Here endeth the nonconference portion of the schedule. The Rams finish up 12-3 and #11 in the KenPom rankings, somewhere in the mid-30s of the RPI, and #12 in the Sagarin rankings. All are used by the NCAA selection committee. I think it's safe to say we've never entered conference play in a better position. And we enter a new conference--all of it is very exciting.
This game lived up to its predicted donnybrook. A 12-11 VCU lead became a 25-15 advantage after a Rob Brandenberg jumper capped a 13-4 run. Lehigh
didn't budge. Playing without NCAA leading scorer CJ McCollum, the
Mountain Hawks ripped off a 15-4 run of their own and headed into the
a 30-29 lead.
The second half was a similar affair. The teams traded blows before Treveon Graham buried a three--his only three of the game in 10 attempts--to ignite an 11-2 run that gave the Rams a 42-36 lead with 10:20 to play. Lehigh got an offensive putback from Gabe Knuston with 2:34 to play to get within 52-51, but VCU answered. Darius Theus grabbed a steal and hit two free throws in the final 30 seconds to help VCU secure its ninth straight win, 59-55.
Graham's 17 points on the night extended his double-digit scoring streak to eight games.
This was the ideal environment for the team--a close game in which the players needed to simply execute, and not just in a late game situation, but throughout the game. It was an identity-prover. It's one thing to play all havocy and run up a big lead. It's quite another to dig in and make plays over long stretches when shots are not falling.
The Rams trailed by just one point at the half despite committing nine turnovers and making just three of 15 three-pointers on the offensive end. What's more, Lehigh ran a second defender at Troy Daniels every time he touched the ball. (Note: Troy had better get used to seeing those jersey-thread-counting defenses.)
Staunch defense--not in the full court, but the halfcourt--forced Lehigh into tough shots. McCollum was 0-5 from the field before leaving the game. Halfcourt havoc.
In the second half, the Rams grabbed offensive rebounds on three straight possessions that led to baskets. Huge. Theus made a big steal, hit back-to-back free throws, and forced Lehigh point guard into a terrible shot in last minute to seal the win.
That's 40 minutes and 94 feet of identity.
The Mountain Hawks, who entered the contest as the 12th-highest scoring offense in the country, were held to just two field-goals over the final 6:16, while VCU connected on 8-of-8 from the charity stripe over the final six minutes.
VCU has now forced 22 or more turnovers in five straight games and extended its national-best number to 21.4 opponent turnovers a game.
Where Things Changed
With 5:27 to go in the first half, Lehigh star and NBA draft pick CJ McCollum limped to the bench with what may be a broken foot. That would change both teams' approaches to the game.
And with 2:12 to play and VCU death-gripping a 52-51 lead, Rob Brandenberg missed a three-pointer. Troy Daniels tracked down the offensive rebound and 19 seconds later buried a three from the corner to give VCU an exhale-inducing 55-51 lead. Darius Theus and Treveon Graham both made two free throws to hold off the Mountain Hawks.
The point: in VCUs first tight game since November 24, the Rams made every play down the stretch.
Side note: here's to good news for McCollum. That's a tough injury for a talented and good kid with a bright future. We wish him the best.
What It Means
The entire RamNation, from players to coaches to administrators to fans, got the answer to a gargantuan question mark. This team has a certain toughness nobody really knew. It isn't because the Rams didn't possess this toughness trait; rather, there had not been an opportunity to show it off.
Just before we left the locker room, I asked Shaka Smart about the toughness of this team. He dropped a quote on me that bears repeating: "Do not accept in winning what you would not accept in losing." There you go.
Statsitic(s) That Jumps Out at Me
6/3 (And 1). Darius Theus nabbed six more steals on the evening. Briante Weber had three. Weber (1st, 8.7%) and Theus (3rd, 6.7%) are now two of the top three players IN THE NATION in terms of steal percentage. Note: steal percentage is the percentage of possessions a player is on the floor and he makes a steal.
10-11, 90.9%. This was the team's performance from the foul line. In fact, VCU made all 10 of its free throws before Weber's miss when the game was basically over.
5, 2, 2-11, 6. Lehigh point guard Mackey McKnight entered the game averaging 13 points and seven assists. With McCollum out, McKnight was the next likely leading man. Theus and Weber combined to hold him to five points and two assists on 2-11 shooting, and six turnovers.
The Curmudgeon's View
Other than grotesque shooting (5-27 from three), there honestly isn't much to pick on. The kids answered toughness and tight game questions, and executed fairly well before hoisting bricks. It's the type of game that the coaches can cut up tape and find ways to improve--breakdowns in offensive cuts and defensive rotations--but as fans, you have to be satisfied.
Stars of the Game
***Rob Brandenberg. If that's 85% health, hoo baby. How good has Brandenberg become when he turns the elbow and drives to the rim? He is finishing those rim runs superbly. In rock fights like we saw last night, and we will probably see 10 more times, you need a player that can create in late shot clock situations. And keep adjustments in your mind--when teams start closing out on him, Brandenberg can, oh, pitch it to the three-point line to an open Troy Daniels. And there's 11 points, three rebounds, three steals, two assists, and zero turnovers. Finally, I loved his lone block--late in the game complete with a salute to the student section. Awesome.
**Darius Theus. It isn't coincidence that the VCU offense stalled late in the first half with Theus on the bench with two fouls. It's been a looonnggg time since we've seen crooked numbers offensively from Theus, and I'm fine with that. His biggest value is making everyone else better on offense, and shut down defense. Theus made both FG attempts, both free throws, and had two assists and one turnover. I'm very good with this kind of game from Theus.
DJ Haley played 14 big minutes and had a key block, but Graham played
through a tough shooting night, posting 17 points. You need your big
threat to be able to score--despite all the analysis on four
million statistics, "points scored" remains the most important
statistic. And Graham grabbed four more offensive rebounds.