The VCU men’s basketball team is back in Richmond after spending Thanksgiving break in the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Considering the way the Rams played in the Charleston Classic last season, the tournament in the Bahamas was a huge leap for the program in terms of increasing national recognition and quality of play.
With a win over 19th-ranked Memphis on Thanksgiving Day, VCU went on to lose its next two games against fifth-ranked Duke and 13th ranked Missouri. The two losses were by a combined 12 points, although the nine-point Duke loss was because of free throws and easy baskets given up in the final seconds.
Down the line, the most important and telling game of this weekend for VCU will be the Duke game.
Duke was ranked fifth in the country and will likely move up to third or fourth by the time the rankings come out after beating second-ranked Louisville 76-71 Saturday night.
Kentucky and Duke played a couple weeks ago when the Wildcats were third in the nation and lost by seven, another misleading score because Duke had a double-digit lead for much of the game.
That means unranked VCU played a top-ranked Duke team better and more competitively than Kentucky, one of the most historic programs in the country with top-ranked recruits season after season.
If there’s one thing that the Rams learned during their matchup with the Blue Devils, it’s that the free throw issues, which plagued the team last season are still a primary concern. The Rams went 12-19 (63 percent) against the Blue Devils, which happened to be their second-highest percentage made in a game this season. However, 63 percent is not a number to be proud of from the charity line.
In fact, the seven missed free throws came consecutively over a span of five and a half minutes towards the end of the second half. Two were the front end of 1-and-1’s. Had the Rams been able to knock down more of their free throws, this weekend’s Duke loss might have ended in a win.
In VCU’s wins over Memphis and Winthrop, the team shot over 50 percent from the three-point line. Against Duke, they shot a measly 4-of-18 (22 percent). Three-pointers are something the Rams live or die by. In games where the Rams shoot sub-35 percent, they usually lose.
Another thing is when teams can force the Rams out of their comfortable HAVOC style of play, things get a bit shaky. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, two of Duke’s big men, had only two turnovers between them. Duke countered VCU’s quick style of play by playing how they wanted and Plumlee finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
The Rams have a lot of work to do by March. Playing this early tournament against a trio of top-20 teams will benefit VCU for the remainder of the season. They now know what the level of play will be come NCAA tournament time.