Start Me Up...
It's a forgotten moment in time but there had to be a reason. It’s even a strange date, September 14, 2014. Not during the season, or even a midsummer night’s dream. Whatever, that was the last VCU Hoops blog entry before an abrupt stop. There’s been writing in the seven-plus years until today, but I’ve missed the energetic potion of games, quotes, data, and my opinion. The rhythm of the season and agony of #STDGA. Tony Shaver telling me he wants to throw his cell phone in the ocean and Briante Weber’s steal percentage. Somehow spilling it all onto the computerized version of paper so it made sense was a joy.
We’re back, baby.
Man, does it feel good to be back in the saddle and you bet your ass that’s an homage to our old friend Blaine Taylor.
I have no expectation and little idea where this is going to go. I can tell you this: it will be heavy on perspective, we will have fun, and I will be honest. A good friend Chuck once said of my broadcasting style that “he roots for VCU but he tells the truth.” That, and Mike Rhoades in San Antonio telling Scott Day that he enjoyed my writing because it’s smart, are the two highest compliments I’ve ever received.
So I guess those are the goals: thoughtfulness, credibility, and stupid humor.
The Rams roll into Dayton (official motto: have you been to the Wright Brothers museum?) at 7-4, having not played since a 66-46 win over Florida Atlantic on December 15. Tomorrow fills out three full weeks since that last game and we’re all a little stir crazy.
It will be interesting to see the lineups and minutes distribution tomorrow night. SLU coach Travis Ford inserted two new starters for the Bills’ win over Richmond the other day. He was managing the minutes of his players that battled through covid and chose to sit them at the beginning of the game. I’m curious not just of “can he” or “can’t he” based on a test result, but the “how much can he” of a recovering VCU player. And for that matter a Dayton player. It’s weird that this paragraph means as much as how you defend ball screens or how many turnovers you commit, but here we are.
How we got here isn’t that complicated. It’s been a relatives-at-your-house defense for VCU. No matter where you are, somebody is always there. You want them gone but they keep coming at you.
Sure, VCU sports the nation’s leading three-point percentage defense (23.8%), and the turnover percentage is fifth-best at 27.1%, but the Rams are doing it all over the court and throughout a possession. Two-point FG% defense is 19th-best (43.2%), block percentage is 16th (16.1%), and steal percentage is 12th (14.1%). Also, the non-steal turnover percentage, also known as the Harassment Factor, is nationally 12th (13.0%). Basically on one out of every five possessions, the opponent is crapping its pants.
Those are KenPom stats. Haslam agrees. VCU harasses opponents into converting just 51.1% of their near-proximity attempts (18th), 32.6% of their mid-range chances (49th), and 36.5% of their total shots from the field (third). How is that possible? Mike Rhoades points to the young guys, and the big guys:
“The young guys who are playing have picked our defense up. Of course everybody is year older and year more mature, but the younger guys have done a good job putting their stamp on our defense,” says Rhoades. “Now, the young guys have to learn how to honor scouting report better and that will come. When we go to our bench there's not a lot of drop off. Our length helps. Pressing is just what we do. We press in practice, press in games, press everybody. It’s not wild and random. It’s disciplined in all that chaos. I’ve always said the greatest warriors are those with great discipline. We also have some big guys that can guard multiple positions so when things break down they can make it up. Levi may not be the fastest (player) but he’s one of the smarter ones.”
Things on the offensive side are not complicated either, cringe-inducing turnovers notwithstanding. Offense is fundamentally two things: (1) get good shots. (2) make those shots. A promising sign: VCU won four of the five games it turned the ball over more than 15 times. I’m personally more concerned about the “kind of” turnovers rather than the volume. I get to do that from my couch. Momentum and spirit killers have hurt—botched fast breaks, especially off a forced turnover or a simple and unguarded pass to a cheerleader. Very fixable.
Shooting is the other bugaboo. VCU has made more than 36% of its threes only in the Syracuse win and shot selection has not been a problem. Two things give me reason for hope: this team’s assists percentage (55.6%) is the highest for a VCU team since the 2010-11 season, and thusfar the percentage of three-pointers attempted (32.4%) is the program’s second lowest since Anthony Grant’s last year 2008-09. Only Will Wade’s 2016-17 tractor pull team had fewer three-point attempts. Assistant coach JD Byers has done a great job keeping the team focused on the game plan. Frustration could exacerbate the issue, but it seems to be going in the right direction.
“We’ve had honest and real conversations,” says Rhoades. “We shouldn’t shoot as many (threes). Keeping the ball hot and moving the ball doesn’t mean if you’re open you let it fly. I want our guys to play with freedom and to not look over their shoulder but we have to make sure we’re taking higher percentage shots. Of course having Ace back to get guys easier shots helps, but the guys have done a great job of being mature. ‘I’m not going to take a bad one or fast one, I’m gonna’ take the right one or get a guy a shot.’ They like each other and have done a good job talking real to each other on the court. They give each other confidence and that’s why our assist percentage is higher.”
This is a squad that's easy to love. The games may not be Picassos but they are playing to an identity. We'll get into specifics in the coming days and weeks and I cannot wait.
Let's enjoy it.