As students wrapped up the semester in mid-December, the VCU men’s basketball team prepared for a critical five-game stretch heading into conference play. Now, as fans return to campus, they’ll be happy to learn their Rams took care of business during winter break and enter the second half of their schedule on a five-game winning streak with a 13-3 record overall.
Since head coach Shaka Smart’s team suffered a road loss to the University of Northern Iowa on Dec. 14, the Rams have arguably played their best basketball of the season. VCU outscored opponents by an average of 19.2 points per game while students were home for the holidays and improved its home record to a perfect 8-0 on the season.
Wofford College visited the Siegel Center on Dec. 17, and held the Rams to 37.5 percent shooting. However, VCU used 12 steals to help turn the Terriers over 20 times, and freshman JeQuan Lewis contributed 16 points off the bench in a 15-point Rams victory.
On Dec. 21, VCU welcomed Virginia Tech to town for the 2013 Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic. Despite high hopes for a competitive inter-state rivalry matchup, the Rams used 13 first-half steals to carry a 20-point lead into halftime. Before all was said and done, sophomore Melvin Johnson stole the show and used a season-high eight three-pointers to contribute 27 points in just 19 minutes of play for VCU. The Rams left the Richmond Coliseum with an 82-52 victory against the lowly Hokies and a fresh two-game winning streak.
A weeklong break was interrupted on Dec. 28 when the Rams traveled to Brooklyn, NY. to take on another Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in the Boston College Golden Eagles at the Barclays Center. VCU struggled out of the gate, shooting just 29 percent in a 22-point first half, but used high-pressure defense to turn the Golden Eagles over 23 times on the night. Smart’s team took a five-point lead into halftime before depth prevailed in a 47-point second half. Four Rams scored in double figures and VCU concluded 2013 with a 19-point win against another subpar ACC squad.
Stony Brook University was VCU’s first victim of the new year when the Seawolves visited the Siegel Center on Jan. 3 for an unusual 9 p.m. tip-off. Again, first-half shooting struggles limited the Rams and Stony Brook trailed by just one point entering the second half. But defensive adjustments and 16 second-half points from Treveon Graham propelled Smart’s team to an 81-63 victory in its first win of 2014. Junior Briante Weber recorded a team-high nine assists and seven steals in the blowout.
This past Thursday, Jan. 9, VCU hosted George Mason University in the Patriots’ first ever Atlantic 10 contest. GMU entered the game with a 7-7 record on the season, but shot nearly 50 percent from the field in the opening half to hang with the Rams. The Patriots became the first VCU opponent in five games to record fewer than 20 turnovers; however, the Rams’ experience and superior talent showed in the waning stages of the contest and VCU used 16 second-half free throws to stretch its lead. Smart’s team ultimately overcame another tough shooting performance (34 percent) and escaped with a 71-57 conference win against the A-10 newcomers. The victory extended VCU’s winning streak to five games and improved its record to 13-3 on the season.
With 15 games left on the schedule, the Rams have arguably underachieved through the season’s first few months. Two losses in a three-day span back in November dropped VCU from its No. 10 national ranking, and the Rams haven’t cracked the top-25 since. Meanwhile, the University of Massachusetts has emerged among the conference’s elite with a 14-1 overall record, and defending conference champion Saint Louis University is back near the top of the standings at 15-2.
Perhaps Smart has his team exactly where he wants them as the Rams prepare for a tough February slate, which features road games at Saint Joseph’s University, at Saint Louis and at U.Mass. VCU has a history of success as the underdog, and the Rams appeared a bit uncomfortable playing with the tenth-ranked label on their back, albeit only for a couple of games.
VCU’s depth and conditioning should benefit a team that thrives on outlasting opponents and converting turnovers into victories. As the games pile up and the schedule winds down, don’t be surprised if VCU continues to use productive second-half performances to add to its win total. However, the Rams need to continue to improve if they want any chance at a conference title or deep NCAA tournament run.
As it currently stands, VCU’s half-court play is but a fragment of the nation’s elite, and the Rams might have a tough time toppling opponents with responsible guard play or high-scoring frontcourts. Size has been an issue at times for Smart, who has recently implemented a smaller starting lineup than originally used in November. VCU ranks 282nd in the nation in field goal percentage, so an opponent that minimizes turnovers and limits VCU’s second-chance points has a great shot at beating the Rams.
Fans can look at the Florida State University loss as an example of how size can slow the tempo and dominant an undersized VCU roster. However, the early-season drumming at the hands of FSU will mean nothing if Smart can get his team playing its best basketball heading into March.