VCU: The long game

Well, the Rams’ slippage in defense has finally caught up to them with a loss last Saturday to George Washington. What’s the plan moving forward?

Photo by Will Weaver

VCU dropped its first game in 49 days when it lost to George Washington 72-69 Saturday afternoon in the Stuart C. Siegel Center. The loss, which snapped the third longest winning streak in the country, is no reason to panic, but it highlights the importance of match-ups and continued improvement.

Coach Shaka Smart had message discipline that would have made any of the campaign managers currently in South Carolina or Nevada jealous. One of his oft-repeated talking points was about the importance of match-ups relative to records, conference standings, rankings, or seeds. The right or wrong match-up can mean victory or defeat. Match-ups can mean Final Four runs or first weekend upsets in the NCAA Tournament.

VCU has struggled against long, athletic teams this season. Opponents like Florida State and Cincinnati, which have the length to challenge the Rams’ passing while also defending the rim, have been able to reduce VCU’s usually-crisp offense to fruitless dribbling around the perimeter.

George Washington has more in common with the Seminoles and Bearcats than they have in common with other teams in the Atlantic 10. The Colonials start a 6-foot-6 shooting guard and a 6-foot-8 small forward alongside one of the biggest and most skilled front-courts in the conference. Their center is 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds but is mobile enough to slow down VCU’s drivers and physically imposing enough to limit Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman.

On Saturday, the Rams weren’t able to get the mismatches they wanted on offense, weren’t able to finish at the rim, and the Colonials’ used their length to deny entry passes to Mo Alie-Cox. VCU is shooting .518 from 2-point range in conference play but finished 16-of-43 (.372) against GW.

The combination of good ball-handling and GW’s size also punished the Rams on the other end of court. The Rams couldn’t force enough turnovers to keep GW out of the half-court which meant VCU had to defend 6-foot-10 Kevin Larsen and 6-foot-9 Tyler Cavanaugh. Their interior was such a handful that Patricio Garino scored 27 points on easy catch-and-shoot 3-pointer after easy catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.

Data from back up this story. “Effective height” weights a team’s height based on the number of minutes played by different sized players. If a team has a 7-foot center that plays 20 minutes and a 6-foot-8 center that plays 20 minutes, then the effective height is 6-foot-10. It’s a more accurate measure than average height because players like 7-footer DJ Haley couldn’t skew the average of VCU’s usually undersized lineups under Coach Smart.

VCU has struggled against teams with effective height significantly greater than the NCAA average this season1.

Opponent VCU’s Margin Effective Height Compared to Avg. National Rank
FSU -5 4.62 10
Duke -8 4.25 13
GW -3 2.56 38
Cincy -6 1.45 75
GMU 24 1.37 82
GT -13 1.19 88
Duquesne 22 1.13 90
UNF 12 0.92 105
Wisconsin -1 0.92 106
Richmond 5 (OT) 0.84 112

Coach Will Wade has some message discipline as well. His talking point? Continued improvement.

At this point, VCU can’t pick its opponents, but it can focus on improving. The Rams have the potential to boast the best offense and defense in the conference, but their defense has been slipping. On Tuesday, Coach Wade summed it up, “Our offense has really been bailing us out. Our defense has been getting progressively worse, especially in the second half.”

Two weeks ago, VCU forfeited a 22 point lead to Davidson. Last week, the Rams allowed La Salle to score more than one point per possession–the Explorers have won one game since before Thanksgiving. Saturday, the hens came to roost as George Washington scored 43 points in the second half and VCU’s offense didn’t have enough juice to compensate. “Our offense wasn’t able to bail us out because our offense was just as bad if not worse on Saturday. We weren’t sharing the ball. We weren’t moving it side-to-side. We weren’t getting it in the paint.”

Fortunately, the Rams face Massachusetts on Thursday and Saint Louis on Saturday. No game is easy, especially on the road like Thursday’s game, but the not-as-terrifying-as-others opponents should give VCU the opportunity to get back to VCU basketball.

The Rams need to start forcing turnovers and speeding up opponents again. They need to start feeding Mo-Alie Cox on post-ups/pick-and-rolls and Justin Tillman on dump-offs. JeQuan Lewis, Korey Billbury, and Melvin Johnson need to get back to their role as Cerebus, the three-headed mythical monster that guards Hades. Most importantly, VCU needs to get back to what made VCU, VCU: defense.

“We’re holding teams to under 30 points per game in the first half. In the second half, it’s a little over 40. That’s a big difference. If we could get that into the mid-30s we’d be in business.”

  1. Maybe good teams from major conferences attract talented players that also happen to be tall? Maybe height is simply a confounding factor and opponent’s talent is the driver of VCU’s struggles? The correlation between effective height in the NCAA and Ken Pomeroy’s main measure of team quality is 0.48, so height is probably part of the story for VCU. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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