VCU Needs Offensive Punch to Live Up to Expectations

Posted 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.

Treveon Graham

Offense from shooters like Treveon Graham is just as important as the trademark Havoc defense for VCU (credit: msn.foxsports.com)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

ACC Preview Revisited – Part One

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 1st, 2014

As the non-conference portion of the 2013-14 college basketball season nears its conclusion and conference play looms large in the New Year, the ACC has seen its share of ups and downs along an uneven early stretch. While some of its teams (Duke, Syracuse) appear to be capable of the preseason hype bestowed upon them, others have been a mixture of confounding (North Carolina), shockingly underwhelming (Boston College, Maryland) and utterly but pleasantly surprising (Florida State). The conference some were talking about being the greatest college basketball had ever witnessed hasn’t shown the depth and consistency in non-conference play to justify that acoolade, but there is still a long way to go as this new-look league embarks into ACC play. Here’s a look back at the RTC preseason ACC rankings as voted upon by the writers and how those teams have performed thus far and look to perform as the season progresses.

1. Duke Blue Devils (11-2)

Coach K and Duke looks like the favorite heading into conference play. (AP)

Coach K and Duke look like the favorite heading into conference play. (AP)

  • Signature wins: #22 Michigan, UCLA
  • Signature losses: #5 Kansas,  #4 Arizona
  • Reasons for optimism: Quinn Cook has shown he is the multi-threat point guard the team had hoped he would become, adding some serious offensive game to his role as facilitator. Jabari Parker is in the running for early NPOY honors and has done nothing to dampen his enormous expectations. Rodney Hood has stepped in and become an instant multi-purpose threat as a transfer, and Rasheed Sulaimon now appears to be ingratiating himself with Coach K again, making this a very talented offensive team with many versatile weapons.
  • Reasons for pessimism: The team has looked lost defensively on the perimeter at times. While still very competitive, they lost to both of the best teams they played in the non-conference slate, displaying an inability to get key stops down the stretch. Parker’s need to control the offensive flow has come to the detriment of Sulaimon’s development. Will that change now that Sulaimon seems to be earning more minutes? There’s still no prominent big man (sorry, Marshall Plumlee), and the three-point shooters are not as scary as in years past.
  • Forecast: This team has got plenty of talent, and Parker is a dominant go-to guy who can single-handedly rescue this team from an off night. Duke still lives and dies largely from the perimeter, though. They have won titles without significant impact in the paint before, but they have also flamed out of the NCAA Tournament early because of the same deficiency. Parker is too good and has enough complementary threats in Hood, Cook, and possibly Sulaimon to rely on for this team to underwhelm late in the season. This is a squad with Final Four credibility.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Only a Strong ACC Run Can Rescue Virginia

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 31st, 2013

When the year began, the Virginia Cavaliers made it a point to avoid the types of missteps that derailed their season a year ago and relegated them to an NIT bid. There were three main areas the team had to lock down: a solid showing in the non-conference schedule; more offensive production from the point guard position; and avoiding a late-season collapse in ACC play. Conference play is now on the horizon, and the Cavaliers will have to look themselves in the mirror knowing they failed miserably at the first area of emphasis, have more questions than answers about the second, and will absolutely have to reverse the trend of the third to make an NCAA Tournament run. Nothing is as head coach Tony Bennett expected for his team roughly a third of the way into the 2013-14 season.

Joe Harris

It’s been a rough start to a promising year for Joe Harris and UVA (credit: grantland.com)

Virginia had two match-ups against ranked foes prior to conference play. They suffered a heartbreaking loss to VCU at home in November and then bowed out of a horrifically low-scoring affair against Wisconsin in December, again at home. A bad loss to Wisconsin Green-Bay, Bennett’s alma mater, followed, putting the Cavs in a precarious position with only a game at Tennessee left as a possible noteworthy non-conference victory. That evaporated early and often Monday night, as Virginia was overwhelmed by the Volunteers from start to finish in a crushing 35-point loss. The demoralizing score and performance would be devastating enough if it weren’t also serving as a microcosm of their entire season.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Brice Johnson Not Making the Most of His Starting Role

