack in the country.

Now compare those numbers to the win over Northern Iowa, a team entering the game with a 9-0 record that found itself ranked in both prominent national polls. The Panthers too had veteran guard play, from starting point man Deon Mitchell (a senior) to backup Wes Washpun (junior), both of whom had plenty of success cracking VCU’s press and finding easy forays to the basket (they combined for 39 points on 13-26 shooting). With their starting big man standing a mere 6’6″ in Mo Alie-Cox, there’s not much resistance in the lane for the Rams once the press is broken. Northern Iowa shot 49.2% for the game from the field and 45.8% from three while committing 16 turnovers to 13 assists. Those numbers look eerily similar to the games VCU lost and to their season defensive averages as a whole.

None of this is meant to detract from how big of a win this was for the Rams, who badly needed a solid resume-builder in the non-conference after failing in its previous attempts. Treveon Graham was brilliant in the clutch as usual, scoring 21 points and hitting a huge driving layup in regulation to tie it with half a minute go. He then followed suit with a dagger of a three-pointer in the second overtime session that pushed VCU’s lead to four with two minutes remaining, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish again. Briante Weber was a revelation, scoring 14 points and accruing six more steals while playing the final few minutes of regulation and both overtimes with four fouls. VCU being +5 in the turnover department and shooting much better at the free throw line than the Panthers was really the difference.

Nonetheless, VCU has to find a way to address these deficiencies. They are going to continue to play teams with savvy guards who find ways not to hand them the ball time and time again. Surely their Atlantic-10 opponents will be ready, now that they’re seeing them for the third season since VCU’s move to the conference. Some of their young post men need to become stronger so they can remain on the floor and help make getting to the rim difficult. There will be games where they don’t shoot 47% from the floor and hit 11 three’s, as they did against Northern Iowa. Unless they shore up the half-court defense and stop opponents from torching them from long range, VCU will need constant near-perfect games on the offensive side of the ball to get close to where they hope to be come March.

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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