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.