RICHMOND, Va. – As pure entertainment, VCU’s 71-68 overtime win over Eastern Kentucky Thursday at the Verizon Wireless Arena was terrific. There was practically March intensity in an early December game, the score was close, it was, for the most part, well-played, and the pace was often dizzying.
But Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart can invest very little emotionally in the basketball on the floor as a consumable product. As a coach, he’s got to be more clinical. For Smart, there’s likely more value in the victory as a progress report of sorts.
On that level, there was much for him to see. Some things, he’ll like, others, he won’t. But for the second straight game, his team provided a window through which to view how good it could be. On the other hand, Smart knows the Rams have plenty of work to do.
While the fans and media were bullish on VCU from day one, Smart has never sold the Rams as being a finished project. Sure, he’d like them to be, and Smart wants the Rams to be as good – and even better – as that top 10 ranking they once held, but we live in a world of college basketball where North Carolina can lose to UAB and then beat top-ranked Michigan State. The game is unpredictable, and teams don’t always realize their potential when coaches want. VCU certainly has moments of greatness. Capturing it and honing it is a skill in and of itself.
What Smart and the rest of the 7,700-plus saw Thursday is that top 10 team, it’s in there. There were moments and sequences and even singular plays where that was undeniable.
In overtime, the Rams were very good defensively. Yes, both teams were tired, but VCU also played terrific on-ball defense, switched decisively on ball screens and forced Eastern Kentucky’s offense into a mode that saw a tired Glenn Cosey often try to make something out of nothing with a short shot clock. The sum of the Colonels’ labors in overtime amounted to two points on 1-of-5 shooting and three turnovers.
Strategically, VCU didn’t change anything, other than switch on ball screens, according to players and coaches. Which meant it was less about X’s and O’s and more about desire.
“I think it just about want-to,” said sophomore Melvin Johnson, who finished with 12 points and came up with an important steal in overtime. “Because we could’ve done that the entire game, but these guys wanted to get stops. I think they scored one time in the entire overtime, and that just shows what we can do when we’re locked in.”
Although Smart said he thought both teams had tired legs from 40 minutes of intense basketball, he was happy with what he saw out of the Rams in the period.
“It’s all want-to,” he said. “When this group wants, we can be pretty good on defense.”
To be fair, VCU was also 1-of-5 from the field in overtime, that one field goal being a Rob Brandenberg 3-pointer on the opening possession. But in a game that was decided by just three points, the Rams found just enough in reserve.
The other piece of film Smart will want to save came in the first half. VCU was pretty good the final nine minutes of the first, when they outscored Eastern Kentucky 27-11, but it was the dizzying 10-0 blur the final three minutes that really jolted onlookers.
VCU once trailed by as many as 14 points (25-11) in the first, but freshman JeQuan Lewis hit back-to-back 3-pointers between Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham layups and the Rams took a 38-36 lead into the lockerroom. It capped a half in which VCU busted EKU’s zone for 9-of-16 three-pointers.
At that point, the Rams were 13-of-24 from three in their last two halves of basketball, pretty darn good for a team that came into Thursday’s game shooting 32 percent from beyond the arc.
The overtime defense, the 3-point shooting, the 15 turnovers VCU forced, all of that was enough for the Rams to improve to 4-0 at home.
But this was also a learning experience for Smart’s team. The match-up was both unique and challenging for the Rams. The Colonels are a team that forces turnovers (VCU is still looking to rein in turnovers), doesn’t turn the ball over very much (VCU wants to force turnovers), and could, for the most part, match VCU’s athleticism (usually an advantage for the Rams). EKU’s guard trio of Glenn Cosey, Marcus Lewis and Corey Walden should win that club a lot of games this season.
The game gave Smart and his staff plenty to talk about, the 25-11 hole the Rams dug themselves, the fact that EKU started 8-of-10 – including 7-of-7 from two, those are the things that will keep him up at night. But if you look at the last couple of weeks of the season in a purely linear sense, you see the Rams moving in the right direction, you see certain plays being made at the right times, the potential to be a good 3-point shooting team, those types of things.
“We did a better job on them at the end of the game, end of regulation and overtime, but they really had their way for a while,” Smart said. “But our guys hung in there and showed a lot of resiliency and a lot of resolve. I think tonight we showed some glimpses on the defensive end of what we can be and who we can be, so now it’s all about building on this game and getting better, and it’s a quick turnaround. We’ve got Old Dominion Sunday.”
JEQUAN LEWIS EMERGES
As roles on this team begin to crystallize, freshman guard JeQuan Lewis is beginning to settle in. The Dickson, Tenn. native hit three big 3-pointers and scored 13 points Thursday night. He scored 12 points Sunday at Belmont.
It was Lewis who keyed the Rams’ 10-0 run to close the first half with a pair of 3-pointers and a steal in one 58-second sequence.
“We don’t win the game without him. We don’t win the last two games [without him],” Smart said. “He’s a kid that’s showed a lot of maturity over the course of the last week, he’s going to keep getting better and better, but it’s because he’s had a really good attitude lately. His attitude has been terrific. He’s very hard on himself. He’s, like a lot of freshmen, prone to drop his head after mistakes and he’s done a much better job moving on from mistakes.”
Lewis, who is averaging 5.8 points per game this season, is averaging 12.5 points in his last two games, while shooting 8-of-14 from the field, including 4-of-8 from three.
“It’s just my teammates motivating me and telling me to play well and not really think about it, just play the game,” he said.
“That’s good,” said junior Treveon Graham of Lewis. “Him coming off the bench was that spark we needed. Shots weren’t really falling for us at the time, so him coming in and doing what he did really helped us bring the energy and got our defense going and everything to start clicking from there.”
MELVIN! COMES UP BIG
It was Johnson that sent the game to overtime. With about a minute to play in regulation, the sophomore offensive sparkplug drove baseline, spun and hit a short floater in the lane to tie the game at 66-all.
Johnson opened the night by knocking down 3-of-4 from the 3-point line, but by the time the game was on the line, he’d missed four straight from beyond the arc, so he improvised.
“I was tired of shooting. My legs were tired, and the threes I was getting were wide open. Too open. But my legs were tired. I couldn’t really get them under me, so on that last shot…I just wanted to get in the paint. I just wanted to get some kind of shot off because I knew it had a good possibility of going in.”
Johnson finished the game with 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-9 from 3-point range.
Jordan Burgess, who missed four games with a sprained right knee, returned Thursday wearing a brace on his right leg. Burgess played 10 minutes against Eastern Kentucky and scored four points.
Meanwhile, senior forward Terrance Shannon was back in uniform after missing VCU’s last two games to deal with a family matter, but did not play. Smart said Shannon needed to “work himself back” after missing five practices.
STAT OF NOTE
Eastern Kentucky started the game 8-of-10 from the field overall, including 7-of-7 on 2-point shots, on the way to a 25-11 lead. VCU held the Colonels to just 12-of-33 shooting on twos the rest of the way.