WASHINGTON – VCU is no longer a secret.
Like it or not, this team is going to have a target on their back all season long. Every stop they make on the road, the Rams are going to attract a larger media horde. And after every game, they are going to be asked questions about last season’s run to the Final Four and how it affected some random aspect of that evening’s game.
“Everyone wants to talk about last year,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said after the Rams beat George Washington 75-60 in the opener of the BB&T Classic. “We get lots of questions from the media, even now on Dec. 4th, about last year. We’re going to be polite, we’re going to answer questions, but at the same time in our mind, last year’s over. And its not going to win us any games this year.”
VCU learned that the hard way early in the season, as they last to both Seton Hall and Georgia Tech by double figures while struggling to beat Western Kentucky and St. Francis (PA).
But the last four games have been a different story. VCU smacked WKU — in one of the stranger scheduling quirks of the year, VCU played WKU in the 7th place game at the Charleston Classic three days before they played them in Bowling Green — and gave Alabama everything they could handle before winning the last two games by an average of 19 points.
The difference is easy to spot.
In the Rams’ first four games, senior forward Brad Burgess averaged 10.0 ppg while shooting 25.6 percent (10-39) from the field and 29.4 percent (5-17) from beyond the arc. In the last four, he’s looked like the guy that many, including myself, thought had the ability to be the CAA’s Player of the Year. Burgess has averaged 18.3 ppg over that stretch, hitting 45.1 percent (23-51) from the floor and 43.3 percent (13-30) from deep.
And against GW, Burgess had easily his best game of the season. He finished with 24 points and five boards, knocking down 8-15 from the floor and 4-8 from three while also tallying two steals, a block and not a single turnover. Burgess was hot early, helping VCU build a lead that grew to 13 in the first half, and hit a number of big jumpers down the stretch when GW made their run.
“The difference was Brad. He played like a senior, he played like a leader. He allowed us to keep the lead at the end,” Smart said. “It was great to see Brad start to hit shots. We want him shooting the ball a lot. I think our guys are learning more and more to look for him.”
What makes Burgess so dangerous in the VCU offense is that he has the skills of a guard, but the size, strength and toughness to hold his own in the paint. That allows Smart to use Burgess at the power forward spot, where his perimeter skills and shooting ability creates mismatches on the offensive end of the floor. The Rams are an uptempo team that love to press defensively and spread the court offensively, looking to create space to penetrate and open looks from beyond the arc, a system that fits Burgess’ skill-set perfectly.
“Honestly, I consider him a guard, but he is 6-6 and he’s big and strong so it allows us to play him at the four spot and it allows us to create mismatches for the other team,” Smart said. “Hopefully, its not too big of a mismatch for us at the other end. It allows us to have another ball-handler out there, a really good shooter. On some of our ball-screen stuff, it allows us to throw it back to him and he gets wide open shots.”This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!
VCU’s struggles in their first four games caused some people to write this group off. That’s what happens when you lose four starters — including stars Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen — from a team that finished fourth in the Colonial during the regular season. Instead of playing a role this season, Burgess is being asked to be the star, to be the face of the program. The Rams need him to be the guy that is not only going to be counted on to hit the big shot but to be the guy that picks up one of his young teammates when they are having an off-night.
Smart is counting on Burgess to not only be the leading scorer and the star, but to be this team’s inspirational leader.
“Brad has always been someone that leads by example,” Smart said, “but he’s learned this year that he’s someone we need to step up and talk more. And he’s done that. Games like today, he’s really been our vocal leader. We wouldn’t have won the game without him.”
VCU is a very young team. Burgess is the only senior on the roster. Only two juniors — Troy Daniels and Darius Theus — are in the rotation. Everyone else is either a freshmen or a sophomore. There’s certainly quite a bit of talent on the rest of the roster — sophomores Rob Brandenburg, Juvonte Reddic and DJ Haley all look like they have a chance to become all-CAA players down the road, while freshmen Reco McCarter and Teddy Okereafor were good enough to earn a handful of high-major offers — but its raw talent.
That group of youngsters has been forced to learn on the fly, and they’ve done a pretty good job. The Rams handled South Florida and GW easily and nearly beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That counts for something, but these kids still have plenty of room to grow, and its not just developing their basketball skills.
“Just confidence, every body playing with confidence,” Burgess said when asked about where his team needs to grow. “We’re a young team, sometimes if things don’t go well, we drop our games and get down on ourselves. We’re a good team, so when things don’t go well, you have to battle through and move on to the next play. You have to make sure that at the next opportunity, you make the play.”
Smart, on the other hand, is looking for more consistent effort, saying “When we are the aggressor, we’re pretty good. We have to be the tougher, scrappier team.”
The CAA is wide open this season, as league favorites — Drexel and George Mason — struggle and CAA stalwarts — Old Dominion, Hofstra and even VCU — are all in rebuilding years. There’s no reason that the Rams can’t grow into a team capable of winning the Colonial come February and March.
But they will only go as far as Burgess leads them.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.