The Belmont Bruins invade our friendly confines Saturday night, and don't let "Belmont?" fool you. These guys are good. Very good. Five NCAA touraments in seven years good. Remember that New York Times article that rated VCU the 18th best program over the past five years? Belmont was 11th.
Don't misconstrue, I'm not afraid--just making sure everyone understands the toughness of this game and the quality of win this will be.
Rick Byrd is in his 27th year as coach--he knows what he's doing, ranking seventh among active coaches with 642 wins--and Belmont has a potent lineup that can shoot it up (40% from three) and guard your fanny (28.0% steal rate in ninth nationally). The Bruins beat Stanford and lost to Northeastern (in Alaska).
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five Things I'm Watching
1. Offensive Rebounds: This year VCU is grabbing 38.6% of its misses, 47th nationally. Last season was just 33.4% and the season before 30.7%. We always hem and haw about steals producing extra possessions. Well, so do offensive rebounds, which are sometimes better--many o-rebs result in stickbacks, fouls, or have the defense out of position so VCU gets a wide open look. All three results are especially important in this Belmont game.
2. Juvonte Reddic Early: The only Bruins player that stands a chance guarding Reddic is Trevor Noack. It wouldn't surprise me to see VCU again isolate Reddic and have him go to work, either drawing fouls of hitting that baby jump hook. Reddic has become incredibly good at using his fanny to establish solid block position--it's the hidden secret to getting that baby jump hook freed--that opponents are in a tough spot of choosing to foul or giving up that point blank look. If Belmont chooses a double-team, Reddic is going to have to be a good passer and find the open man in offensive rotations.
3. You. Shaka Smart has said that he's never been anywhere where the fans have such an intimate relationship with the players. And the kids certainly feed off of the crowd's energy. Belmont has the kind of team that can easily make you feel bad about yourself--the more edge that builds upon itself, the better.
4. Lull Response. VCU finally made it out of the locker room for the second half on time against Stetson. The Rams have been dreadful in that first segment of the second half but used a 14-5 burst to push the lead to 28 points. However the Rams immediately gave back 13 of those points before re-establishing itself. Belmont has the kind of shooting team that can produce opposition runs. A lull cannot become a funk. VCUs big shot capability may be on notice.
5. Side Door Fire. Long threes, steal-and-dunk, deflections out of bounds...all produce the fist-bumping, chest-thumping fire we like to see from this team. I'm going to pay keen attention to how the Rams run to the huddle on timeouts. Huddle during dead balls. Rush to each other's aid. Talk to each other on the floor during play. All of these areas connote an authentic, unforced fire, which would spell doom for Belmont.
We Don't Work For Free
The go factor for the Bruins is lefty point guard Kerron Johnson (13.8ppg, 5.2apg). The 6-3 senior carries the craftiness of a veteran and has the quicks to match. Johnson is a beast when he explores the lane area--he's strong to the rim but racks up assists on dump-downs to a post. The secret is not a secret--Darius Theus is going to have to keep him out of the lane.
Pay attention to Johnson when VCU has the ball. He has active hands, and here's a tie for you: last year Briante Weber led the nation in steal percentage. Two seasons ago that honor belonged to Johnson.
Ian Clark (16.8ppg), without mincing words, is a ridiculous shooter. We love our Troy Daniels flick-and-swish, to the tune of 20-51 this year. Clark is 25-46 (54.3%) from three in one fewer game. Clark hit nine threes (in 11 tries) in a Belmont loss to Northeastern. Another easy scout: close out on him, and be physical, making Clark uncomfortable.
The third starter is 6-7, 240-pont Trevor Noack (12.7ppg, 5.3rpg). Noack is a big strong tough guy in the post, but slow. VCU should be able to run him ragged in transition. Blake Jenkins (11.2ppg, 4.8rpg) is the opposite. Jenkins goes 6-7 but just 210 pounds and is a long, active post who run the floor well. The Rams need to push Jenkins off his spots and account for him in the open floor or he can catch fire. Jenkins popped 22 points on Oral Roberts in Belmont's last game.
JJ Mann (9.3ppg) is the fifth starter and versatile. Mann has the handle and can shoot open threes (12-26 this year) but can also play down to the four spot. Mann is not known for his defense, so take note of Treveon Graham in the early game sequences.
It's a short bench for Rick Byrd, which always favors the havocy Rams. Reece Chamberlain gets about 16 minutes from the backup point guard spot. Chamberlain plays beyond his sophomore maturity but can be had in the press. Brandon Baker is the first big off the pine and knows his role--play off of others. Finally, Craig Bradshaw isn't much on the defensive end but needs to be located--his main skill is the abiltiy to shoot (6-11 threes on the year).
Shaka Smart frequently talks about playing with an edge. That's going to be paramount tomorrow night. Belmont has the kind of team--great shooters, tough defenders--that can make it a long night if VCU doesn't play with a fire.
Belmont is forcing more turnovers than VCU (28.0% turnover rate is ninth). What's more the Bruins take care of the basketball--they only allows steals on 7.2% of possessions (28th nationally). However Belmont is not a good rebounding team, and only goes eight deep.
That sets up the keys to victory: that edge has to make havoc look like there's six VCU players on the floor, but six disciplined players as the Rams have to be alert and find the shooters. It's a matter of defensive discomfort (which is helped by raucous fans).
However VCU must also pound the ball to Juvonte Reddic in the post and let Reddic and Treveon Graham work a two-man game. Why? Well, that's the best offensive set and those are the two best players, but the combination of Reddic thundering away on the blocks and the Freight Train driving the lane will produce fouls. Fouls mean foul trouble. And that's big trouble with a short bench and havoc.
Ken Pomeroy gives VCU a 72-65 win, with a 75% chance of winning. From your computer to the Basketball God's ears, Ken...