RICHMOND, Va. – The second half of VCU’s Atlantic 10 Conference schedule is no holiday. Of the Rams’ eight remaining games, seven are against teams with a sub-100 RPI, including Butler, currently ranked 14th nationally in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
It’s a 4/4 home/road split down the stretch for first-place VCU (18-5, 6-2 A-10). Those road contests include Charlotte on Feb. 9, Saint Louis, Xavier and Temple – four schools with an average RPI of 58. It’s a gauntlet that could cement VCU’s NCAA at-large hopes. The good news for the Rams is that they’ve had success on the road of late.
In the last three years, VCU is 16-6 in conference road games and 24-10 in true road games overall. That includes the Rams’ 6-1 mark in true road contests this season.
“Our guys have done a nice job on the road,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “I give our guys a lot of credit. We’ve won every road game the last year, save two that were unbelievable comebacks by our opponents. So, our guys have put [us] in positions to win all those games.”
Smart doesn’t believe the Rams’ ability win in hostile environments is an accident. Smart and his staff have worked carefully, he says, to instill a road warrior mentality in the minds of players. Although the official lexicon of the VCU Basketball Keys to Road Success (title is my own) is a closely-guarded secret, Smart did offer a portion of his philosophy at his weekly press conference Wednesday.
“It comes down to responding to adversity,” Smart said. “There’s going to be more adversity on the road. Focusing on what you can control and letting go of what you don’t control. For us, we need to make sure we’re aggressive. It is easier to be aggressive at home because there’s all this energy feeding into what you do, but we’ve got to make sure we bring our own energy and we are extremely aggressive on the road because, again, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Senior Darius Theus is the Rams’ point guard and someone Smart expects to integrate VCU’s formula on the court.
“The most important thing on the road is staying together and battling through that adversity that you’re going to face,” Theus said. “And I feel like if we just stay together and focus on the plan and process that Coach Smart has for us, then winning on the road isn’t going to be so tough.”
What Smart didn’t mention is where pride factors into that equation. Players often view a road victory as a badge of honor. Some guys, Theus, for example, want to hoard those tokens like a Boy Scout chasing his merit badge in canoeing.
“If we’re all on the same page, we can easily make somebody else’s gym our home,” he said. “That’s the fun thing about going on the road is getting that win. On the road, getting that win is a lot more special because you beat somebody else in their home.”
Charlotte will likely put the Rams’ formula to a test. The 49ers (17-5, 5-3) are 11-1 at Halton Arena this season and sold out their last home game, 9,100 seats in all, for a 66-65 win over UMass on Feb. 2.
“I give [our players] a lot of credit for [winning on the road], but as you mentioned, we’ve got a lot of tough road games coming up beginning with Charlotte on Saturday,” said Smart. “We’re going to have to play at a high level. We’re going to have to withstand runs from the home team. We’re going to have to deal with a hostile crowd and do what we do.”
VCU IN A ZONE?
Smart subscribes wholly to “Havoc” as more than just a strategic plan organizing players on the floor, it’s also a philosophy of how to play the game: aggressive, unrestrained, on the attack. For him, man-to-man defense not only maximizes those traits, but actively promotes them.
It’s one of the main reasons Rams rarely employ zone defenses. Sure, there have been important stretches during Smart’s tenure that saw VCU use the zone to its advantage – including parts of VCU’s 2011 Final Four run – but it’s Havoc on which the Rams hang their hats.
“I don’t really like to play zone,” Smart admits. “But at times it’s been effective for us. It helped us a lot in the latter part of the year both of the last two years. So we may mix it in some depending on who we’re playing, but a 2-3 zone isn’t Havoc.”
But Smart says he won’t be stubborn about it. If zone defense can help the Rams win a game, he’s all for it. It’s been true of this season, when Smart occasionally switched to zone. It’s just that he has his reservations.
“Our guys do a pretty good job. We just don’t play it and practice it as much, so as a coach you don’t have as much confidence in something you’re not doing as much,” he said. “We still want to be aggressive, even if we’re playing zone. It can be somewhat of an adjustment. The last thing you want to do is take away from aggressiveness. One thing we’ve learned about our team, we’re not good when we’re not aggressive.”
HAVOC HINGES ON GUARDS
VCU’s Havoc is about creating disruption, inducing chaos and burying the opposition under a tidal wave of pressure. There are many benefits, including disrupting offensive sets and using 40 minutes of aggression to turn the opposition’s legs to Jell-O. Both are effective and useful, but it’s Havoc’s ability to force turnovers, and the points VCU is able to convert those turnovers into, that have had the greatest impact on wins and losses.
To wit: In VCU’s 18 wins this season, the Rams have forced an average of 20.4 turnovers per game and converted them into 28.1 points. In VCU’s five losses, it forced 12.4 turnovers and scored an average of 13.4 points off those miscues. That’s a difference of nearly 15 points per game.
It begs the question, why? It goes without saying that in general, good teams are more secure with the ball. But more specifically, it’s the guards that facilitate the offense that are better.
The way VCU flies around the floor like a pack of wild dogs can rattle the most talented players. That’s why guard play – heady guard play, that is – is so important. It’s a point not lost on Smart.
“To be honest it comes down more to personnel. When you have a couple of really good guards you’re tougher to press. That’s just the reality of it,” Smart said. “That’s a huge factor, the number of good guards you have. If you have one, there’s a number of things maybe we can do to get the ball out of that guy’s hands or tire that guy out, but when you have two, three, four high-level, playmaking guards, those teams can be tougher to press.”
Experience often plays a major role, as beating the press is less about talent and more about sound decisions. The primary ball handlers for Wichita State, Missouri, Richmond and La Salle were almost exclusively upperclassmen. Only Duke, with sophomore Quinn Cook and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon (and yes, senior Seth Curry), beat the Rams with prominent underclassmen guards triggering the offense much of the time.
There are also plenty of instances this season where VCU overwhelmed experienced guards. Dayton senior Kevin Dillard is a great example. He’s considered one the league’s best, but the Rams turned him over seven times. Experience isn’t panacea to beating Havoc, it’s just a factor. It just makes the job more challenging. It just means the Rams have to be that much sharper.
Looking ahead to Saturday, Charlotte point guard Pierria Henry is a sophomore, while fellow backcourt mates Denzel Ingram and Terrence Williams are a freshman and sophomore, respectively. Will VCU be able to prey on that youth? We’ll know by about 9 p.m. on Saturday.