Charleston Classic provides measuring point, perspective for men’s basketball

Darius Theus had his first double-digit performance of the year with 10 points Sunday against Western Kentucky. Photo by Chris Conway.

Quinn Casteel
Assistant Sports Editor

Darius Theus had his first double-digit performance of the year with 10 points Sunday against Western Kentucky. Photo by Chris Conway.

VCU (1-2) faced its first two real tests of the season at the Charleston Classic this weekend and came up short in both, showing the Rams may not be as far along as many fans had hoped.

They lost by 15 to Seton Hall (3-0) on Thursday night before being outscored by 21 points in the second half against Georgia Tech (3-2) the following night, ultimately losing the game 73-60.

The uncomfortably narrow margin of the victory over St. Francis (Pa.) was the first warning sign, but Charleston answered a lot of questions as to where this team is in its progression. And the answer is not far enough. Granted, the level of competition was high, but Georgia Tech and Seton Hall are not elite teams despite the fact that they reside in elite conferences.

Last year in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden the Rams lost to No. 24-ranked Tennessee in the first round, but they played well enough to win, taking the game down to the wire. They would then defeat UCLA in the consolation round in what turned out to be one of the most important games when it came to getting one of the final at-large NCAA Tournament bids.

Watching the first half of the third place game against Georgia Tech, it seemed the Rams would once again redeem themselves as they did against UCLA last season. They led the Yellow Jackets 31-23 at halftime as they executed Havoc to near perfection for the latter part of the half.

But what happened in the second half was simply a case of getting exposed. Georgia Tech out-rebounded VCU 41-26, a 15-board margin. They also piled on 50 points in the second half alone and ended up shooting 50 percent from the field as a team, a stat that is almost always indicative of a winning team. VCU shot just 32 percent on their field goals which is equal to their total shot percentage so far this season, prior to Sunday.

Offensively the Rams have struggled to score, but the poor shooting percentage is not the team’s biggest problem, or really even close. Rob Brandenberg, Troy Daniels and Bradford Burgess are all upper-echelon scorers and would be at almost any program in the country. The real problems for VCU lie on the defensive side of the ball and in the battle for rebounds.

Juvonte Reddic at 6-foot-9-inches is the best rebounder on the roster, and after that it’s almost a toss-up. DJ Haley, at five rebounds per game has improved as a center, but he is not the physical force that this team needs. Last season VCU got by with 6-foot-8-inch Jamie Skeen as their leading rebounder, but they haven’t had a dominant rebounder since the departure of Larry Sanders.

When the Rams aren’t making shots, they can’t use the full-court press, which is their best defense. And when they can’t execute their defense, they are going to continue to get exposed by bigger teams on the boards. Teams with tenacious rebounders like Old Dominion and George Mason will have their way with VCU if they are unable to find a flow offensively.

The Charleston Classic presented two of VCU’s five matchups with power conference teams this season. Leaving the tournament without a quality win to their resume is by all means a squandered opportunity, but more importantly it’s a measuring point. As the 10th-youngest team in the nation, the 2011-2012 Rams are, at this point in the season, behind where they were last year at this time.

And while the comparison to last year’s team is not necessarily a fair one, the Charleston Classic gives us a reference point as well as a dose of perspective about this year’s team. Yes, they have very little experience outside of Bradford Burgess but talent is not an issue. This roster has as much if not more talent than last year’s team and that’s obvious when they are playing well, as they did throughout the first half against Georgia Tech.

But it’s clearly going to take time and the Rams have a long and consistently challenging non-conference schedule ahead of them. Two games against Western Kentucky are next on the schedule, followed by more big games against Alabama, South Florida, George Washington and Richmond, and later a rematch of last year’s matchup with UAB.

When the experience of this team catches up with its talent, the potential is limitless. But until then, growing pains and more inconsistent play are in store.

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