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 28th, 2013

Last week’s big news with respect to North Carolina was the announcement that the school would not seek reinstatement for P.J. Hairston this year. Perhaps flying under the radar in terms of other personnel news was that starting center Joel James would be out for 10 to 14 days after an MCL sprain suffered against Texas. This opened the door for Brice Johnson, who was named the interim starter, to firmly grab hold of the center position. His results in the two games since James’ injury show why head coach Roy Williams has been hesitant to give the sophomore heavy minutes, and also why this team may miss an overlooked member of the starting lineup in James.

Brice Johnson has provided the highlights, but... (credit: collegebasketball.ap.org)

Brice Johnson’ has provided some highlights, but is squandering his chance at grabbing the starting center spot (credit: AP)

Johnson’s first audition in the starting role came against Davidson last Saturday, a game in which the Tar Heels struggled mightily before Marcus Paige rescued them in overtime. Johnson’s stat line was brutal, with only two points on 1-of-3 shooting, a pair of turnovers and an eventual disqualification due to fouls. This Davidson team was scrappy and shot extremely well from outside, but the Wildcats also utilized a shocking ability to get into the paint and either score or dish with little regard for UNC’s big men.

That trend continued on Friday night, when the Tar Heels were outscored in the paint by a Northern Kentucky team whose tallest player is 6’6”. A performance like that boils down to effort and proper defensive positioning, and this is an area with which Johnson continues to struggle. A lean player already, he enjoys most of his success on the defensive end with blocks coming from the weak side. When players actively back him into the basket, he struggles with reaching and committing fouls. While he was able to go 4-of-8 from the field, he was 0-of-2 in the second half and only grabbed four rebounds in 20 minutes of action. James and Kennedy Meeks surely would have contributed better rebounding tallies in similar stints on the floor (in fact, Meeks registered six boards against NKU in only 13 minutes on the floor).

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

VCU Seeks to Make Claim as Virginia’s Best Program Saturday

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 21st, 2013

The VCU Rams entered the 2013-14 season with the school’s highest preseason rankings in school history (#14 in the Associated Press poll, #15 in the USA Today/Coaches poll) and arguably coach Shaka Smart’s best team since he took over the program in 2009. The Rams have hit some early stumbling blocks with losses to Florida State, Georgetown and Northern Iowa, putting them outside of the rankings altogether at this point. The team is adjusting to new foul rules that often hamper it’s ability to run its vaunted Havoc defense, and they have not been consistently effective from long range. But this weekend’s upcoming Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic in Richmond gives VCU an opportunity to firmly stake its claim to a title they arguably have yet to formally hold — the best basketball school in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

vcushaka-4_3

A win over VT would continue Shaka Smart’s team’s ascension in the state hoops pantheon (credit: USA Today)

Since Smart took over, the Rams have been the main school in the headlines when it comes to Virginia college basketball. The magical run to the Final Four in 2011, considered one of the greatest Cinderella runs of all-time in the NCAA Tournament, pushed them to the forefront of the basketball scene. But staying power is the only way to hold the title of the state’s best hoops school, and it’s that consistent success Smart and the Rams have enjoyed in the years following that makes it clear they are Virginia’s foremost basketball program. NCAA bids were achieved again in 2011-12 and 2012-13, where each year VCU had the misfortune of meeting one of the best teams in the country and getting knocked out in the third round (a rising Indiana displaced them in 2011-12; eventual national runner-up Michigan did so last year). To then come into this year with the enormous expectations that were placed upon it shows that the VCU program is now a major player on the national scene.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Jarell Eddie Assuming Early Leadership Mantle For Virginia Tech

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 11th, 2013

When Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team had one of its players named the ACC Player of the Week on Monday, it’d be fair for most fans to wonder who could have possibly garnered that honor with Erick Green now playing in the pros. The Hokies were a team that relied almost exclusively on Green a year ago, and he put up continually stellar individual performances during a dreary overall season for the team. With Green now gone, many wondered who could possibly take over the reins offensively and help this team avoid a season in the conference cellar. Ten games into the year, that player has been Jarell Eddie.

