RICHMOND, Va. – It’s a bit of a fishing expedition to find a reasonable narrative in these mismatched Division I-Division II exhibition games. There’s a desire to look at the scoreboard, which showed that VCU earned a 92-54 win over California (Pa.) Saturday night, and extrapolate 100 superlatives from the wreckage of the box score. More often than not, it’s fool’s gold.
But Saturday, even as I waded through some impressive, if not gaudy, statistics, I was still struck by the depth of talent on this VCU team. If Shaka Smart truly desires a 10 or 11-man rotation, it sure looks like he’s got the horses to do it.
Smart essentially rotated 11 players in the first half and 10 in the second after Rob Brandenberg exited with back spasms. While there were moments of youthful frustration, there was hardly a dramatic drop-off in ability.
Freshman Doug Brooks led VCU in scoring with 14 points in 13 minutes of play. For most of those 13 minutes, he looked like Briante Weber with a better jumper and a disinterested barber.
Not far behind was freshman Jordan Burgess, who was about as good as advertised with 11 points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes. Sure, Juvonte Reddic (12 points, 10 rebounds, six steals) and Treveon Graham (11 points, five rebounds) turned solid efforts, but so too did freshman JeQuan Lewis, who added eight points, five assists and two steals. Mo Alie-Cox kicked in three points, five boards and two slightly demoralizing blocked shots.
All the while, there was Smart, like a camel on Wednesday, tinkering, shifting, experimenting with lineup combinations. All told, 12 Rams played 11 minutes or more Saturday. Smart could tighten up the rotation at some point, but maybe he won’t have to.
FOUL WATCH 2013 KICKS OFF
Foul Watch 2013 began with but a murmur.
For all the speculation (including on this blog) and ominous chatter in the Twittersphere about how the NCAA’s emphasis on handchecking and defensive contact, and the adjustment of the block/charge call would impact games this season – and VCU’s style of play, specifically – there was little controversy in Saturday’s win over Cal (Pa.). The Rams committed just 14 fouls and the Vulcans shot just 13 free throws as a result. California, meanwhile, was whistled for 22 personals.
Despite the dearth of VCU violations, the rule adjustments were not without impact, according to some Rams. While VCU forced 22 turnovers in the game, Weber felt the team played a little with fouls on the brain.
“It was definitely in the front of our minds,” Weber said. “We weren’t as aggressive as we need to be. We’ll fine tune it and get to where we need to be come Nov. 8.”
It’s a sentiment Smart shared after the Rams’ Oct. 13 Black and Gold Game, that VCU’s traps weren’t as suffocating or aggressive. But Saturday, Smart emphasized that the Rams are capable of playing within the rules, so long as they can be confident about where the boundaries are.
“The biggest thing… I’m a little worried that game-to-game there’s going to be a lot of variability, which just means that, we’re going to have to adjust,” Smart said. “We’re just going to have to adjust to the way the officials are calling it. If there is foul trouble, we’re just going to have to manage that through changing defenses and substitutions.”
VCU has long tried to play defense as close to the edge as possible under Smart, who will freely accept all the contact officials are willing to permit. It’s just a matter of finding where the new line is and still providing the most hostile defensive environment possible.
“The guys know the rules,” he said. “We’ve really hammered those rules into their heads in the preseason. It’s not a matter of learning the rules. It’s a matter of playing aggressively in our style of play within the rules and I think our guys are learning that.”
HOUSE OF BURGESS
Burgess made his much-anticipated debut in a VCU uniform…Jordan Burgess that is.
Wearing the same No. 20 his older brother, Bradford, popularized from 2008-2012, Jordan finished with 11 points and seven rebounds and won for himself a slice of the affection Rams’ fans used to shower on his sibling.
Burgess was among the first wave of VCU substitutions by Smart, who had all but shouted from the rooftops that the freshman was going to figure prominently in the Rams’ rotation. When Brandenberg was shelved in the second half, the rookie slid into the starting lineup.
While the Burgesses share a number and bear a resemblance to one another, they are very different players, especially at this stage of their careers. Jordan appears more aggressive on the offensive end, more apt to put the ball on the floor and slash to the rim, more comfortable in traffic. Bradford was more deferential, but with a lethal 3-point shot. As his career progressed, Bradford became more active inside, but as a freshman, he was, for the most part, a catch-and-shoot offensive player.
Jordan said he talked to Bradford, now playing professional in Belgium, on Facetime – a video phone app – before Saturday’s game.
“He just told me to go out and have fun and everything will come to you,” Jordan said afterward.
A top-100 recruit out of high school, Jordan Burgess sat out the 2012-13 season after he was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA.
- Brandenberg started and scored nine points in 11 first-half minutes, but did not play in the second. Smart said afterwards that back spasms, which have become a recent issue for the VCU senior, flared up.
- The only Ram on the roster that did not play Saturday was junior Jarred Guest, who is still recovering from a dislocated ankle in the offseason. Guest has been practicing with the team.
- VCU outscored the Vulcans 31-8 off turnovers and outrebounded Cal 47-27.
- Smart said new starting point guard Briante Weber played “okay” Saturday. “To be honest with you, he’s played better than that in practice.” Weber scored eight points, handed out nine assists and ripped two steals in 24 minutes. He committed three turnovers.
- Smart fielded a starting lineup that included both Terrance Shannon and Juvonte Reddic in a return to a more “traditional” look, with two post players. Shannon scored four points in 18 minutes.
- Cal (Pa.) Coach Bill Brown said the Vulcans used as many as eight players in practice this week to simulate the Rams’ press. The Vulcans committed 22 turnovers anyway.
POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCE – VCU PLAYERS
SHAKA SMART POSTGAME