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.

Knee injury sidelines Illinois forward Leron Black

Josh Hart, Leron Black
Associated Press
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Illinois will be shorthanded in its front court for the time being, as during the team’s media day Thursday head coach John Groce announced that sophomore forward Leron Black is out due to injury.

Black will undergo surgery Friday to repair a meniscus tear in his knee, and he’s expected to miss anywhere from four to six weeks. A return after four weeks would have Black back on the court just before the Fighting Illini open their season November 13 against North Florida. Any longer and the Memphis native would wind up missing some game action.

Black averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in just under 15 minutes of action per game as a freshman. He’s one of the players expected to contribute in the front court for the Fighting Illini, who lost their best interior defender and second-leading rebounder in Nnanna Egwu at the end of last season (guard Rayvonte Rice, who led the team in rebounding, is also gone).

In addition to Black and junior Maverick Morgan, Illinois adds redshirt freshman Michael Finke and grad student Mike Thorne Jr. (via Charlotte) to their front court rotation.

Coach Hamilton likes mix on Florida State basketball roster

ACC Basketball Tournament: Florida State v North Carolina
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Florida State is the only team in the Atlantic Coast Conference that returns all five of its starters from last season.

For most teams that would be cause for celebration. For coach Leonard Hamilton it means he is hoping the struggles of the past two seasons have been valuable experience.

The Seminoles had their first practice on Wednesday as they are looking to bounce back from a season in which they went 17-16 and didn’t play in a postseason tournament for the first time in 10 years.

“We have five starters returning from a team that won 17 games. We have guys that have been around, who know their shortcomings and can pass on their wisdom to the younger players,” Hamilton said.

With an experienced roster and a highly regarded recruiting class, Hamilton is hoping to lead the Seminoles back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, which is also the year they won the ACC Tournament.

Jarquez Smith, the leading returning scorer from last season, said the open gyms before the start of practice have been extremely competitive as the incoming recruiting class has tried to assert itself early.

“We’ve been going at each other’s neck and it has gotten very competitive,” Smith said. “Everyone is fighting for their position because the guys coming off the bench are just as athletic as who is on the court.”

The newcomers feature Dwayne Bacon (a McDonald’s All-American selection), Terance Mann (the Gatorade Player of the Year in New Hampshire) and Malik Beasley (the Georgia 1A Player of the Year). There’s also Chris Koumadje, who at 7-foot-4 will be the tallest player in school history, and Benji Bell, who helped lead Northwest Florida State to the JUCO National Title.

“This is a very confident and focused group of inexperienced players,” Hamilton said. “They want to make something special happen but aren’t taking anything for granted.”

Two things that Hamilton will look to work on during preseason practices is defense and figuring out his rotation. The Seminoles suffered from a lack of depth last season but this year he could have a roster that goes 10 deep and allows him to go to more of a full-court pressing style of defense.

Xavier Rahan-Mayes led the team in scoring last season, averaging 14.9 points en route to becoming the first freshman in ACC history to score 30 or more points three times. The one thing he said he noticed in preseason practices were that everyone played off each other’s strengths.

Florida State’s first exhibition game is Nov. 2 against Lynn University before opening the season on Nov. 15 against Nicholls State.

“I think we have a pretty good combination of experience and an influx of new players. Any time you have that type of scenario you appreciate it,” Hamilton said. “It looks like we have it moving in the right direction. We’ve had a good offseason and regrouped.”