Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Postgame Buffet: VCU 80, Hofstra 63 (Or: Never mind that noise you heard it’s just the HAVOC under your bed)

VCU's going to give the rest of the CAA nightmares all year long. (Also: Enjoy this, for when it is from an era in which the idea of Metallica uniting with Lou Reed sounded like parody instead of reality)

And on the second day of the year, everyone else in the CAA realized they were playing for second place.

VCU continued its sizzling post-Final Four run by routing the Flying Dutchmen, 80-73, at Hofstra Arena. While the margin of victory was plenty, it could have been much worse. In winning its eighth in a row, VCU dominated the Dutchmen with athleticism, depth and efficiency: The Rams played 13 players (not at once, though it seemed that way at times), had three players shoot 45 percent or better and had just 29 possessions in the second half, when it bled the clock and took advantage of the undermanned Dutchmen by pulling down eight offensive rebounds over the final 10 minutes.

“At the top—that’s the best team we’ve played,” Mo Cassara said. “They’re better, deeper, more athletic than Oregon State, Cleveland State or Iona. And I think the other piece of that is they’re playing very well right now. I told Shaka [Smart] after the game I saw them play on TV earlier in the season and they were a very different team than they are right now.”

Barring a stunning upset in Richmond, we’ll all be watching VCU on TV the first Monday night of March. Since the next game is a mere three hours away as a I type this (hooray for being back to work!) here’s a quick VCU postgame buffet.

1.) Had a certain someone else who led a CAA team to the Final Four over the last six seasons been coaching the Rams, VCU could have put up 100. But that’s what makes VCU so scary. While the Rams have the firepower to channel Loyola Marymount circa 1990, they compliment their gobs of talent with resourcefulness and by playing within an actual system. This is what happens when a coach follows up a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime Final Four run with actual substance. It will absolutely not take VCU five years to win another NCAA Tournament game.

(Who knew? It still feels so good to take shots at That Guy)

“[People] talk about VCU, how aggressive they are athletically, but they do a great job of sharing the ball,” Cassara said. “They do a great job of sharing the ball. They make that extra pass all the time. I thought we did a great job a handful of times—10, 20, even almost 30 seconds defensively—then one breakdown, they make an extra pass.”

2.) That said, the effectiveness of VCU’s “Havoc” style of ball can’t be understated. While it was encouraging to see the Dutchmen play so well against a high pressure team such as Iona, it didn’t take long Monday to realize the Rams’ athleticism and skill level was on an entirely different level. VCU’s relentless nature stunned the Dutchmen, who committed 21 turnovers—their most since Jan. 9, 2010 against Old Dominion.

Dwan McMillan, who played so well in the Dutchmen’s three-game winning streak, turned the ball over six times and fouled out. Five other Dutchmen had at least two turnovers apiece.

“One time on the bench I said ‘We’re just a little slow to every ball tonight,’” Cassara said. “And then about five minutes later I said ‘Either we’re really slow tonight or they’re just really, really fast.’ I think it’s a combination of those things. We need the ball to go into the basket to get a little confidence and every time we got it close, they just made a tough shot.”

“Coming in before the game, Coach [Patrick] Sellers drew up the game plan and he said that if we come into the postgame saying that we handled their pressure and we didn’t have as many turnovers as we had on this stat sheet right here, we would have won the game,” Mike Moore said. “That obviously wasn’t the case.”

3.) Cassara said Sunday the Dutchmen would be in trouble if Moore didn’t lead the CAA in scoring, and the Dutchmen got a glimpse at what life could be like if Moore was shut down. Limited by a groin injury he suffered against Iona and smothered by VCU, Moore scored just 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting.

While the Dutchmen had three other players in double figures, only Shemiye McLendon (13 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-3 from 3-point land, in 26 minutes) came close to becoming the big-time scorer the Dutchmen needed with Moore hampered. David Imes had 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting but missed much of the first half with foul trouble while Nathaniel Lester (10 points, nine rebounds) scored all his points with the game no longer in doubt in the second half.

“I thought Nat did a better job of being aggressive tonight, especially in the second half,” Cassara said. “We have to get more production from David and Nat and Shemiye and continue to share the ball. I thought a couple times mike really shared the ball well, he threw the ball ahead, he gave some other guys good shots and good looks. Unfortunately we just couldn’t get enough stops on the other end to cut the gap.”

4.) While looking for positives in a 17-point defeat trends dangerously close to the moral victory zone, there were some causes for encouragement in the Dutchmen’s performance. VCU ended any hopes of a Dutchmen comeback by opening the second half on a 6-0 run and expanded the lead to 20 with 15 minutes to play, but the Dutchmen closed the gap to 13 points four different times and avoided getting completely blown out of the building.

There were also several parts of a winning equation in place: In addition to the four players in double figures and Imes continuing his offensive resurgence, Stephen Nwaukoni pulled down eight rebounds in just 23 minutes. Despite a lack of size, the Dutchmen should be fine on the boards, especially as Nwaukoni (four fouls) and Moussa Kone (four points and four fouls in 11 minutes) become more efficient and experienced. And Stevie Mejia provided much-needed depth at point guard by scoring four points in 11 minutes in his return from the hamstring injury that was expected to sideline him well into January.

The Dutchmen also impressed Cassara with their effort and enthusiasm despite trailing by double digits for most of the final 22 minutes. “I told our guys in the locker room there’s some positives,” Cassara said. “I thought in the huddle all of our guys continued to battle. They continued to say the right thing. I think a month ago, we weren’t ready to face that kind of adversity.”

5.) The good news is that on most nights this season, the Dutchmen won’t need everything to fall into place just to have a chance to compete. The bad news is they are 0-2 heading into a two-game road trip to Delaware and UNC Wilmington, but they need a couple wins in a hurry because the schedule gets progressively rougher after this week: Northeastern, at Old Dominion, Drexel, at James Madison, at VCU, George Mason, at Northeastern.

This is where that James Madison loss in December hurts. It’s a lot easier to stay afloat in the CAA by winning every other game when you’re 1-1 instead of 0-2.

“That’s going to be one of those games in this league where [when] you have to play three games [in six days], it’s a lot less about them and a lot more about us,” Cassara said of tonight’s tilt. “We’ve got to come out with great energy and great effort and we’ve got to go find a way to win some games on the road.”

Fortunately for the Dutchmen, McMillan seemed to be in pre-Iona mode right after the game when he promised a better performance moving forward.

“They just brought more effort and energy tonight, something that we had for the last week-and-a-half, two weeks,” McMillan said. “But you won’t see that out of us anymore. We’re gonna step it up on Wednesday.”

3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. VCU, 1/2)
3: Mike Moore
2: Shemiye McLendon
1: David Imes

Mike Moore 31
Nathaniel Lester 15
Dwan McMillan 13
Shemiye McLendon 9
David Imes 8
Stevie Mejia 3
Stephen Nwaukoni 3
Bryant Crowder 2

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