The book on VCU’s style of play is fairly simple. Defensively, they want to press you full-court to create a bunch of turnovers and resulting easy baskets. Offensively, they shoot a high volume of three-pointers and rely on the quickness of their guards to break down a defense in the waning seconds of a shot clock. That’s pretty much their ethos. But as the program now enters its third season in the Atlantic 10, teams know what’s coming and have begun countering what VCU likes to do. What they are having trouble dealing with, however, isn’t a problem of strategy as much as personnel. VCU, currently riding a seven-game winning streak, boasts a much-improved second unit this season, led by the heralded freshman Terry Larrier. The bench’s production was on grand display in the Rams’ impressive victory over Davidson in Richmond on Wednesday night.
Terry Larrier is starting to show why he’s Shaka Smart’s highest-rated recruit (AP Photo)
In those seven games, the Rams’ bench has outscored its opposition in all but one contest (a double-overtime victory over Northern Iowa). VCU’s second unit is comprised largely of young players, and they are starting to come around at just the right time. Freshmen Justin Tillman and Michael Gilmore have been doing a much better job on the boards in relief of Mo Alie-Cox inside and have looked more active offensively; classmate Jonathan Williams appears much more confident handling the ball when he spells Briante Weber and JeQuan Lewis at the point; and sophomore Doug Brooks has become a real spark with solid long-range shooting and a disruptive role in the chaos-inducing Havoc defense. Brooks was especially key in last night’s VCU victory with his contributions of eight points and two steals.
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 (vcuramnation.com)
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.
It’s easy to look at the team Tony Bennett has put together at Virginia and say that his players are interchangeable. After all, his defense-first philosophy and the offensive identity of continually working for the best available shot don’t seem individual-specific. One could point to the program’s rise and success under Bennett as further evidence of that theory, as Virginia looks every bit as good in starting 9-0 this season as last year’s ACC champion, despite some key personnel losses. Even when the Cavaliers were down two starters (including the team’s leading scorer, Justin Anderson) in a tough road game against Maryland on Wednesday night, Virginia still ran away to a 76-65 win.
London Perrantes proved once again why Virginia can’t succeed without him (USAToday Sports)
But the truth is that Virginia does have an indispensable player: London Perrantes. The sophomore point guard is the heady, sure-handed player that makes this team capable of playing a variety of styles and still have a chance to beat anyone. That was obvious in the Cavaliers’ emphatic 74-57 defeat of rival VCU in Richmond on Saturday. The Rams once again employed their HAVOC defense, and any team facing their relentless full-court gauntlet needs an efficient, smart ball-handler to navigate through it. On Saturday, Perrantes deftly kept the ball moving and expertly broke through the press time and time again, often leading to dunks or fouls in transition as a result.
Last year, VCU went into John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville and shocked Virginia on a Treveon Graham buzzer-beater. This year, both teams entered the season ranked in the top 15 nationally with the rematch set to take place on VCU’s home turf in Richmond. Some may think that the luster of this game wore off with VCU’s two early-season losses and subsequent plummet from the rankings, but that’s far from the case in Virginia’s capital city (need evidence? see here). The Cavaliers will be the highest-ranked team ever to play at VCU’s Siegel Center. RTC’s Tommy Lemoine and Lathan Wells preview one of the biggest games in recent Virginia collegiate basketball history here.
Tommy Lemoine: Joe Harris scored almost a third of Virginia’s points against VCU last year, but he’s since graduated. Justin Anderson has done a nice job of filling that void (alongside Malcolm Brogdon), but the reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year appeared to injure his ankle against Maryland on Wednesday. If he is limited – or worse, can’t play – who steps up as an additional offensive creator in his absence?
Last year in Charlottesville, Treveon Graham broke UVA’s heart with a last-second shot (AssociatedPress)
Lathan Wells: The logical choice is Brogdon himself, who some may forget was a preseason All-ACC selection before Anderson overshadowed him in the team’s early slate. Brogdon is still the player who can make the most plays for this team in crunch time, and he rivals Anderson’s ability to get to the basket off the drive. If he is contained, however, it becomes much dicier for the Cavaliers. Either Mike Tobey or London Perrantes may need a career night if points are at a premium. While Virginia has largely lived up to its billing, VCU has underwhelmed to this point after being lauded as Shaka Smart’s best team yet at VCU. There are numerous issues that need to be cleaned up from the Rams’ 5-2 start, but what do you think is the biggest area that needs to be addressed to knock off the unbeaten Cavaliers?
