"You talk about the eye test. This one doesn't pass the laugh test."
By now, everyone should know the story of the 2010-11 VCU Rams. Finished fourth in the CAA, lost in the CAA Championship to Old Dominion. One of the last teams to make it into the NCAA Tournament and a member of "The First Four." And of course, the recipient of the above insidious comment by Jay Bilas during ESPN's post NCAA selection show.
Well, as everyone knows, VCU got the last laugh last season. From "First Four" to "Final Four." Along the way, VCU defeated teams from the PAC-10 (USC), the Big East (Georgetown), the Big Ten (Purdue), the ACC (Florida State) and the Big 12 (Kansas) before bowing out to fellow mid-major Butler in the national semifinals.
The question at the start of this season was: what would the 2011-12 VCU Rams do for an encore? The only returning starter was "Big Time" Bradford Burgess. However, the Rams had several key reserves from the Final Four team such as Rob Brandenberg, Darius Theus, Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley who now had to step up into starting roles.
At the beginning of the season, the Rams struggled. They split their first six games. Their last loss came at the hands of their former coach, Anthony Davis, and his Alabama Crimson Tide. Since then, VCU has been on a roll, winning seven games in a row. That included their first conference win of the season, a 23-point win at home over UNCW, which had earlier yesterday beaten Delaware.
The Rams were taking on a Hofstra Pride team on a roll themselves, having won three straight games. Their latest win was 82-75 over an Iona Gaels team that had received a lot of national publicity due to their once 10-2 record (now 10-3) and their prolific scoring ability. Hofstra features Mike Moore, the CAA's leading scorer, who averages 21 points per game and had scored 80 points in his last three games.
The game started out at a very high pace. Hofstra took an early 8-6 lead on a David Imes jumper. But VCU's Troy Daniels hit the first of his five three-pointers to put the Rams out in front for the first time, 9-8. Both teams hit their shots early on as Hofstra hit seven of their first ten shots while VCU hit eight of their first twelve shots. The Rams were up 19-17 with a little over twelve minutes left in the first half.
But VCU started slowly pulling away due to forcing Hofstra to turn the ball over and keeping Moore in check. Over the span of eight minutes, the Pride missed eight of their nine shots and turned the ball over three times. VCU fared only a little better during that span, shooting two of eleven from the field, but also added a few free throws. The Rams were up nine with a little over four minutes left thanks to another Daniels three pointer until a Shemiye McLendon three cut the lead to six, 30-24 with four minutes left.
But the VCU staple of 2010-11, the three point shot, is also alive and well in 2011-12. Daniels hit his fourth three pointer of the first half to put the Rams up 37-25 with 2:38 left. VCU would end the half leading by eleven, 41-30. The numbers were pretty similar for both teams in field goals made, field goals attempted, rebounds, turnovers etc.
The difference was VCU was five of eleven from three, while Hofstra was one of four. Also, the Rams did a very good job limiting the Pride's two leading scorers, Moore and Lester. Both were struggling as Moore had six points and Lester had none, as the two combined to shoot two of nine from the field.
Any hope that Hofstra fans had for a comeback was quickly dashed in the second half. VCU came out and scored the first six points while the Pride had two turnovers in a little over thirty seconds. The Rams were up 47-30 and Hofstra Coach Mo Cassara had no choice but to call timeout.
But the timeout didn't help matters for the Pride. Hofstra would commit another four turnovers in the span of two and half minutes and a layup by Briante Weber put VCU up 54-34 with a little more than fifteen minutes left. The game was over for all intents and purposes.
VCU thoroughly dissected Hofstra. First, as was somewhat noted before, they forced six Hofstra turnovers in the first five minutes of the second half. Second, the Rams rotation is ten deep. Coach Shaka Smart can send wave after wave of players at you, using his "Havoc" press system. During a timeout in the second half, Smart did a hockey line change, taking all out all his starters out for reserves. Third, the Rams also thoroughly frustrated one of the better point guards in the CAA this season, Dwan McMillan, into his worst game of the season. McMillan, who had nine assists against Iona, had five assists but also six turnovers before fouling out of the game in the second half. Finally, Moore, who was shooting forty five percent from three this season, was only one of seven from beyond the arc on the night and four of fourteen overall. Moore had to work very hard to score the fourteen points he had on the night.
Hofstra shot 46% from the field, which is certainly respectable, and had just about the same number of made free throws (VCU was 19 of 24, while Hofstra was 18 of 22). However, there were three differences: 1) VCU was 9 of 24 from three, while Hofstra was 3 of 12; 2) Points off turnovers - VCU 28, Hofstra 12; and 3) bench scoring - VCU 44, Hofstra 21.
Even more impressive was that Burgess only had eight points for VCU. Daniels led the way with fifteen points, all on three-pointers. Theus had fourteen, Reddick had twelve and freshman Briante Weber had ten points. Besides Moore, Hofstra was led by McLendon with thirteen, David Imes with ten points and Lester had ten points, all in the second half.
As I left the Mack Center last night with my older son Matthew and my friend Tieff, I really thought I saw in VCU a team capable of going to the Sweet Sixteen. They are lightning quick, they can shoot, they can drive to the basket, they can defend and they are deep. This team easily passed the eye test in my book. Here's the really scary thought for VCU's CAA opponents: Burgess is the only senior on this team.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 80, at HOFSTRA 63 01/02/2012
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 11-3 (2-0) -- D. Theus 5-10 4-5 14; B. Burgess 2-6 3-4 8; B. Weber 5-10 0-0 12; T. Daniels 5-11 0-0 15; R. Brandenberg 0-5 0-1 0; J. Reddic 4-5 4-4 12; T. Graham 3-6 2-3 8; D. Haley 1-1 0-1 2; J. Guest 0-0 6-6 6; T. Okereafor 0-1 0-0 0; D. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0; H. Houston 0-0 0-0 0; R. McCarter 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 26-56 19-24 80. HOFSTRA 6-8 (0-2) -- M. Moore 4-14 5-6 14; N. Lester 3-7 4-4 10; D. Imes 4-4 2-2 10; S. McLendon 4-8 3-3 13; D. McMillan 1-3 2-4 4; S. Nwaukoni 2-4 0-0 4; M. Kone 2-3 0-1 4; S. Mejia 1-3 2-2 4; M. Grogan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-46 18-22 63.
Three-point goals: VCU 9-24 (B. Burgess 1-4; T. Daniels 5-8; D. Theus 0-2; R. Brandenberg 0-4; R. McCarter 1-1; B. Weber 2-3; T. Graham 0-2), HOFS 3-12 (N. Lester 0-1; S. Mejia 0-1; M. Moore 1-7; S. McLendon 2-3); Rebounds: VCU 31 (J. Guest 6), HOFS 27 (N. Lester 9); Assists: VCU 21 (D. Theus 7), HOFS 11 (D. McMillan 5); Total Fouls -- VCU 23, HOFS 21; Fouled Out: VCU-None; HOFS-D. McMillan.