BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Calling VCU’s style of play “Havoc” may be good marketing, but it’s no façade. There’s substance to this style.
Given its pervasiveness, Havoc has surpassed the individual star power of every Ram to play within it in the last five years under Shaka Smart – save Larry Sanders – because it’s never been about individual talents. It’s a collective, an attacking army on both ends of the floor. You cannot full court press with one player. You cannot trap alone.
It’s one of the reasons that VCU, despite yearly turnover, has been able to achieve an envious level of consistency during Smart’s tenure. It’s why the Rams, despite an injury to one of their most important players, Melvin Johnson, were able to secure a second straight trip to the Atlantic 10 Championship Game with a 74-55 win over George Washington Saturday at Barclays Center. The Rams will meet fourth-seeded Saint Joseph’s, which topped St. Bonaventure in the day’s first semifinal, Sunday at 1 p.m.
This was a sum-of-the-parts win. While VCU can certainly point to Treveon Graham’s 22 points or Briante Weber’s 16-point, 8-assists performance, blindly reading the box score won’t tell the whole story.
Five minutes into the game, Johnson, a Bronx native and the A-10’s Sixth Man of the Year, collapsed and clutched his left knee after attempting to run down a loose ball near midcourt. Johnson did not return to the game, although he emerged from the lockerroom early in the second half and sat on the VCU bench with his left knee in an inflatable cast. He will have an MRI on Monday.
Perhaps inspired by their fallen teammate, the Rams eventually overran the third-seeded Colonials in the final 10 minutes to turn a pressure-packed, back-and-forth battle into a laugher.
“I think the guys were upset, and that really motivated us,” said senior Juvonte Reddic of the Rams’ response to Johnson’s injury. “We played the second half for him. It was just all about him. A lot of the guys were just telling each other, ‘don’t think about yourself, think about somebody else’, and I think a lot of the guys did a good job thinking about somebody else.”
“When Mel went down, that was a hit to our team and our guys, our coaching staff, because he’s one – first of all, he’s one of the guys that everyone on the team absolutely adores, including the coaches, and secondly, he’s a very, very good player,” said Smart. “But at that point, you’ve just got to keep playing. I told the guys, hey, let’s win this game for Mel, and I thought [they] did a great job staying together and continued to attack, and then the last six, eight minutes we were able to extend the lead with our defense.”
“We were all upset, especially since he’s a good player for us. He scores the ball well.” said freshman Jordan Burgess, who started the second half in Johnson’s place and finished with seven points. “Coach basically said at halftime that people have to step up that might not [normally] play a lot, including me, I had to step up and fill in for him.”
It was an injury that initially smelled like disaster for VCU. Johnson is the Rams’ third-leading scorer, and at the time of the injury, VCU was already trailing 12-9. He’s also the team’s leading 3-point shooter, one that was expected to play a critical role against George Washington. The Colonials (24-8) had effectively used a 1-3-1 zone against VCU earlier this season, and a popular method for countering zone defense is by moving the ball and knocking down 3-pointers.
Despite the grim understanding that Johnson would not return, VCU proceeded to hit 8-of-20 from beyond the arc following his departure, including 5-of-9 in the second half, as the Rams took command. Without their best 3-point shooter, VCU finished 10-of-23 from beyond the arc. It was a collective effort, as Graham hit four threes, Rob Brandenberg added three, and Burgess and Weber knocked down one a piece.
It wasn’t just terrific 3-point shooting, however. The most impressive facet of VCU’s win was on the glass. George Washington entered the game as the A-10’s second-best team in rebounding margin (+3.6), and VCU outrebounded the Colonials by nine. This is the same George Washington team that dominated VCU to the tune of a 45-29 advantage on the boards in a Colonials triumph in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 14.
Rebounding, like the full court press, is a group venture, or a “gang” venture, if you will.
“It was just or aggressiveness,” said Reddic of VCU’s performance on the glass. “Coach was telling us before the game we’ve just got to gang rebound, and situations like, a guard may be in a situation where he’s got to block out a big. That’s a gang rebounding. I think we did a good job with that and I think that was at the front of everybody’s mind.”
It’s that same gang mentality that has put VCU in this position, on the doorstep of a championship, so often under Smart. Sunday will mark the Rams’ fourth conference championship game appearance in his five seasons.
As it turns out, the Atlantic 10 Championship trophy is rather heavy and cumbersome. It’s going to take a group effort to hoist it into the air. In that respect, the Rams should be prepared.
SMART SETS MARK
If there was ever a way to bury history, this was probably it.
With Saturday’s win, Smart moved past Sonny Smith atop VCU’s all time victories list for coaches with 137. Smith compiled 136 wins from 1989-1998. That’s where the comparisons will end, however. Smith led VCU to one NCAA Tournament bid in nine seasons, while Smart will likely lead the Rams into the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year later this month.
Following Saturday’s win over George Washington, Smart shrugged off the milestone.
“I don’t really put much stock into records. I think, anytime you have a record as a coach, I haven’t seen a coach yet that breaks any type of record that didn’t do it with great players. You don’t win the game by yourself as a coach. You don’t play a huge role in putting the ball in the basket, rebounding the basketball. I don’t have any assists or any points at VCU.”
For Smart, those 137 wins are behind him. It’s the next victory that is always of utmost importance.
“I think VCU’s a great place to coach,” he said. “I love being there. I think we have an opportunity to keep getting better, so wherever we are in terms of wins, we want more and obviously more immediately, we want to win tomorrow.”
WEBER, ALIE-COX SHINE AGAIN
Weber is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Following his 14-point, 8-assist, 6-rebound effort, he’s averaging 17.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals, while shooting 62 percent (13-of-21) in two A-10 Tournament contests.
Meanwhile, freshman Mo Alie-Cox chipped in with seven points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Alie-Cox, who entered the game averaging slightly better than three points and three rebounds per game, is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the tournament.