RICHMOND, Va. – It’s been happening somewhat quietly for the last couple of weeks, but on Wednesday, you could no longer deny VCU’s defensive maturation.
Faced with a Davidson offense that ranked sixth nationally in adjusted efficiency, VCU (12-3, 2-0 A-10) flexed its defensive muscle to earn a hard-fought, 71-65 win over Davidson at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.
Despite its place on the schedule – the second game on each team’s Atlantic 10 slate – it was a contest that ached of postseason intensity and hinted at a possible juicy battle deep in the league’s tournament field in March.
On paper, the game looked like it would be a track meet between a pair of tempo-friendly systems. Davidson (10-3, 1-1 A-10) entered the game averaging nearly 86 points per game, while VCU is known for its free-wheeling open-court play. Instead, short, frenetic bursts of frenetic offense often gave way to half court, meat-grinder basketball.
VCU’s vaunted Havoc defense, a bit of a puzzle in the early parts of the Rams’ non-conference schedule, put the brakes on Davidson’s high-octane attack. VCU held the Wildcats to a season-low 65 points and 37 percent (22-of-59) shooting. The Wildcats began the second half 2-of-16 from the field as the Rams opened a 13-point lead. Davidson shot just 39 percent from inside the 3-point arc and turned the ball over 15 times, its second-highest total of the season.
“We struggled more to run our halfcourt offense than we did…at any part of the season, and we’ve played some pretty darn good defensive teams, and that’s a credit to Shaka and his teams that they’re not just a pressing team, but they continue their defense into the halfcourt,” said Davidson Coach Bob McKillop.
The performance provided just enough separation for VCU to collect a win that could prove crucial to the A-10 race, should Davidson, in its first year in the league after leaving the Southern Conference, continue its torrid start.
Davidson point guard Jack Gibbs, the early season sensation that dropped 32 points on Richmond over the weekend, struggled mightily against VCU’s stable of long, athletic guards and a system designed to push him to a speed outside his comfort zone. Gibbs entered the game shooting 58 percent, but finished Wednesday’s game 1-of-10 from the field, including 1-of-7 from three. He missed his first eight shots.
“I don’t know if it had anything to do with our style of play getting to his legs or not,” Smart said. “Their three guards are really, really good players, and those guys played almost the whole game.”
“All we could hear the coaches talking about was, ‘he just had 32 on Richmond. He’s an excellent player. He’s like Joey Rodriguez’ and all this. Out of those three days we had to prepare for Davidson, I’m pretty sure the team and I got fed up with just hearing about Jack Gibbs. With all due respect, he’s a great player, but we took him out as a team,” said VCU senior guard Briante Weber, who collected four steals Wednesday.
VCU’s performance Wednesday underscored a larger trend, a defense that is beginning to tighten its early season holes and is starting to resemble the chaos-inducing VCU clubs of recent years. Traps are coming quicker. The Rams are closing out on shooters quicker. Missed assignments are becoming more and more rare.
In VCU’s last six games, all victories, opponents are shooting 37 percent (120-of-324) from the field. Three-point defense, which had been a real problem in November and early December, has been a strength.
In VCU’s first nine games, opponents shot 42 percent (69-of-166) from three – the equivalent of a four-alarm fire. In the six games since, opponents are shooting 31 percent (43-of-141) from that distance. While the level of completion is likely a factor – the Rams faced current ranked teams Virginia, Villanova and Old Dominion, as well as Northern Iowa (ranked at the time), in those first nine games – you cannot deny that VCU has shown growth on the defensive side of the ball.
“We’ve made some progress on defense,” said Smart. “Early in the year, we did not have a sense of urgency to defend the 3-point line. We did not have a sense of urgency to rotate and fix it, as we say. We’ve still got to keep getting better in a lot of areas.”