Shaka Smart on the Rams' offensive struggles the last two games, "We've got to get back to basics."

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Yes, VCU’s woeful free throw shooting (9-of-20) could be considered one of, if not the main culprit in the Rams’ 64-58 loss to Drexel Sunday night. Yes, the Rams have faced two of the CAA’s top four defensive teams in the last two games. That doesn’t mean VCU is content with its vanishing offense.

Under third-year Head Coach Shaka Smart, the Rams have become known for up-tempo style marked by athleticism and accurate 3-point shooting. But those attributes have been noticeably absent in VCU’s two most recent losses.

In addition to scoring 58 points Sunday night, nearly 12 below its season average, VCU shot 36 percent from the field (21-of-58), including 29 percent (7-of-24) from 3-point range. None of those numbers inspire folks to forget the “Showtime” Lakers.

In the Rams’ back-to-back losses to Drexel and Georgia State last week, they averaged 55.5 points per game. Combined with Wednesday’s forgettable – if it hadn’t been so unforgettable – 27 percent shooting performance, VCU has shot 32 percent in its last two games combined.

Smart acknowledged that the Rams need to show improvement on the offensive end.

“Well, we’ve been in the 50s the last couple of games. It’s not what we’re about. It’s not what we are,” he said. “You can’t just flip a switch and say we’re going to score more, but there are certain things we’ll address, we’ll work on in practice.”

At the heart of the Rams’ offensive troubles has been the shooting of senior Bradford Burgess and sophomore Rob Brandenberg. Burgess and Brandenberg are two of the Rams’ top three scorers and account for about 24 points per game. However, in the last two contests, they’ve combined to shoot 10-of-52 (19 percent). Burgess was much better Sunday than he was in Wednesday’s 1-of-15 nightmare against Georgia State, but clearly wasn’t satisfied with his 7-of-19 shooting performance.

“I think we have good offensive players on our team,” Smart said. “I think we have some guys right now that might not be playing with as much confidence maybe they have at other times. We have to continue to believe in each other and continue to attack the basket and try to get to the foul line.”

Bradford Burgess is the Rams' leading scorer (14.2 ppg), but is just 8-of-34 from the field the last two games.

VCU looked like it would easily shrug off Wednesday’s poor shooting night when it hit 7-of-15 3-pointers in the first half against the Dragons. But in the second half, Drexel pushed its perimeter defense outward to challenge VCU’s shooters and dared the Rams to drive the ball. The result was 0-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc and just 15 VCU points in the final 15:29.

It’s clear that this year’s VCU team is more athletic and better defensively, but lacks some of the offensive firepower of the Rams’ Final Four squad from 2010-11. For the most part, that hasn’t been a problem for VCU this year because the Rams have been able to use their full court press to force turnovers and turn them into easy transition buckets. However, when VCU doesn’t force turnovers and/or doesn’t convert in transition, the Rams are prone to long stretches where they struggle to score.

During Sunday’s game, VCU built a 43-36 advantage with 15:29 remaining, only to go scoreless the next five minutes. That stretch included a sequence where the Rams stole the ball on back-to-back possessions and failed to convert in transition on either.

With fewer pure scorers on this team than last year, the importance of VCU’s defensive pressure is becoming more apparent. In the Rams’ 11 wins, they’ve turned the opposition over an average of 19.7 times. In their five losses, that number drops to 13.6 turnovers. Drexel turned the ball over just 11 times Sunday, the fewest by a VCU opponent this season. The Rams have won just once this season when they’ve failed to turn the opposition over fewer than 15 times (UNC Greensboro).

During VCU’s eight-game win streak the Rams scored an average of 25.9 points off turnovers. In the last two games, VCU has scored a total of 21 points off turnovers. But there’s more. In VCU’s five losses, the Rams are averaging 57.8 points per game. Compare that with last season’s team, which averaged 64.0 points per game in its losses.

The point wasn’t to crush you with a truckload of statistics, but the message is clear. The Rams need their defense to kick start their offense.

“It’s particularly important when you’re not shooting the ball well,” Smart said of VCU’s pressure defense. “You’ve got to find ways to score, so if you’re not making shots from outside, then you’ve got to go to the basket, if you’re not able to finish around the basket, you’ve got to get to the foul line. If you’re struggling to get to the foul line or make free throws, you’ve got to find ways to score in transition. That’s where we’re at. We’ve got to do a better job at all that stuff.  And lot of times that does start with our defense, stopping teams and turning them over so we can get out and run.”

The Rams hope to get back on track Thursday when James Madison visits the Verizon Wireless Arena at 6 p.m. The Dukes (7-7, 1-3 CAA) have lost three straight and rank ninth in the CAA in scoring defense (68.7) and field goal defense (.444).

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