Just more than midway through the 2013-14 VCU men’s basketball schedule, head coach Shaka Smart has the Rams slotted near the top of a competitive Atlantic 10 conference.
At 16-4 (4-1), VCU is still looking up at several teams in the A-10, including two nationally-ranked opponents in the University of Massachusetts and Saint Louis University.
Several statistics could tell the story for the Rams, who lead the nation in steals and turnover margin for the third consecutive year. But a closer look at the numbers reveals a few alarming discrepancies in the team’s first 14 wins compared to its four losses.
Ever since Smart came to Richmond in 2009, teams across the country have struggled to find a solution to counter VCU’s havoc defense. And though the blueprint to victory against the Rams still remains largely unclear, some statistical similarities can be found in the team’s losing performances.
Limiting the turnovers is often the first step opposing coaches point to in game-planning for VCU. Surprisingly, however, there is no direct correlation between forced turnovers and wins for the 2013-14 Rams.
VCU’s 18-point loss to Florida State University on Nov. 21 was a perfect example of how opponents can down the Rams despite high turnover totals. The Seminoles coughed it up 25 times in that game, but still managed to score 85 points in the blowout victory.
In four losses this season, VCU has turned opponents over an average of 22 times per game compared to its season average of 20. So perhaps it’s time to ask the question nobody in Richmond ever thought would surface: Is Smart’s high-pressure defense actually costing the Rams?
It’s a difficult argument to make considering the success VCU’s program has experienced since Smart’s arrival five years ago. The Rams’ head coach is 126-41 in four-plus seasons at the helm; however, a trend may be developing among his rare defeats.
A quick look at the box scores will reveal that FSU, Georgetown University, University of Northern Iowa and George Washington University all had something in common in victories against the Rams this season: each shot better than 52 percent from the field against VCU’s havoc defense.
But a more thorough breakdown exposes several other parallels, which help prove that these high percentages are the result of more than a hot hand.
If you’re going to beat the Rams, you need size and patience. Because VCU forces so many turnovers, they generate more scoring opportunities than most teams in the nation. This is evidenced by the fact that Smart’s team ranks 107th nationwide in points scored despite owning the country’s 292nd-ranked field goal percentage.
The Rams like to get out in transition and use their conditioning to their advantage. But if teams can slow VCU down and force Smart’s team into a battle of half-court play, the Rams often experience difficulty generating good looks at the basket.
Of course, slowing down some of college basketball’s speediest athletes is easier said than done.
A zone approach on defense has proven most effective in guarding Smart’s team in the halfcourt. To this point in the season, VCU has lacked a true outside shooting threat like they had last year in Troy Daniels. So, opponents should be comfortable letting the Rams take contested shots from the perimeter. VCU is shooting less than 35 percent from three as a team and Juvonte Reddic’s drop off in production in the post has only compounded the problem.
But arguably the biggest key to reducing the pace and limiting VCU’s possessions has nothing to do with defense at all.
Teams with size that have longer possessions on offense have a better chance of downing VCU because they take quality shots each time they have the ball. Instead of chucking up a three-pointer five seconds into the possession and allowing the Rams to run with long rebounds, successful opponents have allowed the shot clock to wind down before working the ball into the paint for a high-percentage attempt.
In VCU’s four losses this season, opponents averaged just 13 three-point attempts per contest. That compares to an average of 17 per game in the Rams’ first 14 wins.
Unsurprisingly, Smart’s team has been outscored in the paint by an average of more than eight points per loss. Conversely, the Rams have outscored opponents in the paint by five per game in their 14 wins.
The advantage of size is, in theory, a better chance at rebounding. The ability to keep the Rams off the glass is essential in preventing second-chance opportunities and slowing the pace. VCU records enough steals as it is (more than 12 per game), so the importance of securing rebounds to limit possessions is paramount when playing the Rams.
The relatively undersized Rams ranked 11th of 13 teams in the conference in rebounding entering last week, and the discrepancies in rebound totals in VCU’s four losses are huge. Opponents have outrebounded Smart’s squad by an average of 12 rebounds per game in four VCU losses this season, including a 45-29 edge in the team’s latest loss against GW.
Big bodies that clog up the lane and prevent the Rams from getting to the rim thus have a dual effect because they force VCU to settle for perimeter shots and subsequently secure the ball for their own team.
Instead of harping on the inevitable and focusing all the attention on limiting turnovers the Rams are bound to force, perhaps the best way for opponents to approach VCU can be found in fundamental basketball.
Fans today are seemingly obsessed with Smart’s havoc-style defense, and justifiably so. But instead of spending all week practicing with seven defenders on the floor, maybe opponents should accept the fact they’re going to turn the ball over and concentrate on creating quality shots, suffocating half-court defense and securing rebounds.
Of course, there is no perfect plan. VCU has the talent and depth to beat any team in America on any given night. But not many opponents have managed to limit turnovers against the Rams during Smart’s tenure. And even then, there is no strong correlation to victory.