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.

Bubble Banter: Let’s talk about Syracuse, Georgetown and Georgia Tech

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Tyus Battle #25 of the Syracuse Orange during their game at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here. This is where the seeds you see listed below come from.

This post will be updated throughout the night. 

LOSERS

Georgetown (RPI: 61, KenPom: 53, first four out): The Hoyas missed a golden opportunity to add an elite road win to their profile, losing at Creighton by 17 points, and now I think we’re just about to a point where we can write the Hoyas off. They’re sitting at 14-13 on the season and 5-9 in the Big East. The win over Oregon on a neutral, at Butler and over Creighton at home got them back into the picture, but three losses in their last four games will probably be too much to overcome.

That said, I’m going to keep listing them here because I think that if they can win out – DePaul, at St. John’s, at Seton Hall, Villanova – they’ll have an argument. In the early bracket reveal, the committee made clear that they value good wins over anything, which is why Gonzaga was rated as the fourth No. 1 seed despite having fewer losses than any of the other No. 1 seeds. There aren’t many teams that would be able to match Georgetown win for win in they win out.

Syracuse (RPI: 77, KenPom: 46, No. 10 seed): The Orange lost to Georgia Tech on Sunday, so let’s talk about Syracuse, because they are on track to enter Selection Sunday with one of the weirder profiles. The bad first: they lost to a bad, injury-depleted UConn team at the Garden. They were blown out at Boston College. They were blown out by St. John’s at home by 33 points. There is no high-major team with that collection of awful losses to their name, and it doesn’t help that Jim Boeheim’s club has nine more losses to add to the mix.

They also have some good wins – Virginia, Florida State, Wake Forest, Miami – but they’ve only won two games away from the Carrier Dome: at Clemson, who is 4-10 in the ACC, and at N.C. State, who fired their coach three days ago. With FSU and UVA careening – combined, they’ve lost five straight games – neither of those games look at good as they did two weeks ago. So after today, for my money, Syracuse is out. That can change, however. They get Duke at home this week and Louisville on the road this weekend. Those are season-changers.

WINNERS

Georgia Tech (RPI: 79, KenPom: 78, first four out): The Yellow Jackets have a very similar profile to that of Syracuse, who they beat at home on Sunday. They have wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, but they also won at VCU – which is now a top 30 road win – and their worst loss came against an Ohio team that looked like they could win the MAC before their best player went down with a season-ending injury. Their problem? Their non-conference strength of schedule is 244th, and that RPI is dreadfully low for an at-large contender.

Valparaiso (RPI: 74, KenPom: 97, No. 12 seed): Valpo is in as a No. 12 seed in our bracket, but they are in as an automatic bid, meaning that there are no at-large teams rated below them. Being the best automatic bid does not guarantee that they’ll be in as an at-large, not when their best win is a Rhode Island team that is fading and they’ve lost four games to sub-100 competition. Win that auto-bid.

Illinois State (RPI: 35, KenPom: 49, No. 12 seed): Illinois State beat Loyola (IL) on Sunday to keep themselves alive for a potential at-large bid should they lose in the Missouri Valley tournament. Their profile, however, is quite different than that of Wichita State. Their only top 50 win is a Wichita State team whose only top 50 win is … Illinois State. They have also lost to San Francisco, Tulsa and Murray State, who is 239th in the RPI. Pro-tip: Don’t risk it, even with the weak bubble. The committee is going to value wins over a lack of losses.

STILL TO PLAY

Michigan (RPI: , KenPom: 27, No. 10 seed) at Minnesota, 7:00 p.m.

 

VIDEO: Valparaiso’s Micah Bradford makes 3/4 court shot off the shot clock

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Valparaiso freshman Micah Bradford made one of the most ridiculous shots we’ll see all season on Sunday against Detroit.

With time winding down in the first half, Bradford hoisted a 3/4 court buzzer-beater and watched as it hit the shot clock, flew high in the air, hit the rim and dropped through the hoop to the disbelief of everyone in attendance.

Unfortunately, Bradford’s wacky three-pointer did not count as he finished with five points in a 20-point Valpo win.

(H/t: Eric Fawcett)

Michigan State senior Eron Harris to have season-ending knee surgery

Michigan State's Eron Harris (14) shoots against Wisconsin's Jordan Hill (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
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Michigan State senior guard Eron Harris will undergo season-ending surgery on his knee after leaving Saturday’s loss at Purdue on a stretcher, the school announced on Sunday.

The 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior suffered the right knee injury during Michigan State’s loss at Purdue on Saturday as the unsettling injury resulted in some Michigan State players being brought to tears. Harris is a native of Indianapolis and received a standing ovation from the road crowd at Purdue as he was taken off the floor.

