We're six games into the season--three up, three down--and it's probably a good time to look at some early season statistical trends worth watching. The level of competition has been ideal for this view--a couple gimme games and four toughies.
Shooting is a point of discussion, for sure, so we will start there. I'm not convinced the issue is what everyone believes it to be.
Every major VCU guard is shooting a better percentage from three after six games this year than last year: Treveon Graham (45% from 31%), Darius Theus (44% from 24%), Briante Weber (50% from 25%), Rob Brandenberg (32% from 29%), and Troy Daniels (41% from 38%).
As a team the Rams are shooting 37.8% on top of last year's 33.4% and making one more three per game than last year (8.5 from 7.4).
Thusfar, I'd say we're a better shooting team than last year. If not better, then certainly improved (there is a difference). The frustration we all felt at the rim-clangs this weekend has less to do with being a poor shooting team and more to do with margin for error.
The margin for error playing the top teams in the country is razor thin. VCU could get away with a poor shooting night or havoc lite night in years past. This new neighborhood is more demanding, more cruel, and less forgiving. You'd better make plays or you will lose. It's that simple.
We were 5-19 from three at Akron and won. We were 5-23 from three at UNCW and won. We were 6-23 from three at Alabama and lost. See how that works? Similarly, the only game last year in which we forced fewer than 10 turnovers was at Georgia State, a win. Drexel only committed 11 turnovers in the face of January havoc and beat VCU.
Let's look at Rob Brandenberg's weekend. Super knocked down half his three-point shots, showing me he is a capable, if not "good," shooter. However he hit 5-5 against Memphis and missed all five against Duke.
How different is the Duke game if Brandenberg knocks down JUST ONE of those three pointers? Let's say it was the one with about eight minutes to go. The Rams been down by double digits but got a flush from Juvonte Reddic to pull the game to 54-50. Briante Weber then stole the ball from Seth Curry and he fired a pass to Brandenberg, who had a good look. The three rimmed out and you know what happened from there.
How tight does Duke get--and how excited do the Rams get--if that three swishes? That's game-changing momentum. The point: not bad shooters, but thin margin for error.
VCU is not a bad shooting team. "Shooting" is not a problem. The difference is that the lulls against lesser competition are escapable. Great teams make you pay, and we paid. Two more defensive possessions that don't break down and two shots go in that did not, and either Duke or Missouri may have turned out differently.
That's also why I'm encouraged. We didn't shoot well, weren't forcing turnovers, and had late game breakdowns on defense, and were still close in two top 15 games. A smart man commented to me after the Missouri game that if this had been an NCAA tournament game, we'd have all been angry--that was no way to end a season.
He was right, which is why it's important to play these games in November. VCU has a learning curve to the nuance of winning on this bigger stage. Five months from now, that is a different game.
As a team, VCU is shooting 30-77 (39.0%) from three in the first half of games this year, and 21-58 (36.2%) in the second half. The percentage difference is realistic, but 19 fewer threes taken in second halves is strange.
What's more, VCU opponents are hitting just 8-44 (18%) from deep in the first half, and 18-47 (38%) from three in the second half.
Troy Daniels is individually emblematic of this collective oddity. Daniels has hit 13-25 (52.0%) from three in the first half but 4-17 (23.5%) in the second half.
Five of Justin Tuoyo's six rebounds this year have been offensive rebounds.
VCU is 4-1-1 in terms of rebounding advantage. Missouri outrebounded the Rams, and Wichita State tied. VCU is grabbing 37.9% of its misses, 58th nationally. On the other side, VCU grabs 68.6% of available defensive rebounds--154th in the nation.
VCUs turnover differential in three wins is a plus 22 (68 forced/46 committed). In three losses, it's negative two (33/35).
Oddly, the opposition shoots better in games in which VCU wins. Opponents are 65-145 (44.8%) from the field when VCU wins the game, and they are 68-162 (42.0%) from the field when they beat VCU. (Look back at that turnover differential number...)
When Briante Weber plays well, so does the team. Weber averages 10.7ppg and has 12 steals in wins, and 2.0ppg and just six steals in losses.
Quick trivia question: Smart's substitutions in the Missouri game created how many different lineup changes? (Answer below...)
If Missouri is any indication, Shaka Smart is beginning to level his rotation and minutes distribution. When I blend actual and supposed ideal, the minutes distribution is working its way to:
80 minutes at the 4/5 spot: Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham are getting about 30 minutes each. Smart would like to keep Reddic at the five, but can rotate in a big to move Reddic to the four and Graham to the three. Justin Tuoyo may be taking over the four/five spot, seeing 10-12 minutes. Jarrod Guest and DJ Haley will split the other 8-10 minutes. Keep in mind Smart is hunting for someone to take that spot, so these three may volley all over this last role.
40 minutes at point guard: Darius Theus with 30 minutes and Teddy Okereafor getting 10 minutes. Game flow dictates how these minutes are distributed (foul trouble, effectiveness, Weber getting minutes at point, etc.)
80 minutes at the 2/3: Troy Daniels and Rob Brandenberg are seeing about 25 minutes, Weber 20 minutes, and Melvin Johnson 10 minutes. Brandenberg and Johnson had a good weekend and their minutes are increasing as a result. Okereafor played 12 minutes versus Memphis but just five against Duke and six against Missouri.
Answer to above question: Smart's substitutions created 96 lineup changes.