By Mike Litos
SAN DIEGO – I’m going to be honest with you: I like this matchup for VCU. I really do. Now we can hedge and hem and haw all we want about The Fates, karma, and not overlooking our opponent. We can imbue our discussion with tales of upperclassmen and team basketball and 28-game winning streaks. Fine.
But I’m here to tell you that I’ve spent hours on angles and talked to coaches who don’t wear VCU on their chests and the simple fact is that this is a good draw for VCU. The Rams have a physical advantage at every position, in both height and thickness. VCU is a stout team in comparison to its axe-wielding opponents.
VCU can run a lineup onto the floor in which four Rams are bigger than the Lumberjacks biggest notable player. Think about the devastation of a lineup of Reddic, Alie-Cox, Graham, Burgess, and Weber.
That’s why if I’m Shaka Smart–and we can all thank the heavens I am not–I’m playing a constant loop of the running of the bulls in Pamplona in the locker room. That’s what VCU has to do–play aggressive, downhill basketball.
What’s more, SFA is small and scrappy and tough and crash the boards hard, but that diminuitive size crashing the boards leaves breakouts wide open.
Yes SFA turns teams over at a rate of 24.4%, third nationally. But the Southland Conference is 27th overall, with a turnover rate of 19.3% for all teams. Everybody turns it over. SFA is known to be aggressive and gamble, which leads to open lanes when exploited by bigger, longer players. It’s worth noting that teams shoot 45% against SFA.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
And so we are clear, I am not being overconfident nor taking them lightly. Not at all. VCU will have to go out and win a basketball game against a team that has not lost since November 23, 2013. That matters. What’s more, this VCU team is prone to shooting droughts.
They’ve won 28 straight games so they know how to win. Only three of SFAs 20 conference victories were by fewer than seven points, and six were by fewer than 10 points. The Jacks also went 3-0 against the CAA, for what that’s worth.
What I am saying is that straight anlaysis of this game comes up looking good for VCU. It’s okay to believe that.
The Jacks are a tough and skilled bunch. They remind me of a blend of Davidson, Northern Iowa without the size, and Belmont. They do their thing, they know what do to, and they can shoot. They pass well, play together well and featured skilled players. Only one player who plays more than five mnutes per game has more turnovers than assists (Tanner Clayton 14/19).
SFA is one of just five teams to have the same starting lineup every game during the season.
Jacob Parker (14.2ppg, 7.1rpg) is the the Southland Conference Player of the Year and one of those guys that looks unspectacular, until he beats you. The 6-6 junior is shooting 54% from the field and 80% from the line. He’s also hit 21-45 from three. Parker had 10 double doubles on the year. He is a very good offensive rebounder, so the Rams will have to punish him. What’s more, Parker loves to go one-on-one from the elbow. VCU will have to play team defense on him.
Desmond Haymon (14.3ppg, 94 assists, 54 turnovers, 55 threes at 35% clip) has games of 36 and 30 points. This just in: he can score. Haymon is a 6-4 senior who can change games with his lightning-fast bucketmaking abilities. Haymon is a lefty who can shoot, and the Rams will have to cut off his left-handed drives. He will also play some point guard when needed.
Deshaunt Walker (12.0ppg, 79 threes at 38% clip) is the sixth man and a 6-0 combo guard. He hit six threes against Texas, and has made three or more threes in six of their last seven games. He’s been in double figures in all seven games. Coach Underwood even said he is their version of Melvin Johnson–instant offense off the bench. Walker plays an aggressive style, so it’s worth it for the Rams to bottle him up and not let him get going. Walker may be the key defensive assignment.
Thomas Walkup (12.9ppg, 5.0rpg) is a 6-4 three man who hit double figures in 11 of last 12 games and earned third-team All-Southland honors. He also won the conference tournament MVP honor. Walkup also made the Southland’s all defensive team and is known for his energy plays. He is considered deadly in their trapping defense. Walkup is also the definition of their toughness.
Nikola Gajic (9.6ppg, 41 threes at 38% clip) is a 6-5 glue guy who can shoot if given the time. By glue guy, I don’t mean “guy with little actual skills.” Gajic can pass very well and is always on the move. When you hear the announcers talk about SFAs great spacing, it’s because Gajic sees to it.
Trey Pinkney (3.0ppg, 115 assists and 57 turnovers) is a distributing point guard and a bit of a waterbug. Pinkney is listed at 5-9 and can pressure the ball with his low-slung frame and above-average quickness. VCU will have to protect the ball from Pinkney’s curious hands. He isn’t much of a scoring threat–just 3-23 from three on the year and has never scored in double figures in his career.
Tanner Clayton is their tallest player and best athlete as a former world-class volleyball player. Also, Dallas Cameron is a 6-3 freshman who is the backup point guard. He is a freshman point guard, and you know what that means: blood in the water. Finally, Connor Brooks looks like he just took your daughter to junior prom but can play. Brooks hit three threes in the Southland semifinals and has played more lately.
That’s pretty good depth, but in actuality, as the season moved to grinding time SFA turned into a six man team. SFA got spot minutes for a bevy of players, but the Jacks put five guys in double figures plus the point guard skills of Pinkney in their conference season.
Sum It Up, Knucklehead
Okay, we’ve been over the offense. Downhill. Attack. Feed. The. Big. Man. VCU is 20-4 when scoring 30 or more points in the paint. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we didn’t see Shaka Smart go with a big lineup to start. Jarred Guest or even Mo Alie Cox could take off his sweats for the opening tip.
You get the picture.
However it’s also about attacking in transition, sprinting to spots on the floor. All of this is part of the physically-stronger team taking the action to its opponent.
On defense, VCU has to assume control of the glass. SFA grabs 38.5% of its misses, which is 11th nationally. The Rams are 17-0 when it wins the battle of the glass and rebounds more than 35% of its own misses. So there’s that.
But the Rams also have to turn the volume up to 11 on its havoc defense. Briante Weber has 25 more steals than anyone else in the country and he needs to widen his lead. The Rams have to make SFA uncomfortable. The biggest enemy of a patterned team is discomfort–guys flying around disrupting and getting deflections, denying entry passes.
So really, it’s VCU doing VCU things. You know: aggressive, confident, and loose. It’s a style of play night. That’s how you advance.
I also think a punch smack in the mouth early is important. We will surely have that feeling out period–an ugly four minutes where everybody is getting accustomed to the surroundings and each other. But once we get past the under 16 media timeout in the first half, VCU is well-advised to crank up the havoc machine and hit SFA with a BLAMMO. A 12-2 run to say “this is what we do” will suffice.
Side note: if VCU wins, Smart becomes the only coach in the history of college basketball to start his career with 27 or more wins in each of his first five seasons.