You win some, you lose some. And VCU always loses some at this time of year. But what did we learn from last weekend’s losses to Duke and Wisconsin?
Photo by Will Weaver
VCU lost a tough 79-71 battle to #5 Duke on Friday night and an even closer 74-73 heartbreaker to Wisconsin Sunday afternoon in the 2K Classic in New York City. The losses both raise concerns and foster hope, all while being reminiscent of years past.
Will Wade and Co. started the game with a dangerous combination of energy and poise en route to a 22-15 lead. It was vintage HAVOC! and the Rams looked like a top-25 team. Melvin Johnson started 4-of-4 from 3-point range and Mo Alie-Cox (15 points) was a physical presence on offense. But 27 VCU fouls and 30 points from Duke sophomore Grayson Allen were too much to overcome after 40 minutes of basketball against one of the country’s best.
Wisconsin carved up VCU’s defense like a Thanksgiving turkey to start Sunday’s game. JeQuan Lewis struggled to slow down Bronson Koenig and turned the ball over three times before getting benched; all while the Badgers attacked the paint at will. Trailing 22-11, Doug Brooks’s intensity took hold and VCU ended the half on a 32-15 run.
After the break, VCU’s intensity wavered and Wisconsin caught up one point at a time. With seven seconds remaining, Koenig hit a lay-up to give Wisconsin a 74-73 lead. Despite having one timeout remaining1, VCU immediately inbounded the ball and Melvin Johnson attempted a contested 3-pointer from NBA range. The Rams lost by one point which is all the more heartbreaking since they went 17-of-29 (.586) from the free-throw line.
VCU returns from Madison Square Garden with more questions than answers. First and foremost, Lewis struggled, but his benching was bigger than a few turnovers or defensive mistakes. Will his role be altered moving forward or will the adversity be a springboard for success?
him on the bench, because we almost won without him and we can certainly win without him again."— Tim Pearrell (@timpearrelltd) November 23, 2015
Coach Smart made a living forcing other teams to change personnel and alter strategy. Sunday in particular, it felt like the Rams were responding to their opponents’ demands instead of dictating terms. VCU spent plenty of time with Jordan Burgess at the “4” spot, but the four guard offense and pressure defense didn’t dictate style with the same authority as the days of Briante Weber and Treveon Graham.
There were plenty of reasons to think VCU would use more match-up zone defense and bigger lineups including Justin Tillman at the power forward position. On Friday, Tillman grabbed 8 rebounds in 16 minutes but was inexplicably limited in a game where VCU struggled to end good defensive possessions with rebounds.
On Sunday Justin Tillman, Michael Gilmore, and Jonathan Williams tallied just 19 minutes as Wade leaned heavily on his older guards. The Rams did force the historically sure-handed Badgers into 17 turnovers, but failed to capitalize outside of a strong end to the first half. Despite the perimeter focus, VCU hit just eight 3-pointers all weekend with six coming from Melvin Johnson. Will Wade usually enters games with a preplanned substitution pattern, how flexible will that plan be moving forward and how will VCU’s style change from game to game?
Losing two games in three days to drop to .500 isn’t fun regardless of the quality of the competition, but the Rams did go toe-to-toe with the defending NCAA champions and defending NCAA runner-ups. Those teams return little of what took them deep last March2, but Duke is going to win a heap of games and Bo Ryan has a knack for outpacing perennially increasing expectations.
It’s better to lose with clearly fixable mistakes than to lose playing flawlessly. Despite many of the Rams’ shortcomings, Will Wade and company found ways to stay competitive–and they’ll find ways to improve those shortcomings too. The competitiveness all started with Melvin Johnson. The Bronx-native senior is averaging 19.5 PPG and 2 SPG this season while shooting 15-of-28 (.536) from 3-point range. He currently ranks 7th all-time at VCU and needs an achievable 81 3-pointers to tie B.A. Walker’s record. To put that in perspective, Johnson hit 86 3-pointers last season.
Senior Korey Billbury, junior Mo Alie-Cox, and junior Jordan Burgess have established themselves as tough upperclassmen worthy of HAVOC! and deserving of praise. BULLbury is a tough-as-nails scorer who is settling down in the Rams’ offense, Mo Alie-Cox has developed a knack for rolling off of screens and delivering dominant dunks, and Jordan Burgess is finding a million ways to contribute despite struggling from 3-point range.
Most surprisingly, junior college transfer Ahmad Hamdy-Mohamed has been a huge offensive contributor. Coming to VCU he seemed like a Toby Veal (74 points in one season) or a David Hinton (47 points in 4 seasons). Both made timely plays that unilaterally changed the outcome of important games, but Hamdy-Mohamed already has 27 points in three games including 10 points against Duke and 13 points against Wisconsin. That’s an unexpected early season contribution worthy of praise.
November struggles are nothing new to VCU. Since the Final Four, VCU is 4-9 at “multi-team exempt events”3 with wins over Western Kentucky, Memphis, LBSU, and Oregon. Despite the November struggles, the Rams have done an amazing job dominating December, improving throughout the season, and going deep in the CAA/A10 tournament. This annual arc has led VCU to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
But schedule strength this season could present new challenges. In December, the Rams play Florida State, Georgia Tech, and #24 Cincinnati in a 13 day span. If they stumble, it may be tougher to right the ship and sprint into conference play.
This weekend was a bummer, but it’s still no cause for panic. Despite the blemishes, VCU showed flashes of brilliance and the Rams return to RVA with reels of film and lots of low-hanging improvements within the grasp of Coach Wade and his staff. Nothing balms the burn of a loss like victory. Fortunately, the Rams have an opportunity to top American on Wednesday and head into Thanksgiving with a W for which to be thankful.
- Per off-season rule changes, coaches can no longer live-ball timeouts. Instead players have to signal to the referees. Did the change affect VCU’s strategy, because seven seconds was more than enough time for VCU to end up with a shot much better than the intercontinental prayer they ended up attempting. ↩
- They return three of the ten starters and the top five players, Frank Kaminsky, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and Sam Dekker, are now all in the National Basketball Association. Wisconsin returned just two total players from the national championship game! ↩
- Exempt-events are the fancy name for the tournaments VCU plays in every November where fans have actually heard of the Rams’ opponents. They are now all the rage after the NCAA changed the rules in 2006. ↩