RICHMOND, Va. – Bradford Burgess used to be a regular at postgame press conferences, but he’s been noticeably absent of late. You can blame that on his once-reliable jumper, which has been slow to arrive in 2012.
But Burgess strode confidently into Wednesday’s press conference after fueling VCU’s 66-43 win over Towson with 22 points, his most since mid-December. He embraced the moment as if he was seeing an old friend.
“It feels great to be back here,” he said.
A self-assured Burgess knocked down 8-of-15 attempts from the field, including a career-high 6-of-11 from 3-point range. Those 22 points were his second-highest total of the season and came on the heels of a seven-game stretch in which he topped double figures just once.
Burgess appeared more comfortable than he had in months, as if he had found an oasis amidst this career-worst shooting stretch. In VCU’s 13 games since Christmas, Burgess averaged 9.9 points and shot .282 (37-of-131) from the field.
When things are at their worst, the best players strip the mechanism back its basic form. VCU Coach Shaka Smart had been working with Burgess recently to make sure when he caught the ball, he was in a position to shoot.
“We’ve been talking to him about bouncing into his shot,” Smart said. “I was proud of him to go out there and play with confidence.”
“Probably shot preparation,” Burgess said of the source of his success Wednesday. “I think I was not being ready enough in my other games with my shots and getting my legs into it and being on balance and just staying aggressive.”
Burgess’ starring role in VCU’s Final Four run last spring had many rightfully believing the senior would become one of the elite scorers in the Colonial Athletic Association this year. But it hasn’t happened because his jump shot hasn’t been willing.
Although he is the Rams’ leading scorer, Burgess’ points per game average has sagged from 14.3 last season to 12.2 prior to Wednesday’s game. A 6-foot-6 swingman, Burgess entered the game shooting 34 percent from the field, including 33 percent from 3-point range. In his three previous seasons, Burgess was a career 48 percent shooter, including 41 percent from three.
For years, Burgess was able to operate as a complimentary player to a number of potent VCU scorers. But he entered this season as the only known quantity on a young VCU squad, which made open looks often hard to find.
“He’s been the focal point of every team we’ve played, scouting report and defensive scheme and tonight the looks came a little bit easier for him,” Smart said.
Despite his struggles, Burgess is an easygoing guy. Teammates often describe him as laid back. So Burgess kept plugging away. Much of the season, Smart had praised Burgess’ ability to continue to contribute in other areas on the floor, even when his balky jumper wasn’t falling. Smart and Burgess both knew that his shooting struggles were the exception, not the rule, and he could only struggle for so long.
“Every game, [my teammates are] staying in my ear and just telling me to stay aggressive and keep shooting,” Burgess said. “And one day it’s going to come and I guess today was the day.
It doesn’t necessarily matter that Burgess’ performance came against a lowly, 1-25 Towson squad. His shooting slump had seemed indifferent to time, place and opponent. It was a relief for Smart and the Rams to see Burgess knock down jumpers, regardless if it was Towson, North Carolina or the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The remarkable thing about Burgess’ rough stretch has been the ability of this inexperienced squad to play through it. Wednesday’s win was the Rams’ 10th straight and their 18th in their last 20 games. But it also begs the question, if VCU is 21-5 with Burgess shooting 34 percent most of the season, how good can they be if he finds his sweet stroke from last March?
Not to be outdone, sophomore center D.J. Haley turned in a career-best performance Wednesday. The 7-foot Californian registered his first double-double with 10 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots.
“I’ve just been working hard, getting extra shots up and stuff and I also have the support of my teammates,” Haley said.
Haley’s play earned him 25 minutes of action, 10 more than his season average and just shy of his career-best of 26. He knocked down 5-of-9 attempts from the field and eight of his rebounds came on the offensive end.
It’s the second straight solid performance for Haley, who turned in a workman-like six points and four rebounds Saturday. Haley’s recent play has Smart hopeful that are similar performances on the horizon.
“D.J. has a lot in him that Rams’ fans haven’t seen yet. He’s shown us glimpses. I’ve seen a lot more because I’ve seen him every day in practice and I know what he can do,” Smart said. “He can rebound like that consistently. He can play with that motor consistently, but that D.J. tonight looked a whole lot different than other games.”
The lasting image of Haley’s night came late in the second half, when he intercepted a pass near the top of the 3-point line and dribbled to the other end for a slam dunk.
“It felt like I was in high school,” Haley said. “I that’s the first time I’ve dribbled that long in a while.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I’m different. Sometimes, I like to let the big dog eat.” – Shaka Smart, on what he thought about D.J. Haley dribbling three-quarters of the length of the floor after a steal for a dunk.