Rams receive reality check in Puerto Rico Tip-Off tourney

Colin Kennedy
Sports Editor

With an undefeated record and its highest AP national ranking in program history, the VCU men’s basketball team experienced a bit of a rude awakening in its first two games of the 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Though the Rams managed to win their second-round matchup against Long Beach State University 73-67 on Friday, both the 49ers and the Florida State University Seminoles exposed some weaknesses in VCU’s play.

The 85-67 opening round loss to FSU absolved any chance the Rams had of winning the tournament title and showed teams across the nation that head coach Shaka Smart’s team can lose even when it executes its defensive gameplan. VCU forced 25 Seminoles turnovers on the night, but still lost the game by 18 points.

A late 12-0 VCU run in the closing moments of the game trimmed down what was once a 30-point FSU lead with under five minutes to play in regulation. The Rams outshot the Seminoles 98-67 on the evening, but converted just 29 percent of their field goals and 21 percent of their three-point attempts. Florida State, meanwhile, shot 54 percent from the field and 31 percent from three.

VCU’s cold shooting combined with FSU’s dominant presence on the boards combined to spell disaster for Smart’s team, who fell to 3-1 on the season following the loss. The Seminoles outerbounded the Rams 50-34 on the night and showed that a smothering half-court defense that alters shots and prevents good looks at the basket can prevail against VCU’s up-tempo style of play.

After the game, Smart said that missed opportunities early in the game compounded to bury the Rams in an insurmountable deficit.

“It’s a classic case of allowing our offense to affect our defense,” Smart told VCU Athletics. “We had some really good looks early in the game that just didn’t go in – wide open threes, some shots around the basket. There’s going to be nights like that, but the good teams keep playing, the good teams stick to the process that brings them success. Part of that process is all the things that go into getting them stops on the defensive end. We did not do that tonight.”

The University of Michigan, who knocked VCU out of the NCAA tournament a season ago, experienced similar problems stopping the Seminoles in the second round on Friday. Though the Wolverines escaped with a two-point overtime victory, head coach Leonard Hamilton’s team confirmed the belief that Florida State was one of the nation’s most underrated squads.

So while Rams fans briefly pointed to the FSU loss as a one-time product of poor shooting against a quality opponent, Friday night’s victory against 1-4 LBSU caused more concerns for Ramnation.

Though VCU escaped with a six-point win, the 49ers hung tough for a majority of the contest and even took possession of a one-point halftime lead. Head coach Dan Monson used just eight players the entire game to disrupt the Rams’ pace and played his five starters for an average of 35 minutes each.

The 49ers used stellar guard play from juniors Mike Caffey and A.J. Spencer, as well as redshirt freshman Branford Jones to consistently break VCU’s full-court pressure. LBSU’s three starting guards played 40 minutes, 38 minutes and 37 minutes respectively.

In all, the Rams forced just 10 turnovers from an LBSU team that committed 16 against Michigan. VCU’s previous season-low was 19 forced turnovers against the University of Virginia on Nov. 12.

Long Beach State benefitted from 50 percent shooting, but may have provided future opponents with a blueprint to beat VCU. Of course talented and conditioned guards are required to keep pace with the Rams’ up-tempo style of play, but Monson showed that it is possible to minimize turnovers against the nation’s leading pressure defense.

VCU concluded 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-Off against Georgetown University on Sunday, but a result was not final as of press time.

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