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Shaka Smart recapitulated what was seemingly the central thesis of the evening, that there was something off about VCU Tuesday night.
That the Rams “weren’t on edge,” or more simply put, weren’t themselves in the latest version of their usual nail-biting, palm-drenching battle with Wichita State.
The “edge” being the intense, suffocating defense that corners opposing offenses and doesn’t quit until a basketball squeezes loose. The kind of defense that forced 25 turnovers against Florida Gulf Coast less than a week earlier.
It was unaccounted for in the Rams 53-51 loss to the Shockers.
“It’s a disappointing game for me as a coach and our players because we weren’t on edge,” Smart said. “We weren’t at our best in terms of the intangibles of the game that make us good.”
Wichita State has been notoriously splendid at dealing with VCU’s full-court pressure. The Shockers coughed the ball up just 13 times and often pushed the ball past the defense and up the floor for easy looks.
The way the Rams persistently trap teams near the edge of the floor and force a turnover or a timeout was lost for the better part of the night. Briante Weber, VCU’s defensive pest that set the school’s single-game record for steals last Friday, was seemingly absent. Weber played undisciplined, picking up three fouls and failing to force a single turnover. Instead, he turned the ball over four times by himself on offense.
But the defense wasn’t the only element not on edge; VCU’s offense was lackadaisical and a giant blunder for most of the night. Troy Daniels, a three-point ace for the Rams, tried the deep ball just four times after averaging nearly seven attempts a game last season.
The Rams took 24 less shot-attempts against Wichita State than they did in their season-opener, a direct product of the Shockers’ undying devotion to ceaseless defense.
“We’ve got to demand more of each other,” point guard Darius Theus said. “Tough loss for us, but we’ve got to get better.”
After all, the last thing VCU needed was to leave points on the floor. But that’s what the Rams did, shooting just 12-for-23 from the free-throw line, including the two that ultimately decided the game’s outcome.
With five-tenths of a second left, Juvonte Reddic earned a trip to the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game and send it to overtime after hauling a half-courts distance to the rim in 3.3 seconds and getting fouled.
In what would be one of the many stories of the night, Reddic, who led VCU with 22 points and 10 rebounds, threw up a shot that toilet-bowled out and essentially ended the game.
“I got confidence in myself to make the shot it’s just one of those times it didn’t go,” Reddic said. “Got to move on now.”
The Rams have been in this spot before. A little further along in last season, VCU had a night just like this. It was early January and the Rams shot an abysmal 27 percent and missed six free throws in a rare home loss to Georgia State. Much like Wichita State, the Panthers turned the ball over just 13 times, a dip below the norm on the HAVOC scale.
Nights like these can be chalked up to a number of drawbacks. Perhaps VCU shared a lack of ferocity on both ends of the floor. Maybe it was the opponent, a Wichita State team that lost six seniors in the offseason, but never lost its discipline and composure.
At this point in what will become a long, strenuous season of college basketball, it’s best to drawn up nights like this to growing pains.
“It’s a valuable lesson to learn but it’s a tough lesson to learn whenever you lose a game that way,” Smart said. “But being so early in the year, I’m far from glad that we lost, but it’s a lesson that – if we heed that lesson – we’ll get better.”