Shaka Smart pulled off the most anti-havoc move possible in the late stages of VCUs 63-61 win over SLU last night.
With 5:24 to play, Briante Weber was hit with his fourth foul and headed to the bench. VCU led by two, 52-50. About 90 seconds later, Weber re-entered as SLUs Ash Yacoubou was at the line. Yacoubou’s two free throws cut VCUs lead back to two, 56-54, and Weber hit the floor at the 3:28 mark for a critical offensive possession. No big deal–get your senior point guard back in the game despite the foul trouble. Smart was rewarded, as Weber attacked the rim and drew a foul. His two free throws restored a four-point lead.
That’s when it happened.
As most coaches will do late in games, Smart was substituting offense for defense. And with a stoppage in play after Weber’s second free throw, with three minutes to play and in need of a defensive stop, Smart took Weber back out of the game. Let me repeat that for effect: with the game on the line Shaka Smart opted to take the best defensive player in college basketball, who is on the verge of an NCAA steals record, out of the game on defense.
And it worked.
When Austin McBroom went to the line and a VCU offensive possession up next, Weber checked back into the game. Weird, huh? Two possessions later Weber drew the defense to the middle of the floor and whipped a pass to Jordan Burgess alone on the right wing. You know the rest.
Why is that today’s lead? There was guff-taking for suggesting that VCUs two road wins over Rhode Island and Duquesne represented a step forward, that havoc was maturing into something that is different, and better, than open court steals and transition threes. The ability for the VCU team defense to muck up a game is something the Rams did not possess last season.
And the ability of Shaka Smart to trust and need Briante Weber on offense more so than defense is a big deal.
VCUs defense tightened up immeasurably in second half. SLU was 15-29 from the field in first, and just 6-19 in second. SLU did not make a shot in the second half outside the paint. The Billikens were 0-6 on shots more than two feet from the rim, and 6-13 around the hoop–not exactly Chamberlain-esque. In fact, SLU hit three threes in the first half and one jumper outside the paint. Quick math: the Bills managed to make one two-point jumper the entire game.
Notably, The Melvin did not take a shot in 18 second half minutes but had four assists and zero turnovers. And I must address free throws. The Rams hit 10-11 in the first half and 20-27 (74%) for the game. Go figure.
But that’s mere statistical curiosity. In the past 10 days, VCU challenged three A10 squads in their buildings and went 3-0. Rhody and SLU were live wire atmospheres and demanding, physical opponents. Duquesne was played without the Freight Train.
And here we are at 6-0 at the one-third mark of the A10 season. Four of the six in the left hand column are road wins. If you are discouraged, well, that’s on you. The NCAA Tournament committee does not give seeding style points.
Where do you start with Treveon Graham? You don’t. Last night was classic Freight Train. Graham threw the ball inbounds to Weber, and immediately received it back. Graham steamed down the lane, leaving a plume of smoke and bodies. He absorbed contact and freed just enough space to get his shot airborne. It hit the flat part of the rim, and settled, ever so delicately, into the basket.
They were the final two of 21 points but don’t you ever forget this footnote. Graham did all that at an estimated 75 percent. He still isn’t fully healthy, but he’s getting there.
It moved Weber to say in postgame that “I wish the man guarding him good luck.”
(Side note: opposing coaches are sitting on Graham’s right hand, forcing him to his left. Graham’s drive and score was going to his left. Beware.)
Here’s the other thing I like about this team. Yes it revolves around Graham making the big play, but there are plays that have to be made to lead up to the big play.
VCU led 52-50 with five minutes to play. We can agree that’s crunch time. Mo Alie Cox blocked a shot. Terry Larrier hit two free throws. Alie Cox made a strong move and hit a big bucket on a great entry pass from The Melvin. Weber hit those foul shots. Melvin nabbed an offensive rebound. Jordan Burgess hit his big three. That’s five players not named Graham that made plays in crunch time.