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After last year’s 30-point shellacking of Virginia Union, Panther head coach Willard Coker was so bamboozled by VCU’s blitzing style of play he could only say afterwards the Rams “stuck the ball down our throat; I mean, right down our throat.”
Fast forward an entire year later to this Thursday’s 71-56 win over Union, which now takes VCU’s winning streak versus the local school to seven years straight, and Coker’s postgame press conference was once again full of fluster and frustration at the Rams suffocating style of play.
“VCU applied that pressure they usually have, which caused us a lot of problems,” Coker said. “We have to learn how to deal with those types of teams.”
Havoc 2.0’s test run, which came in the form of the U.S. Army Downtown Showdown, had a few kinks but was still far too much for a solid but not superior Union team that competes in Division II, a level below VCU.
Second-year head coach Shaka Smart utilized all 11 players available to him and eight players finished with at least six points apiece. Perhaps more impressively, VCU forced 26 turnovers for 28 points and took five charges, more than twice the amount the team took in any game last season.
The Rams didn’t do everything right, though. After taking a commanding – if not absolute – 41-19 halftime lead, the team relented on the defensive end and allowed the Panthers to go on a 18-4 run right out of the halftime break to cut what had been a potentially game-ending lead to eight.
“I was surprised that our team let up in terms of our physical toughness and level of attention to details,” Smart said. “I was surprised at that because I thought we really defended well in the first half, and I’m not sure why we would go away from that.”
Ultimately, the Rams recovered. But the seeds of doubt about defensive doggedness had been laid.
”Certainly I’m looking for some individuals to step up and show they want to be consistently excellent on the defensive end,” Smart said. “And if they do, then they’ll play more.”
A lot of people played Thursday. Sophomore backup point guard Darius Theus started for senior Joey Rodriguez, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle, and clocked eight points in 31 minutes. Freshman guard Rob Brandenberg had a stellar debut, dropping 10 points, a drawn charge and three steals. And at the forward position junior transfer Toby Veal and senior Jamie Skeen had solid, though not spectacular first game performances.
“Toby did some good things, but to be honest, Toby and Jamie can be way better,” Smart said. “As a coach, when you have players you really believe in, then you set a high standard for them, and really for the majority of our guys, I think they can do better.”
Growing pains were certainly to be expected in the frontcourt with the loss of such a dominant defender in former VCU forward Larry Sanders, and as Skeen points out, Sanders mere presence was so overwhelming that it made the defensive job that much easier in previous seasons.
“Well, for one we didn’t have anybody out there altering a lot of shots,” Skeen said, when asked what the team missed Thursday without Sanders. “When you don’t have a 7-foot-7-inch wingspan out there you can definitely tell that’s missing … but we’re still out there trying to play good defense without him.”
The team will get their next opportunity next Friday when the regular season starts with a 7:30 tipoff versus UNC Greensboro at the Siegel Center.
Photo by Chris Conway