BROOKLYN, N.Y. – On Monday, VCU played its fourth game in a 31-game regular season. It was the 11th day of the 115-day of the 2014-15 campaign. It didn’t go well. Okay, it went very bad. Okay, it was like getting hit by a subway car.
Look, there’s nothing I can write to rub out what transpired Monday night on the Barclays Center floor. After 22 minutes of really competitive basketball, 12th-Villanova blitzed VCU on the way to a 77-53 win. That’s a cold, hard reality.
But before we lose ourselves in an ugly box score, remember that after tonight, there were only 104 days left until the Atlantic 10 Tournament on this Barclays Center floor – more than three months. The season is roughly nine percent complete.
History is also on the side of Shaka Smart and the Rams. Without so much as turning a page in the media guide, one can point to underwhelming performances by the Rams at the 2011 Charleston Classic early in a season that ended within a hair of a Sweet 16 appearance. Just over a year ago, VCU absorbed an 85-67 loss at the hands of Florida State in Puerto Rico. That was a runaway train from start to finish. The Rams won 23 more games after that and 26 overall.
For more than a half of basketball, it looked as if Villanova and VCU would go down to the wire. The Rams opened the second half with a 6-0 burst, keyed by back-to-back buckets from Mo Alie-Cox, to grab a 36-32 lead. For a moment, Villanova appeared to be woozy.
But Wildcats’ Coach Jay Wright called timeout with 18:35 left and Villanova returned to the court moments later a changed team. Wright’s squad staged a stunning 16-0 run that took all of 2:17. VCU never recovered, and Villanova played a nearly flawless half of basketball to earn a spot in the Legends Classic Championship Game.
The sting of the loss will last longer than it took Villanova to assert itself, but it’s no reason to let that feeling bleed into the other 104 days of the season. It’s not that there aren’t things to fix. There definitely are, and VCU Coach Shaka Smart was very clear about that following the game. The point is that there’s plenty of time to fix things, and this isn’t Smart’s first rodeo.
The team that ran away from Tennessee and outbattled a really good Toledo team is still in there too. But matchup nightmare that is JayVaughn Pinkston, combined with Villanova’s veteran, poised guards (just nine turnovers) and a splendidly executed game plan coalesced into a brilliant performance for Wright’s team.
Shaka Smart knows the formula. He wrote it. The Rams only turned Villanova over nine times in the game, and Smart said afterwards the VCU’s 15 deflections (tracked by his staff) were the team’s lowest total in a long time.
So for Smart, everything starts with defense. Havoc is an effective, fun, marketable style of play, but it also needs maintenance from time-to-time. It’s a complicated, system that can seem chaotic from the outside, but in reality, the nuances can make a big difference. An oil change can seem insignificant at the time, but it will also keep your engine from blowing up.
“I thought our energy was really good coming out of halftime, but then after that initial six-point run that we had, we just flat-out didn’t get stops,” Smart said. “You can’t win games really against anyone, but particularly against a team like Villanova if you can’t stop them, and I think over one stretch they scored five or six times in a row and scored eight or so times out of 10, and that’s unacceptable. It’s certainly a reminder for us, a pretty painful reminder, that we have to get better on defense.”
“We can’t let one side of the ball affect the other. That’s what happened tonight,” said senior guard Briante Weber, who finished with 13 points. “That’s on me, Treveon Graham and the other upperclassmen.”
It’s from that point that Smart and his staff will begin, because you have to start somewhere. On Tuesday, the Rams will play again and have a chance to begin to put Villanova in their rearview mirror. It’ll be an important step, but don’t expect them to forget the experience entirely. In every successful season there are shreds of disappointment from somewhere, tucked into the motivational lobe of an athlete’s brain. VCU marched to the Final Four in 2011 with 11 losses in their trunk. Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder of the bad nights that made the good nights possible.
Heck, UConn lost to Louisville by 33 points in a game – in March – last year, then won the national title.
So let’s accept Monday’s loss for what it is: one loss. Just like the Rams aren’t going to average 93 points per game, as they were prior to Monday, VCU’s too good to miss 15-of-17 threes, as they did against Villanova. Treveon Graham has scored more than 1,400 points in his career, but he managed just four Monday. Which do you think is more reliable, Graham’s 100-plus game career as one of VCU’s best scorers, or one game in November of 2014? I’m going with history.
You tend to your wounds and move on. It begins again Tuesday: Game five of a 31-game marathon.