“We all feel absolutely awful for Eron,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in the release. “As I said last night, I couldn’t ask for more than what Eron has given me and this program. Over the last month he’s grown even more as a leader and been an example to his young teammates. And maybe I didn’t even fully grasp it until I walked on the court and saw the admiration his teammates had for him and the tears in their eyes. There’s no faking the respect they have for Eron as a man, as a player, and most importantly a teammate.

“It’s cruel to see a senior’s career end this way. If there is a silver lining, it’s that we expect Eron to be able to make a full recovery and pursue a basketball career after graduation. He’s always worked for everything he’s accomplished on the court, and that same passion and mindset will serve him well in his recovery. Basketball is important to all players, but for Eron it was a way of life. Very few have spent more time in this facility or worked harder than Eron has. That’s why I’m confident his best basketball is still in front of him.”

Although Harris was never able to recreate his awesome sophomore season at West Virginia after his transfer to Michigan State, losing him still hurts this Spartans team because he’s one of the team’s veterans and, at times, a capable scorer. Harris averaged 10.7 points and 3.0 rebounds per game as a senior while shooting 43 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three-point range.

The injury bug has hit Michigan State pretty hard this season as they’ve also lost Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling to season-ending injuries.

No. 11 Wisconsin takes down No. 23 Maryland

MADISON, WI - FEBRUARY 19:  Ethan Happ #22 of the Wisconsin Badgers works against Michal Cekovsky #15 of the Maryland Terrapins during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on February 19, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Wisconsin snapped a two-game losing streak with a 71-60 Big Ten home win over No. 23 Maryland on Sunday. With senior guard Bronson Koenig returning to the rotation after missing the Michigan loss with injury, the No. 11 Badgers looked more like themselves for the first time in the last few games.

Here are some takeaways from this one.

1. This was an ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly game (just the way Wisconsin wanted)

Sorry to make you read the word “ugly” four times but I felt it was completely necessary to hammer home the point that this basketball game was not a pleasant viewing experience (and this has nothing to do with pace or style of play).

Wisconsin only shot 41 percent from the field, 16 percent from three-point range and 54 percent from the free-throw line and still won by double digits because they were the older and more physical team. While the Terps were able to hang in the game until the final five minutes or so because of junior guard Melo Trimble’s scoring punch, a younger Maryland team was physically dominated by Wisconsin for most of the game.

The Badgers owned the glass (44 to 27), got to the free-throw line 37 times and did a nice job of getting Maryland’s bigs into foul trouble.

Even though Wisconsin couldn’t generate a lot of consistent offense, they had enough from guys like Nigel Hayes (19 points) and Ethan Happ (20 points) to feel comfortable once they built a bit of a cushion. Wisconsin winning ugly isn’t any sort of new phenomenon, but it does bode well for the Badgers that they handled Maryland this easily despite such a poor shooting game.

2. Maryland needs even more help for Melo to be elite

Maryland has been able to stay in the top 25 this season because junior Melo Trimble has had a lot of help from a talented freshman class. Anthony Cowan has given the Terps another attacking guard, Kevin Huerter is one of the Big Ten’s better all-around freshmen and Justin Jackson has given Maryland a nice dose of athleticism.

Those three freshmen had a game to forget in Madison on Sunday. While Trimble went for 27 points, those three freshmen went a combined 3-for-15 from the field as they just didn’t show up to play during a very important game for conference implications.

Freshmen are going to have off games but this was the biggest game of Maryland’s season and they didn’t look ready to play.

Looking to fire up his team in the second half, head coach Mark Turgeon even went on the floor during a Wisconsin possession and basically forced the officials to whistle him for a technical foul. Even after trying to rally his team with that tech, the Terps didn’t fair much better.

It is also concerning that center Michael Cekovsky went down with an ankle injury in the second half. Cekovsky grabbed his ankle and left the game — looking noticeably frustrated on the bench — and that could be something to watch for Maryland in these final few weeks. Although Cekovsky is only a reserve big man, his 10-point showing on Sunday was one of his best games since returning from injury as he was just starting to look more comfortable.

Losing Cekovsky could hurt, but thankfully for Maryland, the remaining schedule isn’t too daunting. Three of four games come at home and the only road game comes at Rutgers. Even with Sunday’s lackluster effort, Maryland can stay in the Big Ten race if they continue to win.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball Sunday on NBCSN

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: A detailed view of a Spalding basketball during a quarterfinal game between the Davidson Wildcats and La Salle Explorers in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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The Atlantic 10 invades NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday.

It begins at 12:00 p.m. with George Washington playing at Duquesne. The Colonials won the first matchup between these two teams on Jan. 18 with a two-point win at home.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN