Shaka Smart

Just how good is 13-4 VCU this season?

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — VCU is only a year and a half removed from the CAA, but that didn’t change the fact that the Rams were sitting pretty as the Atlantic 10’s top dog entering the season.

They were ranked in just about every preseason top 25 you came across, which is, in part, a sign of the respect that Shaka Smart has nationally, but also a nod to the amount of physical talent and athleticism that is on his roster. In other words, Smart is one of the best coaches in the country at running a system — ‘Havoc’, as they call it — and he has a roster that would allow him to execute that press to perfection.

The problem, as George Washington exposed on Tuesday night in Foggy Bottom, is that the Rams simply aren’t that good defensively if they aren’t forcing turnovers. George Washington scored 76 points despite turning the ball over on 21 of their 75 possessions on Tuesday, which equates to 1.41 PPP when they actually got a shot off. “We did not play good enough half court defense,” Smart frankly told reporters after the game. “We did not heed enough of the details.”

It’s not the first time that this problem has arisen this season, either. The Rams lead the nation in defensive turnover percentage, but they are in the bottom-third nationally in defensive rebounding percentage and two-point field goal defense. In other words, you can beat them off the dribble, you can score in the paint and you can beat them on the offensive glass.

This is a problem because the best teams in the country aren’t going to be as susceptible to VCU’s pressure. It’s not a fool-proof theory, but generally-speaking, the better a team is, the fewer turnovers they commit.

And if VCU isn’t forcing turnovers, are they going to be able to score?

That’s the second part of the problem.

VCU is 123rd in the nation in offensive efficiency. That means they’re not scoring a lot of points, and if the Rams aren’t scoring, they aren’t able to as effectively mix-up their pressing defenses. You see, that’s when the Rams truly are at their best. VCU doesn’t have just a single defense that they run. Sometimes, they simply play man-to-man defense for 94 feet. Other times, they trap the first pass in the back court and try to jump a passing lane. There are times they try to get a ball-handler sprinting up the sideline only to have their defender beat him to a spot, turning him into a second defender trailing the play. Then there are other times where they’ll simply run a second defender at a ball-handler in half-court sets.

Not only is VCU’s defense coming at you in waves, you simply don’t know what kind of wave to expect.

It’s a nightmare, but one that can be avoided by preventing VCU from scoring and getting into that pressure.

Again, it’s not a fool-proof theory, but the better a basketball team is, the better they are defensively.

Which means that if VCU is going to struggle against teams that can defend and don’t turn the ball over, they’re going to struggle good teams.

I know what you’re thinking right now: “Great analysis, Rob. VCU isn’t going to play as well against good teams as they will against bad teams. Expert analysis.”

My point, however, is that given the unique style that the Rams play, it exacerbates the impact of playing against better teams. In other words, VCU will struggle more, comparatively, with a team like Saint Louis than, say, George Washington will. Right now, VCU is probably in the NCAA tournament. They have a pair of quality road wins over Virginia and Belmont, and their worse loss — at Northern Iowa — isn’t all that bad, all things considered.

Barring a collapse — and losses to Duquesne, Fordham or Rhode Island — that probably isn’t going to change.

But for those waiting for the Rams to ‘turn it on’ this season, this is my warning: I don’t think it’s coming.

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (Jon Lopez/Nike)
(Jon Lopez/Nike)
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Arizona landed their first commitment in the Class of 2017 on Friday night as point guard Alex Barcello pledged to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.

Barcello is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Tempe who plays his high school ball for Corona del Sol. He committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to the Tucson campus.

Barcello is a borderline top 100 prospect who sits at No. 123 in the Rivals top 150. He’s known for his ability to shoot, and he’s more of a combo-guard — i.e. shoot-first — than a point guard at times, but he’s a nice pickup and projects as a solid four-year player for the Wildcats.

Virginia, Indiana, Stanford and Butler were the other four schools on Barcello’s list.

Duke lands first commitment in 2017 class

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Alex O’Connell knew exactly where he wanted to play his college ball, which is why, just two days after picking up an offer from Coach K and the Blue Devils, he became Duke’s first recruit in the Class of 2017.

O’Connell announced the on twitter on Friday afternoon:

O’Connell is a four-star prospect from Georgia that had a terrific summer, going from being a borderline top 75 prospect to a player that caught the interest of Duke, who, along with Kentucky, sit atop the college recruiting hierarchy. He’s an explosively athletic and lanky 6-foot-6 wing with three-point range on his jumper. He needs to add some weight and some strength — he’s listed as a crisp 175 pounds — but he has the tools, and the swagger, to develop into a very effective player in the ACC.

Is he a one-and-done prospect?

Probably not. In fact, since 2010, Duke has landed just two players that were rated lower than O’Connell: Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White. If you know who both of them are, you’re probably either Jon Scheyer or lying.

But what O’Connell is is a kid who put in the work to get better this past year and who has the skill set, the physical tools and work ethic to continue to improve. He may not be on Grayson Allen’s trajectory, but O’Connell has the makings of being an impact player for the Blue Devils for three or four years.

Alex O'Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Alex O’Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Shaka Smart lands contract extension at Texas

Texas head coach Shaka Smart instructs his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Shaka Smart has already landed himself a contract extension at Texas.

The school, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has given Shaka a one-year extension — through the 2022-23 season — and bumped his salary up to a cool $3 million, a raise of $100,000 annually.

Smart’s Longhorns went 20-13 last season and lost on a half court buzzer beater from Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen. It will be tough for Smart to match the success that he had last season, specifically because he lost senior point guard Isaiah Taylor to the professional ranks.

That said, the former VCU head man has been reeling in quite a bit of talent from the state of Texas — namely, Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen — and is not all that far from turning the Longhorns back into a relevant member of the Big 12 title race.

Arizona and Texas headline Lone Star Shootout

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Another marquee, early season event is on the books for the college basketball season as four potential tournament teams will be squaring off at the Toyota Center in Houston on Dec. 17th.

The highlight of the double-header, which has been dubbed the Lone Star Shootout, will probably end up being Arizona vs. Texas A&M. The Wildcats are a Pac-12 contender and a borderline top 10 team as we enter the season, and while the Aggies will have work to do replacing the seniors they lost off of last season’s roster, they’re a borderline top 25 team.

The other matchup will feature a pair of former Southwest Conference rivals facing off in Texas and Arkansas. Texas will be talented but young while Arkansas may actually have the best player on the floor in Moses Kingsley. What will make this matchup interesting is that both Mike Anderson and Shaka Smart are known for being coaches that prefer a full court pressing system.

“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to play in front of our fans at the Toyota Center in Houston,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said in a statement. “It is one of the most important areas in this state as it relates to our recruiting and fan base.

Five-star 2017 guard Lonnie Walker cuts list to five schools

Men's U18 trials head shots and team photo on 6.15.16
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Five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker is coming off of a very good summer as he trimmed his list to five schools on Thursday night.

The 6-foot-4 native of Reading, Pennsylvania is still considering Arizona, Kentucky, Miami, Syracuse and Villanova, he announced on Twitter.

Regarded as the No. 26 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, Walker played with Team Final in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer as he averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Walker shot 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the free-throw line.

An efficient scorer who is learning to drive with both hands, Walker is very talented and the type of guard who might also be able to handle a bit as well.