VCU: The pivot from giant killer to business as usual

VCU is in the midst of a three game stretch against teams from “power conferences”. The Rams have thrived as “giant killers”, but now they must pivot to sustained success against the nation’s best.

Photo by Will Weaver

The story of VCU may best be told through its dramatic battles against teams from “power conferences.” Coach Capel was one shot away from topping the Wake Forest Chris Pauls in 2004. Eric Maynor hit “the dagger” against Duke in 2007. Coach Smart and HAVOC! trounced five power conference teams in nineteen days to head to the 2011 Final Four.

VCU basketball was designed as a Giant Killer. It’s aggressive pressing defense frustrates most guards while turning games into battles of will instead of raw talent. Their streaky but explosive 3-point shooting can fill it up while turning games into “who has the hot-hand” instead of “who has the higher average.” And their capable but experienced roster of four-year players is often the difference against one-and-done stars making a pit stop in college en route to the NBA.

But one-off victories and March Madness sprints have proven easier than sustained success–and in many ways that’s the next step for the Rams. As VCU’s opportunities multiply, how will the Rams pivot from upsetting the big boys to just business-as-usual against the big boys?

Smart & Wade's W-L against power conferences

It’s been a work in progress this season. VCU is 5-0 against teams outside of power conferences and 0-3 against teams from the ACC and Big Ten. In fact, the Rams have lost four straight going back to the 2015 NCAA Tournament and are 3-6 over the last two seasons.

Date Opponent Outcome
11/14/2014 Tennessee W, 85-69
11/24/2014 #12 Villanova L, 77-53
11/25/2014 Oregon W, 77-63
12/6/2014 #7 Virginia L, 74-57
12/20/2014 Cincinnati W 68-47
3/19/2015 Ohio State L 75-72 OT
11/20/2015 #5 Duke L, 79-71
11/22/2015 Wisconsin L, 74-73
12/6/2015 FSU L, 76-71

Most recently, the Rams played Florida State in Atlanta–and it didn’t start well…at all. VCU turned the ball over 16 times in the first half and trailed by as many as 13 points. While they contained freshmen phenoms Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon, 7-foot-3 Boris Bojanovsky is probably still haunting the dreams of VCU’s offense, and sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes finished with 23 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals.

But just when it seemed like all hope was lost, VCU did VCU things. Korey Billbury scored nine points early in the second half and over one stretch Melvin Johnson scored fifteen straight points for the Rams. VCU even took a 60-59 lead. If only basketball games were 35 minutes long. Ultimately, Melvin Johnson’s career-high 36 points would not be enough as VCU’s offense sputtered and the Seminoles triumphed 76-71.

The prolific afternoon inspires confidence in Melvin Johnson, but it raises concerns about VCU’s supporting cast and the Rams’ ability to pile up quality non-conference wins against top conference teams. The bench scored just four points. Doug Brooks has just one point in the last two games and Justin Tillman was limited to two minutes of action. JeQuan Lewis tallied seven turnovers–although most were with the good intention of getting the ball to the hot-handed Mo Alie-Cox.

It’s safe to say most of the Rams’ roster will have no shortage of motivation while they take the week off for exams and preparation. The Rams will have no shortage of opportunities to redeem themselves next week as they travel to the ACC’s Georgia Tech on December 15th at 9:00 PM and hosts the AAC’s #23 Cincinnati at 4:00 PM on December 19th.

Georgia Tech (6-2) isn’t an ACC powerhouse, but make no mistake about it, they’re good. The Yellowjackets start four seniors and a junior. Forward Charles Mitchell may be the best rebounder in the country; he ranks 16th in offensive rebounding percentage and 3rd in defensive rebounding percentage while tallying 13 boards per game. Perennial transferrer Adam Smith (UNCW -> Virginia Tech -> Georgia Tech)1 is a wealth of 3-point shooting. GT lost to ETSU at home[^lettersjoke], but sometimes embarrassing home losses make it tougher for future teams to sneak up and steal a W.

#23 Cincinnati (8-1) is playing some of the best basketball in the country. Their defense is stultifying as usual, .and their offense is uncharacteristically efficient this season behind dominant offensive rebounding and improved 3-point shooting. The Bearcats are one Roosevelt Jones game-winner for Butler2 away from being undefeated and are certainly deserving of a ranking higher than #23. The Rams embarrassed Cincy last season 68-47, although the Bearcats’ head coach suffered an unruptured brain aneurism the morning of the bout. Fortunately he’s healthy and coaching, and fortunately the rematch is in the Siegel Center where VCU is 4-1 against ranked opponents with wins over #17 Oklahoma, #20 Butler, #10 Saint Louis, and #23 Northern Iowa.

Even if the Rams go 0-3 over this big-time stretch, the more important change is the increased opportunity to not only face elite teams, but to face them on campuses instead of neutral courts. From 1974-2009, VCU played 71 games against teams from the top conferences. Since Smart took over a little more than six seasons ago, VCU has played 32 games against the top conferences with two more on the books for this season.

VCU's W-L record against power conferences

VCU has done an incredible job not only killing giants but building a program and sustaining success. As long as the Rams continue recruiting quality four-year players and getting opportunities to face the nation’s best, they will be a threat to beat almost any team in the country regardless of conference affiliation, but now they want to be the favorite. As Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said after the Rams’ competitive loss to the Blue Devils a few weeks ago, “They have a program at VCU, and that’s tougher than a team.”

  1. Interestingly, VCU will have faced Adam Smith at all three of his schools after this game. 
    1. Yes, Roosevelt Jones, the player Briante Weber did this to is still in college.
    2. Butler is a role-model for making the pivot from giant killer to giant.
    3. And geez, talk about a team that has been favored by the basketball gods.

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Aaron Williams

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

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