Following six months of build-up, a crowd of 7,617 came to 1200 West Broad Street to celebrate Friday night. It was a coronation of sorts. VCU, March’s superstar underdog, unfurled its Final Four banner from the rafters. For all-time, fans will view that as the moment the Rams arrived on the national scene and took on all comers. The roar of the crowd was jubilant, deafening. It was unforgettable.
Somewhere in the bowels of the Verizon Wireless Arena, Shaka Smart missed every pulse-pounding second.
“I didn’t even see it,” the VCU Coach admitted following the Rams’ 63-57 season-opening victory over Saint Francis (Pa.) Friday night.
Some called the unveiling of the banner one of, if not the biggest, moment in program history. No big deal. Smart saw the banner earlier in the week. He had already turned his attention to getting his young team prepared for the game.
In the weeks prior, Smart maintained that the Final Four season, while great, was over. This was a different team, a youthful group that featured six freshmen and a lone senior. VCU was ready to turn the page, he said.
If turning the page was their stated goal, the Rams succeeded Friday night. VCU bore scant resemblance to the shot-making juggernaut that stormed through five big-name schools on the way to Houston in March. Instead, the Rams looked like a team with plenty of questions to answer. They were a team that fully expects a tug-of-war between its youth and its inherent ability.
Fans that witnessed Friday’s game might zero in on VCU’s ugly shooting performance, which was undeniably bad. The Rams struggled mightily from the field in the second half, hitting just 26 percent of their field goals attempts. They misfired on 13 of 14 second half 3-pointers. Additionally, what was once a 16-point second half was whittled down to three in the final minute until junior Troy Daniels buried a 3-pointer from the right wing with 8.1 seconds remaining.
It certainly wasn’t a flawless performance, but Smart didn’t necessarily expect one.
What the supercharged throng did see was a youthful, nervous squad with taste for Smart’s brand of full court press defense. While the Rams’ grizzly shooting percentages might give the casual fan pause, the glass half full crowd could find plenty of reasons to be optimistic about VCU’s performance against Saint Francis.
The primary beneficiary of the Rams’ cringe-worth shooting was sophomore Juvonte Reddic, who swooped in for eight offensive rebounds. As a result, there were a number of putbacks mixed into his career-best 19-point effort.
Prior to this season, Smart and the Rams wondered how they’d replace skilled big man Jamie Skeen, their top scorer and rebounder from last season. While Reddic was the primary candidate, he’d previously only shown flashes of greatness, mostly his through his athleticism and range out to 15 feet. But after consecutive double-doubles in VCU’s exhibition win over California (Pa.) and again Friday, Smart may have found his low-post scoring option.
Reddic was opportunistic and aggressive. Last year, he tended to fall in love with 12 to 15-foot jumpers. However, other than a missed 3-pointer and a 10-foot baseline jumper early the game, nearly all of his shots came from the painted area. He also finished with 10 rebounds, three steals and a block, proving that he’s more than just his pretty jump shot.
“Juvonte played well in terms of offensive rebounding, but he can still be much, much better overall,” Smart said. “I thought he did some really good things.”
Daniels had about as uneven performance as a shooter possibly could. The smooth, 6-foot-2 guard took 15 field goals, all 3-pointers. He missed his first four, hit the next four, missed the six straight and then canned his final attempt.
His 5-of-15 effort doesn’t jump off the page, but his final, gotta-have-it bomb showed a certain fearlessness that was a hallmark of last year’s Final Four team. In addition to his career-high 22 points, Daniels added six rebounds. He also put the ball on the floor enough to get to the free throw line eight times. For a guy known only as a one-dimensional 3-point bombardier, Daniels was active in a number of areas. He also produced two steals in 29 minutes, the most of his career. Smart has been Daniels’ most vocal supporter and critic the last two years. Following the game, he was a little bit of both.
“I thought he was just okay,” said Smart. “I thought he could be much, much better. Troy’s a great shooter, so, to be honest with you, if he gets 15 threes, I think he’s going to be able to score in the 20’s. He’s got to make sure that every time he catches it, he’s ready to shoot and that he jumps up and shoots it with confidence and then the result will take care of itself. The exciting thing is that he can play much, much better.”
You could also look at Bradford Burgess’ 0-of-12 performance and shake your head. Then again, you could realize that the Rams beat someone, anyone, on a night when their best player went 0-of-freakin’-12. Burgess, a career 48 percent shooter, is one of the few guys Smart doesn’t have questions about. Britney Spears will sing a cappella on her next album before Burgess goes 0-for-12 again.
“That’s not going to happen very much, but if it does, we’ve got to depend on other guys to step it up and I thought some other guys made some timely baskets for us and got some timely rebounds,” Smart said.
Invariably, fans will look to the rafters and see that gold banner, framed in black with the blue and orange 2011 Final Four logo in the in the center and expect more. Smart knows it and welcomes the challenge. He wants to go back as badly as any of those fans, but he also knows that the guys who took VCU there last year are now scattered from France to Los Angeles. The guy wearing the No. 21 jersey Friday wasn’t Skeen, it was freshman Treveon Graham.
Midway through the second half of the game, former Rams Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders walked to center court during a timeout. When they were announced, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. Both men play in the NBA these days, and when they each left VCU, there were questions about how the Rams would move on and how the program would recover. Each time, VCU responded with success.
On Friday, the Rams weren’t a Final Four-quality team. There’s no telling when they’ll be one again. But that’s alright, because on Friday, VCU delved into a long list of questions, and there were a lot of good answers.