Well now. What do we make of yesterday's extremely puzzling, regular season-ending, maddening loss at the talons of the Temple Owls?
There is enough conflicting information, words, thoughts, data, and analysis to choke a cow. Temple punched, zipping to a 12-3 lead in the game's early stages. The Rams merely smiled, wiped a bit of sweat from their brow, and stung the Owls to the tune of an 18-0 and 28-6 run. The lead got as high as 41-25 when the bottom dropped out.
Temple scored the final 11 points of the first half, but there was no real cause for concern. College basketball features swings in emotion and runs. It would've been an unrealistic expectation to think Temple was not going to make a game of things.
VCU had played, on balance, a good half of basketball. The Rams hit all six threes and shot better than 50% for the half. They forced Temple into four turnovers during the big run, and while havoc wasn't on full display there was enough wreaking to think VCU could muster enough defense to pull out the victory. The Owls were most certainly out of synch for a long stretch.
But the second half was a disaster. Khalif Wyatt eerily reminded me of Tyreek Duren and the LaSalle game. Wyatt repeatedly got into the lane and made plays. I was less impressed with Wyatt's 30 points, and more impressed with his ability to overwhelm the VCU guards and make great decisions when he got to the spot on the floor he wanted to be.
Postgame, Shaka Smart carried the expected level of unhappiness, but also a genuine look of confusion on his face. His words summed up the issue: that VCU talked about doing a lot of different things during the game but it was all talk. In the A10 you have to walk the walk or you will be beaten. That was the problem, and that's what nipped the Rams yesterday.
The look on Smart's face, I think, stems from not expecting it to go that way, especially after that initial burst. Things got loose late in the first half and I think he, as all of us, expected the team to pull together in the locker room and play getafterit basketball in the second half. It never occurred, as evidenced by 48 second half points from Temple. Smart saw what happened, knew what happened, but had not yet reconciled where it came from.
The Owls scored 1.24 points per possession Sunday, the second worst defensive performance from the Rams this season. (St. Louis at 1.36ppp was the worst.)
So I go back to the original question: what do we make of that? It's simple, really. Unlike the CAA, you can't play a B- or C+ game in the A10 and expect to win. You can't talk about playing with spirit and "doing the little things," you have to actually play that way and do those things.
Obviously the halfcourt defense needs to improve, but in my mind that's a cause-and-effect landing spot of walking the walk in terms of effort. The kids will get into the gym and work on the basics during practice this week. It's a matter of taking that onto the court when the clock starts running for real on Friday. That's a job for the seniors to make sure it happens.
And one other thing: it's over and done. There's not a darn thing anybody can do about it. VCU is 24-7 and the second seed in the A10 tournament. There are no more hangovers. Time to take Brooklyn.
VCU ends the season as one of just three programs to post 24 wins in each of the past seven seasons. Kansas and Memphis are the other two.
Statistics That Jumped Out At Me
14-25, 7-13, 13-14. That's Temple from the field (56%), from three (54%), and from the foul line (93%) in the second half. It led to 48 points.
10-10. The Rams continue to quietly be a very good free throw shooting team. That's the ninth time in the last 10 games (six games of 80% or better) VCU has hit 72% or better from the line.
10-13. VCU assisted on 10 of its first 13 baskets, a clear sign the offense was working like a well-oiled machine.
12-3; then 3-8. That's the foul differential in the first half and the start of the second half. Let's be clear: I'm not saying there was one single bad call. But it's frustrating for everybody when there is such a swing. It isn't like both teams decided to play a completely different game in the second half.
The Curmudgeon's View
Yes, we had a difficult time keeping Wyatt out of the lane and that's a problem. But what bothered me more was poor defensive rotations. Jake O'Brien--Jake Freaking O'Brien--had a career day by hitting five threes and scoring 19 points. Many of his threes were wide open jumpers taken when the defense didn't properly rotate.
Here's why that bugs me: on some level, great players are going to make plays. I don't care who is defending Khalif Wyatt, he is going to get into the lane. Sometimes you can't fully shut down your opponent. When that happens, you have to counterpunch, do the other thing, to keep that player from making his teammates all conference performers. This especially hurts because rotating is about awareness and recognition and effort--that's on us and controlled by the VCU players.
Note: five of the last six teams we've played have shot 44% or better against us from three. And they ain't making toughies.
But that's also the good news: we control the correction.
Stars of the Game
***Melvin Johnson. He did get roasted backdoor on two plays in the second half, but Melvin continues to get better. Johnson hit 3-3 threes and scored 13 points in just 19 minutes. In the last nine games, Johnson is 13-of-24 from beyond the arc and averaging 9.7 ppg over that stretch.
**Juvonte Reddic. The big man fought through contact all afternoon to post a 20/9, and importantly kept fighting. He was a legit low post presence, which is very important in this offense. Reddic grabbed five offensive rebounds, and showed some open court on ball defense skills. That was new.
*Treveon Graham. It says something when a star is given to someone who shot 5-16 from the field. But Graham, bothered by the length of the Temple big men, worked his way to the foul line. Graham also had a season-high five assists.