TL: There are problems on both ends of the court, but against a team like Virginia that limits its own mistakes, the Rams have to be more patient on offense. Too often, their half-court ‘sets’ amount to launching threes (and not all of them the result of dribble-penetration) or isolated attempts to attack the basket. They combined for a staggeringly low four assists in the loss to Villanova and just 10 against Old Dominion. VCU would be wise to shore up its offensive rotations and ramp up its off-the-ball movement against the Cavaliers, whose pack line defense is virtually impenetrable without sharp execution. Speaking of defense, it’s all about forcing turnovers with VCU, but Virginia has done a really nice job taking care of the ball so far this year. Still, the Cavaliers coughed it up 19 times in last season’s match-up – a big reason why they lost. Any cause for concern as they head to Richmond, or is London Perrantes ready to handle the HAVOC?
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?
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.
Posted by Tommy Lemoine & Adam Stillman on November 14th, 2014
Basketball is nearly upon us! Here are eight O26 storylines to keep an eye on during the opening weekend of hoops:
Does VCU seize the opportunity against Tennessee without Briante Weber?
VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Times Dispatch)
The Rams should be one of the better teams in the country this season, and they will have several marquee opportunities to prove it before the calendar flips to 2015 – opportunities not only to justify their top-15 ranking, but also to better position themselves come Selection Sunday. The first of those chances will be tonight against Tennessee in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis. The fact that the Vols, a decent-but-not great SEC squad, have serious questions at point guard would normally be good news for VCU and its disruptive pressure defense. But without Briante Weber in the lineup – the senior guard is serving a one-game suspension – the Rams are down their peskiest defender and a guy who’s on track to break the NCAA’s all-time steals record. HAVOC will press on (literally), but keep an eye on whether Weber’s absence enables Tennessee to limit its turnovers, make this more of a half-court game, and minimize VCU’s easy transition buckets. The last thing Shaka Smart’s group wants is to drop a nationally-televised opener (6:30 PM ET, CBSSN) against a beatable power-conference opponent. Read the rest of this entry »
With Halloween upon us, it’s only natural that we examine the spookiest, scariest, creepiest, crawliest, most fear-inducing hoopsters in the O26 world. WARNING – you may experience nightmares, especially if none of these guys play for your school.
Siena’s Jimmy Patsos coaches our All Hallows’ Eve team. (Cindy Schultz / Times Union)
‘The Robbin’ Goblin’
Briante Weber– PG – Virginia Commonwealth. Weber is arguably the most terrifying player in college basketball. Over his first three years in Richmond, the 6’2’’ guard has consistently and relentlessly harassed opposing ball-handlers to the point that Phil Martelli hailed him as the best defender in the country last March. Not only does Weber own the VCU and Atlantic 10 records for career steals, but he’s also posted the highest steal rate in the country for three consecutive seasons. In 2013-14, he logged more than five thefts 11 different times, including seven apiece against Stony Brook and George Washington – impressive outings to be sure, but neither of which even touch his 2012 season opener. In one of the most incredible defensive performances in recent memory, Weber tallied a whopping 10 steals in just 18 minutes on the court, a rate so absurd that even Gary Payton would have to tip his cap (er, glove). To this day, the mere thought of Weber must send shivers down Andy Enfield’s spine.
‘The Serial Thriller’
Desi Washington– SG – Saint Peter’s. The Peacocks’ second-leading scorer does his most sinister work late in games, a fact that repeat-victim Fairfield knows all too well – Washington beat the Stags with buzzer-beaters (or near buzzer-beaters) three different times last season. That’s uncanny, improbable and – if you’re Sydney Johnson, or really any other MAAC coach – downright horrifying entering 2014-15. Incredibly, the now-senior shooting guard also picked off Seton Hall in similar fashion, scoring 34 points and drilling a deep three in the closing seconds to pull off the road upset. To call Washington ‘clutch’ would be an understatement; ‘categorically lethal’ is probably more appropriate.