Jarell Eddie Miami

Jarell Eddie’s big week spoke volumes about his positive impact on a young Hokies team (credit: miamiherald.com)

Coming into the year, the squad from Blacksburg looked to be in complete rebuilding mode. A freshman, Ben Emelogu, was named its captain, a sign that the returnees weren’t seen as leaders or surefire contributors. Most probably looked at Virginia Tech’s opening loss to South Carolina Upstate as further validation that, minus Green, this would be a team that would struggle to beat anybody. But the team has shown its resiliency with solid victories over West Virginia and Winthrop in the non-conference schedule and an overtime win over Miami that left them as the conference’s lone unbeaten team (yes, that’s the only ACC game played thus far, but some may not have predicted a single conference win for this roster). The Hokies’ 7-3 record won’t blow anyone away, but it is a good start to a year that many thought could be completely disastrous.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Winners and Losers from the 15th Annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 5th, 2013

The 2013-14 ACC/Big Ten Challenge had a different look this year thanks to realignment, but for the second consecutive year, the event ended in a 6-6 tie. In the end, the Challenge produced one shocking upset, showcased two Duke players heading in opposite directions, and delivered one game that set basketball back a few decades. Here are several glaring winners and losers from this year’s version:

Winners

1)       North Carolina. The most confusing team in the country went into East Lansing and knocked off the top-ranked Spartans, despite only an average night scoring the basketball by Marcus Paige.  Sure, there were injury issues on the Spartans’ side, but the ability of this UNC team to bounce back from puzzling losses to knock off powerhouses (Louisville after a home loss to Belmont; Michigan State after a road loss to UAB) speaks volumes about Roy Williams’ ability to motivate a roster he didn’t envision leaning on when the season began.

UNC celebrates huge win over No. 1 Michigan State (credit: goheels.com)

UNC celebrates huge win over No. 1 Michigan State (credit: goheels.com)

2)      Quinn Cook. Everyone knew about Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Most of the questions about the Blue Devils were about the supporting cast. With Rasheed Sulaimon a no-show (more on that later), the inconsistent Cook of a year ago seemed like a different player as he exploited the Michigan backcourt in a solid win Tuesday night. If Cook can consistently hit his outside shot and remain largely turnover-free, a team that appeared to lean heavily on two players suddenly has more versatility at its disposal. Cook’s 24 points and nine turnovers helped keep Duke’s 13-year non-conference home winning streak alive.

3)      Iowa. Fighting off a tougher-than-expected challenge from Notre Dame with 57 percent shooting was impressive, but even more impressive was that this was the Hawkeyes’ fourth game in six days. Fran McCaffery’s bunch was coming off a solid showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing only an overtime title game to a very good Villanova squad. Iowa has a solid nucleus in Aaron White, Devyn Marble and Jared Uthoff and has already shown its natural ability to score in bunches. Their resolve in fighting off fatigue and a charging Notre Dame team spoke to their toughness. This is definitely a team worth watching in the Big Ten this season.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

North Carolina’s Big Upset Over Sparty Only Begs More Questions

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 5th, 2013

College basketball fans, welcome to the most perplexing team in the nation. North Carolina pulled off the stunning upset last night in East Lansing, besting the top team in the nation, Michigan State. A team beset by ongoing suspensions, inconsistent play and horrendous foul shooting went into a hostile road environment following an ugly loss to UAB and promptly outplayed and outhustled the nation’s top team. A confounding team? Absolutely. A team that can be pegged as playing to its competition thus far? Perhaps. But most importantly, this might be a team with just a short enough memory to continue to make noise as the season progresses.

