RICHMOND, Va. – The Stony Brook basketball team got the jump on snowstorm Hercules by taking the team bus to Richmond early Thursday morning. In the process, the Seawolves escaped howling winds, frigid temperatures and five inches of snow. But what Stony Brook walked into at the Verizon Wireless Arena VCU Friday night was possibly much worse.
Instead of Old Man Winter, Stony Brook got Shaka Smart and a raging Havoc storm front that removed all doubt early in the second half and handed the Seawolves an 81-63 defeat. Instead of Jack Frost, there was Briante Weber coolly directing a VCU team that appears to be rounding into form.
Perhaps it would have been better for Stony Brook to take a snow day.
After a Weber leaner at the first half buzzer gave the Rams a 36-35 lead, the Rams erupted with a 15-0 blitz out of the lockerroom – the type of dizzying run for which VCU has become known – and never looked back on the way to their fourth straight win. It was also the fourth consecutive game in which VCU swept in like a cold front and iced the opposing team’s offense.
The Seawolves may have caught the Rams at the worst possible time. After stinging losses to Florida State and Georgetown earlier this year, the Rams have won eight of nine to close conference play.
The last four games have been particularly impressive, as the Rams have forced an average of 22.7 turnovers and limited all four opponents to 41 percent shooting or worse. Stony Brook, the America East preseason favorites, were actually the most successful offense of this quartet that has included Boston College, Virginia Tech and Wofford. The Seawolves scored 63 points and shot 41 percent, which partially masks the fact that VCU limited them to 33 percent shooting (11-of-33) in the second half. Stony Brook came into the game shooting 40 percent for the year from three, but endured a season-worst 3-of-18 performance from beyond the arc.
While VCU’s defense has actually been pretty consistent of late – the Rams have allowed 70 points just once in the last nine games – there were other welcome signs Friday night that will give the team comfort as it embarks into Atlantic 10 Conference play on Jan. 9 against George Mason.
Topping that list was the play of point guard Briante Weber. After two seasons as VCU’s resident agitator on defense, Weber has been asked to become a facilitator in place of the departed Darius Theus. The first 15 games has been a mixture of highs and lows, of moments both celebrated and teachable, but Friday was undeniably one of his best games as a Ram.
The junior engineered a 14-point, 9-assist, 7-steal, 0-turnover effort that should instill confidence in players, coaches and fans as VCU begins its March to march.
“I thought Briante did a good job of leading the way,” said Coach Shaka Smart. “[He] just played with a real clear head, was all about making the team win and when he does that he’s really good.”
Not only were those nine assists a season-high, but in his last two games, Weber has produced 15 assists and one turnover. The Rams needed a point guard, and it looks like they’ve found one. While Smart hesitated to call Weber a “finished” product, he’s clearly pleased with what he’s seeing.
“To be honest with you with Bri, the most important thing…is have you ever seen those Dove commercials? [It’s] being comfortable in his own skin,” he said. “Tonight, he looked comfortable in his own skin. He’s out there playing, he’s not forcing anything, he’s getting guys shots, he feels good about his role and what he’s doing, he’s a good player. He’s been a good player for three years and he’s a talented guy.”
In addition to Weber’s virtuoso performance, the Rams got other noteworthy games that could lead one to believe VCU is prepped for the rigors of conference season. Sure, Treveon Graham’s 16 second-half points and 20 overall helped carry the day, but the Rams have known for a long time what they’re going to get from their junior swingman night in and night out, and that was pretty close. The same can be said for sophomore Melvin Johnson, who appears to be finding a comfortable place as the Rams’ resident sparkplug/shooter off the bench. Johnson, who dazzled on Dec. 21 with eight 3-pointers and 27 points against Virginia Tech, pumped in 12 and a couple of treys Friday.
Those are the easy, flashy lines that pop off the stat sheet. They’re obvious and, at this stage, expected. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the value of senior Terrance Shannon’s 6-point, 2-steal, everywhere-I-need-to-be-in-14-lunchpail-minutes effort.
After four years at Florida State, Shannon has had to absorb an entirely new system with the Rams this season and missed four games in the middle of the year while dealing with a personal matter. But he’s a guy VCU needs in order to be successful. The Rams need a veteran presence, a second big body in the post, another rebounder, a guy to promote the intangibles. Shannon, who’s shown flashes of understated brilliance before, was a difference-maker Friday, even if his stat line seems pedestrian.
It wasn’t just Friday, according to Smart. Shannon scored a 31 on the team’s “effort chart” during a practice this week, which Smart says is the highest ever recorded in his five years at VCU.
“He came here to play, and he wants to play more and make a bigger impact, and he can and he’s a very talented guy, so this was a big step, not just tonight, but the practices leading up to tonight and I hope we can keep it going,” Smart said.
What it all adds up to is a win that moves the Rams to 12-3, one that gives further assurance that the team is heading in the right direction. While Virginia Tech wasn’t Florida State and Boston College wasn’t Georgetown, it’s clear the Rams have made strides in the last 5-6 weeks.
Additionally, despite the losses that sent VCU tumbling out of the top 25, the Rams still exit non-conference play with a 12-3 resume. Sure, they’d love to have a couple of possessions back in the Georgetown and Northern Iowa games, and essentially all of Florida State, but it’s also a resume that’s nothing to fret about. All three of VCU’s losses came to teams inside the RPI top 90. Plus, there are quality road wins at Virginia and Belmont. It’s not enough to start printing NCAA Tournament tickets, of course. The Rams are going to have to continue to convince people in A-10 play, but there’s nothing wrong about that.
The important thing at this stage for VCU is progress, and as the non-conference schedule comes to a conclusion, it appears the Rams are meeting that end. On Friday, Stony Brook – potentially the best of the Rams’ last four opponents – was the most recent victim of a team that appears to be finding itself.