VCU continued to put thoughts of their three-losses-in-four-games stretch to rest Thursday night, vanquishing their city rivals from Richmond, 56-50. While the depleted Spiders didn’t appear on paper to have the manpower to match up with a Rams squad fresh off an upset of Saint Louis, it was still a rivalry game in which anything can and did happen. Richmond’s 26-22 halftime edge and 11-point lead with 15 minutes to go was enough to prove that. Still, the comeback win was encouraging and important for VCU’s push into March, and also emblematic of the reason Shaka Smart’s club becomes so dangerous come tourney time. A look into Smart’s numbers away from home and against familiar opponents while at the helm demonstrates why opponents hate to meet the Rams late in the year, no matter the game’s location.
Coach Smart’s team is ridiculously successful in “return games,” boding well for conference tournament play (sportsillustrated.com)
Everyone knows about the well-documented defense that VCU employs. The attacking Havoc style has been alive and well all year long, as the Rams currently rank third in the Atlantic 10 in defense (allowing 66.0 PPG coming into the match-up with Richmond) and lead the nation in turnovers forced. The key to this team’s success, though, is in its balance. VCU also ranks second in the conference in scoring, making it the only team in the A-10 that can boast top-three rankings in both statistical categories. That means the Rams can hound their opponents to death with the full-court press, but also boast five starters averaging at least nine points per game. While Richmond’s formidable match-up zone defense had its way with Smart’s offense for the bulk of the game and there was a definite lack of impact from the bench, the frenetic pace the Rams employ and the variety of scoring options at their disposal proved vital in the second half and illustrated why they’re a scary team to meet late in the year.
Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on January 15th, 2014
Like most cities on the East Coast, Washington DC is a professional sports town where its NFL team is king. But for two hours on Tuesday night, Foggy Bottom transformed into a full-fledged campus town like one might find in Big Ten country. The reason? A budding intra-regional and intra-conference rivalry between George Washington and VCU. And for the first time in this young feud, the outcome of the contest had significant implications for both teams with respect to league standings and postseason prospects. George Washington made a statement with its 76-66 win over VCU and made clear that it is a serious contender to win its first Atlantic 10 title since 2005-06. For VCU, it’s another bump in the road for what was supposed to be its most promising season since a run to the 2011 Final Four, and has Shaka Smart’s squad doing a bit of soul-searching. The outcome of this game has certainly changed the perceptions of these two teams from what was expected of them at the beginning of the season.
Sophomore Patricio Garino scored a career-high 25 points to lead the Colonials over VCU.
George Washington has quietly turned in one of the most surprising seasons in the country thus far. Picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams in the Atlantic 10 Preseason Media Poll, the Colonials now find themselves with a 14-3 overall record that includes wins against Creighton, VCU, Maryland and Miami (FL). A major reason for their turnaround has been the dramatic improvement of their offense from last season (jumping from 0.98 to 1.09 points per possession), which has been driven by the addition of Maurice Creek, a transfer from Indiana, and the emergence of players like Kethan Savage and Kevin Larsen. Against VCU on Tuesday, Larsen and reserve Patricio Garino stepped up and led the Colonials to shred the Rams’ stellar defense (it came in at 0.91 points per possession, 9th nationally) — George Washington shot 56.3 percent and scored 1.04 points per possession. This win signals that the Colonials are ready to make the Atlantic 10 a four-team race, joining the likes of VCU, UMass, and Saint Louis vying for a conference crown. They may not get the national attention their turnaround warrants, but what Mike Lonergan has done with his team has been nothing short of remarkable.
After college basketball had spent the greater part of the last two decades getting more physical and watching scoring decline, the NCAA decided to act this past offseason by re-emphasizing rules against hand-checking and other physical perimeter play in an attempt to speed the game up and increase scoring. For some teams, this increased emphasis will have an outsized impact, none more than VCU. The Rams’ smothering, pressing Havoc defense used to be something nobody wanted to go to war with, leading the nation in steal percentage for each of the last two seasons, according to KenPom.com. To get some perspective on the rule changes, I talked with Rams superfan Chris Crowley, known as VCU Pav throughout his fan base (and most of the state of Virginia, who he frequently trolls on Twitter). A former VCU equipment manager who has crossed the country before to watch his team play, Crowley’s game day ensemble includes ram horns and a cape.