UNC Was Quicker to the Ball All Night Long Versus Michigan State (DFP/J. Gonzalez)

UNC Was Quicker to the Ball All Night Long Versus Michigan State (DFP/J. Gonzalez)

What might be most striking thus far in the Tar Heels’ season is this squad’s resiliency. This is a team that has been forced to juggle lineups with a lot of young players forced to play significantly larger roles than they’d anticipated. Freshmen Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks were supposed to play complementary roles while their elders carried the torch early.Instead, the suspensions of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald have forced a lineup shift that saw UNC running 11 players in just the first half against the Spartans. Britt was invaluable, playing perhaps his best game thus far. His ability to handle the ball without turning it over as the Michigan State team pressed out of necessity in the closing minutes was huge for this team. He was also a solid 7-of-8 from the line (UNC’s Achilles heel, 61.8 percent on the season), most of which was in crunch time when the Spartans turned to fouling in the hopes of mounting a comeback. Meeks’ passing ability and impressive touch down low was again on display; despite facing taller big men most of the game, he still finished with an impressive line of 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench and made numerous gorgeous passes to facilitate the team’s half-court sets. Not to be outdone was the continually impressive Brice Johnson. His 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks helped North Carolina control the paint.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Syracuse’s Maui Title Speaks to Roster’s Versatility

Posted by Lathan Wells (@prohibitivefav) on November 29th, 2013

When you think about Syracuse, you automatically think about the zone. The Orange’s 2-3 zone defense has confounded opponents throughout Jim Boeheim’s tenure, and its uniqueness across the college basketball landscape makes it that much harder to prepare for. One of the keys to the zone is that there often appears to be holes, places for a team to look to operate with space. Instead, the length of the Syracuse defenders closes those holes quickly and converges on opponents with a tenacity that can make even the most seasoned teams struggle. This year’s Orange team, at least thus far, has operated as a sort of microcosm of its preferred method of defense. There appear to be weaknesses to exploit, and sometimes teams have had success doing so. But in the end, Syracuse, just as its vaunted 2-3 zone often does, has won, including hoisting this year’s Maui Invitational trophy on Wednesday.

Syracuse recovered from early-season struggles to take the Maui Invitational (credit: USAToday)

Syracuse recovered from early-season struggles to take the Maui Invitational (credit: USAToday)

Coming into the year, the team was concerned about replacing its perimeter core. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams, guard Brandon Triche and swingman James Southerland all left, either via graduation or early draft entry, leaving the team unseasoned on the outside. One of the keys was the development of shooting guard Trevor Cooney. Billed as a shooter coming out of high school, he’d failed to live up to expectations for the Orange early in his tenure. But Cooney has shown that he can explode at times, with a 27-point, seven three-pointer effort in the opener versus Cornell, five made triples against Minnesota in the opener of the Maui Invitational, and another 23 points against California in the semifinals of the same tourney. The problem is that at other times he’s been a non-factor, such as when he was 1-of-6 from the field in a win over Fordham or 1-of-5 from the arc against Colgate. Cooney’s consistent ability to stretch defenses with his perimeter game is a must for this team.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

UNC Answers Critics With Statement Win Versus Louisville Sunday

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 25th, 2013

Coming into the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic over the weekend, North Carolina had generated plenty of concern from a fervent fan base after a less-than-stellar start to the season. Uneven performances against Oakland and Holy Cross were worrisome enough, but then the Tar Heels dropped a home game to Belmont that caused a plummet in the rankings and had pundits predicting a very long year for the storied program. While many blamed the ongoing suspensions of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald for a startling lack of offensive continuity and inability to put lesser competition away, there were other major questions for the team as it headed into the tournament. Could the team continue to rely so heavily on Marcus Paige, a point guard by nature, as its primary scoring threat playing off the ball? Would the freshmen and sophomores begin to show the promise and consistency expected of them? Had Roy Williams suddenly been exposed as a mediocre in-game coach, unwilling to make adjustments when his system doesn’t run smoothly?

