Ever since the 2010-11 VCU men’s basketball team made an improbable run to the Final Four, postseason expectations for head coach Shaka Smart’s team have been unimaginably high.
The Cinderella story brought Smart’s program national attention and helped expose a high-pressure defensive system now known as havoc.
But three years and a couple of second-round NCAA Tournament exits later, folks across the country are wondering why VCU hasn’t resurfaced in the latter stages of March.
As it turns out, it’s not so simple to win four (let alone five) consecutive single-elimination games against Division I basketball programs. Stingy full-court defense, no matter how effective, isn’t going to get the job done itself.
You need a little bit of luck.
So, as we examine Smart’s four-plus seasons in Richmond, it’s wild to consider his long list of accomplishments when his team often struggles in arguably the game’s most fundamental area.
Let’s break it down: In order to win a basketball game, you have to outscore your opponent. To outscore your opponent, you must shoot the ball efficiently. Thus, according to this profound logic, the art of shooting serves as potentially the foremost fundamental in the basics of basketball.
But, despite a 131-42 record under Smart, VCU doesn’t shoot the ball well.
In fact, through 25 games in 2013-14, the Rams ranked 282nd out of 351 Div. I college basketball teams in field goal percentage (42 percent). VCU ranks sixth or worse in virtually every shooting-related statistic in the Atlantic 10, and the numbers pertaining to previous seasons aren’t much better.
In Smart’s four-plus years at the helm, his teams are shooting lower than 44 percent from the field and roughly 35 percent from three-point range. And while these figures aren’t exactly glaring with disappointment, you wouldn’t necessarily connect them to the success Smart has experienced with the Rams.
You can point to havoc, the constant running and the high volume of shots VCU takes on a nightly basis. We can even look at the types of players Smart recruits for his system as an explanation for the shooting inconsistencies. But any way you look at it, the Rams simply aren’t a great shooting team.
So how can anyone expect them to make another deep tournament run? Perhaps the modest answer is that they can’t. After all, only four teams are fortunate enough to play in the national semifinals each year.
But there is hope.
When VCU reeled off five straight unpredictable victories in March 2011, havoc received a good portion of the credit. But a closer look at those games will reveal that the Rams got hot — really hot — at just the right time.
The regular season shooting numbers for Smart’s 2010-11 squad were slightly higher, yet comparable, to his current team. Unsurprisingly, they’re right on par with Smart’s nearly five-year averages at VCU.
However, when those Rams entered postseason play, they must have forgotten they were an average shooting team, because they shot the ball at an unprecedented clip.
After converting just better than 43 percent of field goals and 37 percent of three-point attempts during the regular season, the 2010-11 Rams shot the lights out after beating USC in the first round.
Beginning with the Rams’ 18-point drumming of Georgetown University in the second round, VCU’s effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the additional point given on a three-point attempt, hovered around 57 percent in its next four wins.
The Rams also knocked down threes at a ridiculous rate. In the four games against Georgetown, Purdue University, Florida State University and the University of Kansas, VCU converted on 44 of 99 (44.4 percent) three-point attempts. During that four-game stretch, Smart’s team shot the ball at an effective field goal percentage more than six points higher than its season average.
And realistically, that’s probably what it will take for the 2013-14 Rams to reach similar stages of the tournament this time around.
Through 25 games this season, it appears there are a few candidates to effectively replace Brandon Rozzell and Troy Daniels as the team’s sharp shooters come postseason play. Sophomore Melvin Johnson and redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess boast the highest long-range shooting percentages on the team at 40.8 and 39.1 percent respectively.
But the real X-factor might come in the form of senior guard Rob Brandenberg.
Besides Johnson and junior Treveon Graham, Brandenberg has attempted the most threes on Smart’s team this season. He’s converting just 36.5 percent of the time; however, anyone who follows the Rams knows Brandenberg is a streaky shooter with great potential.
Graham is a model of consistency, and Smart says Johnson is undoubtedly the best perimeter shooter on the team. So we know they will get their looks. But if Brandenberg and Burgess can step up in March, and knock down outside shots with consistency, this team is poised to make another run.
All the defensive statistics are there. The Rams lead the country in steals (12 SPG) for the third consecutive season and possess arguably the deepest and most talented collection of talent in Smart’s tenure.
So as the season winds down and February fades into March, VCU fans need to realize that nothing is a given. Defense may win championships, and havoc is the lone exception, but the Rams are going to need to get hot from beyond the arc if they want a shot at making noise in the tournament.
The teams that advance into April play are those that peak at the right time. It has been three years since Smart took VCU dancing into the fourth calendar month, and he’ll need all the threes he can get to repeat that measure.