The new NCAA rules might hinder the game of Briante Weber and his teammates. (AP)
Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
Rush The Court: How long have you been a VCU fan? How did that start?
Chris Crowley:I started out as a manager for the basketball team from 2001 to 2004, and then decided I needed to concentrate on class a little bit more, so I decided to quit managing after my junior year. That was right around the time the Rowdy Rams (the student fan organization) were getting founded, so I jumped in with them – they were getting restarted; they were originally founded in the 1980s. We got restarted around the 2003-04 season, and I joined them in ’04-05, and the rest is history. Read the rest of this entry »
In what turned out to be a rough Tuesday in terms of college basketball-related news, a federal grand jury in Alabama unsealed an indictment that alleges former Auburn guard Varez Ward of attempting to throw a game against Arkansas in the 2011-12 season. Ward, a junior at the time, is accused of two counts of sports bribery (or more commonly known as point-shaving) where he allegedly conspired with gamblers and tried to solicit other players to throw the game. (fullindictment here) Ward only played 19 seconds in that contest against the Hawgs, suffering a thigh bruise very early that kept him on the bench for the rest of the game in an eventual three-point loss. Last year the FBI said that it was also looking into a February 2012 game against Alabama where Ward scored three points and committed six turnovers, but that game was not referred to in yesterday’s indictment. According to this report from last year, Ward was suspended by Auburn assistant coaches in late February after another player blew the whistle on him; another teammate originally under suspicion was later cleared. Ward never suited up for Auburn again, but he may very well be wearing the orange (jumpsuit) full-time if these charges stick. He faces five years in prison on each count. We’re not going to get preachy on this issue, but we will refer back to one of the first articles we ever wrote on this here website: This sort of thing happens a lot more than anyone cares to admit.
Meanwhile, more discouraging news from the great state of Alabama came out on Tuesday as Crimson Tide forward Devonta Pollard was charged by local authorities with conspiracy to commit kidnapping related to an April 30 abduction of a six-year old girl named Jashayla Hopson. The details are somewhat murky at this point, but it appears that Pollard may have been assisting his mother, Jessie Mae Pollard, in antagonizing the youngster’s mother who was caught up in a land dispute with her. But this is no trumped-up charge where someone was held against their will for a minute or two — if the allegations are true, Hopson was picked up at her elementary school and held for a full day before being dropped off on the side of a road unharmed. Pollard, his mother, and four others have been charged so far in this crime, with at least one other still pending. What a crazy world we live in.
Ohio State president Gordon Gee has had himself quite a week, as reports of his insensitive comments made in December about Catholics, SEC schools, and Louisville have been making the rounds. The “pompous ass,” according to Cardinals’ head coach Rick Pitino, announced Tuesday that he is taking his volatile opinions into the sunset, choosing to retire from his post effective July 1. Gee says that he made his decision last week during a vacation, feeling that he needed time to “re-energize and re-focus.” Whether he was encouraged to retire or came to the decision on his own volition, the 69-year old president certainly has a fund-raising and bottom line resume that is unmatched within the industry, so if he chooses to continue his work elsewhere, we doubt he’ll have much trouble finding a place to land. He may not want to send any resumes out to Notre Dame, Louisville or any of those SEC schools, though.
How about some better news? One of the problems with the John R. Wooden Classic played every December in Anaheim was that the stature of the lineup often didn’t seem to fit the stature of the name headlining the event. Naturally, UCLA was almost always involved, but usually the three other teams invited were a mixture of solid mid-majors (i.e., St. Mary’s, San Diego State) and some other mid-level programs (i.e., USC, Washington, Texas A&M). It was also just for one day, and it often fell during a period in the college basketball calendar in early to mid-December when viewers were getting much better match-ups during the same period (think: UNC-Kentucky or Kansas-Ohio State). The decision announced Tuesday to rebrand the event as the John Wooden Legacy and merge it with the Anaheim Classic during Thanksgiving weekend is a good one. Although the 2013 field is not great, featuring Marquette, Creighton, San Diego State and Miami (FL) as its marquee names, the four-year cycle of exempted events and ESPN’s coverage will no doubt encourage bigger-name programs to take the trip to SoCal in future years. We’d expect this to become one of the better such events during Feast Week starting in 2014 and beyond.