Brice Johnson's emergence has provided more offensive punch for UNC (credit: collegebasketball.ap.org)

Brice Johnson’s emergence has provided more offensive punch for UNC (credit: collegebasketball.ap.org)

All three questions were answered over the course of the weekend, none more dramatically than when the Tar Heels shocked the world by upsetting defending national champion Louisville in the tournament title game on Sunday. Paige continued his torrid scoring stretch over the weekend, netting a career-high 26 points against Richmond on Saturday in the semifinals and then topping that mark with 32 against the Cardinals. While the converted shooting guard remains the team’s lone outside threat, his noticeable improvement from long range has proven to be a godsend during the absence of the team’s primary perimeter shooters. While holdover James Michael McAdoo has proven inconsistent in this young season, Paige has been Carolina’s go-to guy in all the critical moments and right now he’s producing with that burden on his shoulders.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

VCU’s Versatility On Full Display Early in the Season

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 17th, 2013

Lathan Wells is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between VCU and Winthrop in Richmond. 

The VCU Rams have risen to prominence on the national scene over the last several years due largely to their suffocating, full-court defense and long-range shooting. This has proven to be a style that’s been immensely difficult for teams to prepare for, and most opponents don’t possess the stamina or depth to hang with the Rams for an entire game. But in the infant stages of the 2013-14 season, and following a solid 92-71 win over Winthrop Saturday night, VCU has also proven that it has the ability to win games in different fashions. It’s that versatility that makes this team particularly dangerous.

Legitimate options off the bench like JeQuan Lewis make VCU even more potent (credit: collegebasketball.org)

Legitimate options off the bench like JeQuan Lewis make VCU even more potent (credit: collegebasketball.org)

After the Rams capped off a rugged, grinding win in Charlottesville over in-state rival Virginia on Tuesday, it became apparent that taking the tempo away from this team would no longer guarantee success. The Rams fought off a night where they were whistled for 27 personal fouls and had several key players in early foul trouble with its consistent half-court defense. While they weren’t able to press the Cavaliers full-court due to the slow-it-down style Virginia prefers, Shaka Smart’s team’s perseverance on the road against an ACC foe in prime time showed that it has the makeup of a team that can handle in-game adversity. Avoiding the letdown that sometimes plagues teams playing as many youngsters as VCU was an important barometer early in the year, and the Rams were able to get back to pressing full-court and shooting well from downtown in pulling away against Winthrop.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

UNC Offense Has No Identity Without Its Suspended Backcourt

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 16th, 2013

North Carolina has the look of a team that is completely unsure of who its offensively. Coming into the year facing uncertainty regarding player suspensions and the role both holdovers and newcomers are going to be asked to play in light of these circumstances, the Tar Heels have struggled mightily in their first two contests of the season. Marcus Paige, a point guard/facilitator by nature, has willed the team to victory twice with his new-found proclivity for seeking his own shot. But it’s very clear, facing a brutal non-conference schedule, that this is a Tar Heel team with a serious identity crisis and in jeopardy of getting off to an extremely poor start to the 2013-14 season.

The Tar Heels are struggling without their perimeter threats (credit: Associated Press)

The Tar Heels are struggling without their perimeter threats (credit: Associated Press)

Having played twice against mediocre but motivated opponents, it’s evident that this team is in trouble. The indefinite suspensions of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald due to separate NCAA compliance issues have left Roy Willaims’ team in flux, both in terms of how to practice and prepare for games as well as the roles that returning and new players alike are being asked to assume. Paige, having played an entire freshman campaign at the point, is now asked to play shooting guard while freshman Nate Britt attempts to orchestrate the offense. He’s had to be North Carolina’s main offensive threat in both of the uneven victories over Oakland and Holy Cross. While Paige’s scoring has escalated (he tallied a career high in points and field goal attempts against Holy Cross, with 23 and 17 respectively) and proved vital in both wins, it’s evident that this team is qutite average without its two absent wing players, and that Paige as the primary offensive weapon is not going to be enough for them to excel over the course of a full season.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story