RICHMOND, Va. – VCU’s 1-2 performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament over Thanksgiving Weekend is likely to be viewed as many different things to many different people.
On one hand, the Rams upset 19th-ranked Memphis and battled then fifth-ranked Duke and 13th-ranked Missouri to the final horn, only to lose close games. You could say that alone is proof the Rams are a top-25 caliber team and can compete with anybody in the country, that they can walk with their chests puffed out, their confidence soaring.
The flip side is that for whatever moral victories were won, the Rams still lost games to Duke and Missouri that were within their reach, that VCU missed an opportunity to make a splash nationally. Against Duke, VCU’s balky free throw shooting reared its ugly head, while Missouri was able to control the paint in its 68-65 win over the Rams.
Regardless of which side you fall on, or, if your opinions reside closer to the centerline, there were positives and negatives from the experience. VCU players, talking publicly for the first time since returning from the Paradise Island Resort in Nassau, the site of the star-studded tournament, sounded as if they were also trying to categorize their performance. Net positive or an exercise in frustration? Teachable moment? Confidence builder? All of the above?
“We learned a lot. It was a good trip, a learning experience,” said junior Rob Brandenberg, who averaged 11.3 points in three tournament games. “One thing I learned about us is we’ve got to continue to get better and we’ve got to attack everything we do. Every time we take the floor we’ve got to attack. That’s when we’re at our best.”
But then again, it’s not all game plans and scouting reports.
“I learned that my guys have got a lot of heart,” Brandenberg added. “The Duke and Missouri games, the second half, we kind of got down double-digits in both games. We could’ve folded up the tent and said, it’s not our night, but we continued to fight and give ourselves a chance to win. So, I learned the guys that I’m with, they’re going to fight every night.”
It was a brutal test, three games against three ranked teams in three consecutive days. The Rams were the first team in the country to play three ranked teams this season, and they did it in a little over 48 hours.
“We learned we can play with the best in the country, not only play with the best, but beat the best,” senior Troy Daniels said.
While Daniels was buoyed by VCU’s ability to hang with big-name schools with rosters stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans and guys that once burned up the Rivals.com message boards, he’s still anchored by the cold reality of those two close losses.
“We played great at times and we showed spurts at times, but as far as us collectively as a team, I feel like we played at a ‘B’ level, which is not good enough when you’re playing top 20 teams,” he said. “We have to be at our best at all times and we just weren’t.”
Sophomore Treveon Graham averaged 18.0 points in three Atlantis Tournament games, but didn’t come away completely satisfied.
“On effort, I think I’d give us an ‘A’,” Graham said. “We went out there and played hard, but just executing when we needed to execute, [we were] probably just a C-minus to a ‘D’ because when we really needed it we didn’t execute the way we should have and know how to.”
One thing that should merit little debate is that the Rams’ effort in the Bahamas indicates they are light years ahead of last year at this time, when they limped to a 1-2 mark against a considerably weaker field at the Charleston Classic. That team was still trying to find an identity. This year’s squad was attempting to establish itself among the elite.
While the Rams didn’t turn the top 25 polls upside down, history says a couple of losses in an early-season tournament aren’t always the worst thing in the world. In 2006, VCU lost two of three games at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, only to upset Duke later that season in the NCAA Tournament. In 2008, the Rams split two games in Cancun, but later charged to a CAA Championship and near-upset of UCLA in the NCAAs. Then, there’s Charleston last season, an event that clearly served as a gut-check that the Rams parlayed into an NCAA Third Round appearance.
So, whatever you thought yesterday, what you’re thinking today or how you may measure it tomorrow, just wait before you make a final decision on the Rams’ Battle 4 Atlantis performance. Let’s see where it goes from here.