SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Since game one of the regular season, when the VCU men’s basketball team made 15 of 26 free throw attempts in a 38-point blowout of Illinois State University, we knew the Rams’ shooting woes might affect their chances at making another tournament run in March.
Head coach Shaka Smart’s team slid by most of the year, converting 42 percent of its field goals and 67.7 percent of its free throws en route to a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. But once the Rams reached postseason play, their inability to effectively shoot the basketball caught up with them. As a result, VCU experienced its earliest tournament exit in Smart’s five-year tenure.
A unique system centered around superior conditioning and high-pressure defense helped the Rams win 26 games for the fourth year in a row. Smart’s havoc style of play, which innately generates a high volume of scoring opportunities, helped VCU wear down opponents and outscore teams en route to victory.
The Rams attempted more shots than all but five teams in the country during the regular season; however, they ranked 284th out of 351 Division I schools in terms of field goal percentage (42 percent). Just eight of the 32 teams that advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament converted free throws at a lower rate than did VCU this season, yet none of those eight teams shot worse than 43 percent from the field.
So, when it came time for Smart’s team to face a formidable opponent during March, it became evident the Rams might not be able to win simply by taking more attempts than their opponent. And when it came time for the team to make clutch shots at the free-throw line, the law of averages came crashing down on the Rams, abruptly ending a season that featured arguably the highest expectations in program history.
Free-throw shooting and field goal percentage did not single-handedly take down the fifth-seeded Rams; there are several factors that contributed to the team’s second-round exit last week. But it’s an area of concern when we talk about the Rams’ havoc style of play.
Smart and his team spend so much time getting in shape during the offseason it almost begs the question to be asked: Is Smart dedicating a bit too much time to conditioning and not enough attention to basketball’s fundamentals?
Obviously conditioning is key to what the Rams do, but perhaps it’s time to reconsider the amount of time devoted to havoc. Instead of training with the Navy Seals each offseason, maybe Smart should stick his players on the floor to shoot free throws for hours on end.
It’s a game of mental toughness and pure repetition when it comes to shooting, so how can one of the country’s top teams perform so poorly in one of the sport’s most basic areas?
I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m no expert. I don’t follow the team’s offseason workout regiments or have any inside access to their training programs. For all I know, they could have shot more free throws during practice this year than any team nationwide.
But, if that were the case, the results were glaringly absent. No VCU team is going to make a deep tourney run in March shooting like they did in 2013-14.
Surprisingly, this year’s squad only represents Smart’s second-worst shooting team in his five years at VCU. The 2011-12 Rams finished the year with slightly lower numbers, and it’s worth noting that Smart’s 2010-11 Final Four team was the best free throw shooting squad (72 percent) of his five teams.
Of this year’s 64 tournament teams, only California Polytechnic State University, a No. 16 seed, finished the regular season with a lower shooting percentage (41 percent) than VCU.
It doesn’t take an expert to tell you the Rams underachieved in 2013-14. But for those fans who expected greatness in March, a quick look at the shooting numbers can tell you it was only a matter of time before VCU exited the tournament.