Finally today, Andy Glockner at SI.comdigs deeply through the KenPom statistical buffet and gives us what he calls “the extremists” — those returning players who are the best of the best in each of a number of key statistical categories. If you can name the top returnee in the nation in shot percentage at 40 percent, more power to you (answer: Wofford’s Karl Cochran), but certainly a couple of these names are on the short list for breakout seasons next year: Oregon State’s Eric Moreland (tops in defensive rebounding percentage at 28 percent); St. John’s Chris Obepka (tops in block percentage at 16 percent); and, VCU’s Briante Weber (tops in steal percentage at 7 percent). There’s more to the article than this, of course, so check it out on a lazy summer Wednesday.
Another Saturday, Another Scalp: Reeling from an inexplicable 10-point loss to Canisius (72-62) on December 19, Temple bounced back with a stunning 83-79 upset of #3 Syracuse, all the more surprising given that it happened in the confines of Syracuse’s “second home”, Madison Square Garden, on December 22. The Orange, notorious for not leaving the state of New York before the start of conference play, were unable to contain Khalif Wyatt and sophomore center Anthony Lee as both scored career-high points. Wyatt, a slasher who can play either guard spot in addition to the small forward was a perfect 15-of-15 from the line on the way to scoring 33 points. Lee was manhandled by Duke’s Mason Plumlee two Saturdays before, schooled fellow Philadelphian Rakeem Christmas and his teammate James Southerland to grab nine rebounds to go with his career-high 21 points. Butler traveled to Nashville the next Saturday and housed the Commodores of Vanderbilt by 19 points, 68-49. The Bulldogs’ backcourt paced the team with 40 points (Rotnei Clarke – 22, Kellen Dunham – 12, Alex Barlow – six) while Khyle Marshall missed a double-double by a single point (nine points and 11 rebounds).
Versus Other Conferences
With nearly 98% of the non-conference schedule on the books (as of January 1), the Atlantic 10 has compiled an outstanding 64.3% winning percentage (126-70). Bettering their 2011-12 winning percentage of 62.6% (107-64), the conference posted a number of superb wins over power conference teams in the process.
The mark is not without a few blemishes, especially with respect to the seven power conferences where the A-10’s conference-wide record declined over their mark last season. Especially disappointing was the conference mark versus the ACC (3-10, 0.231) and Big East (6-11, 0.353). While they continue to dominate against those non-power conferences with whom they share a similar profile (the CAA, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, West Coast Conference, and Western Athletic Conference), the overall record masks losing records versus the Missouri Valley Conference (3-4, 0.429) and the West Coast Conference (1-3, 0.250).
The teams largely wrap up non-conference play over the mid-winter break, with only a few standings-changing games on the last and this week. Games/records are through January 2.
Butler (9-2, #18 AP) – The defense of 2011-12 is starting to round into form for the Bulldogs. Coach Brad Stevens’ squad has allowed opponents on average 0.93 points per possession in the six (Division I) games since their loss to Illinois on November 21. After five starts, freshman Kellen Dunham returned to his sixth man role and appears to be thriving. If Player of the Year polling commenced today, transfer Rotnei Clarke would garner more than a few votes outside of Indianapolis, but as much as the newcomers (Clarke and Dunham) have sparked the Bulldogs, the contributions of the front court, Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith are key. Though not the focal point of the offense, Smith and Marshall are a devastatingly efficient combination, contributing over 1.1 points per possession on offense while hauling in over 12% of the offensive rebounds apiece when they are on the court. Butler will host Penn and New Orleans before opening conference play on the road against Saint Joseph’s (see below) on January 9. Read the rest of this entry »