Virginia Commonwealth 74, Georgetown 56
(117.5 points per possession to .89 on 63 possessions per team)
The fourth game in a day of NCAA Regional action can be a test of a person's endurance, no matter what role they fill inside an arena. In this case, the dreaded last game was the one many of the non-locals wanted to see. There was an influx of Hoosiers in the United Center, though the fans from Purdue and Notre Dame would chafe at being called that but, after all, they don't call it the Boilermaker State. (State motto: Never fear a shot and a beer.) As you can see, 11 hours of writing is making me a little loopy. Anyway, those in from Indiana were here for their own reasons. For the rest of us, it was the last game we wanted to see.
The Georgetown-Virginia Commonwealth match-up shaped up to be the day's most compelling for a few reasons. First of all, Georgetown, once a chart climber, had lost five of six without star guard Chris Wright. Wright made his return against the Rams, but would it be too late to pull the Hoya's season out of the fire? And as I've learned the last two days, VCU coach Shaka Smart is one of the most exciting young coaches in the college game, and his team reflects his energetic spirit.
The guy brings energy. He's got a hyper-nervous, yet super-cool, smooth demeanor like Alex English crossed with an over-caffeinated Fonz. His team plays frenetic full-court defense, but also flies down the court on the offensive end. The fans pick up on it and even the cheerleaders and the band have these sort of unusual, upbeat cadences that you don't hear anywhere else. Look, I hadn't seen VCU play this year until Wednesday, when they knocked of USC in the First Four. But there's something about this team ... It's not found in the metrics, and the Rams did lose 11 games this season. They lost five out of their last eight in the Colonial Athletic Association. Am I misguided for being excited about this team?
"Our seniors, we're all best friends," said point guard Joey Rodriguez of his team's approach. "We don't want it to end."
A great deal of that togetherness is a product of the atmosphere Smart creates.
"Coach gives us a lot of freedom." said Rodriguez. "He says before every game, go have fun. We believe we can do something special in this tournament."
Early on in the game, we saw some of the best offense played all day at the United Center. VCU hit three threes in the nine minutes, while Georgetown's Hollis Thompson scored seven quick points on just two shots from the field. Wright was aggressive, with mixed results, scoring four early points on five shots and missing both of his three-pointers. Georgetown was having trouble protecting the ball against the Rams' pressure, with five turnovers in 16 possessions. At the 10:47 mark, the game was tied at 15.
The Rams stayed hot from downtown. Bradford Burgess nailed one. Brandon Rozzell swished a 23-footer at the shot-clock buzzer. VCU was 5-of-7 from three-point range at the point and was averaging a solid 1.17 points per possession. Georgetown's turnover count was up to six and the Hoyas had an eFG% of just .469. The score? VCU 21-19.
"After the first went down, I felt like it was going to be a good night," said Rozzell. "When we play our brand of basketball, I feel like we can play with any team in the country."
Here's the problem with the kind of basketball Smart coaches: If you don't rebound, it won't work against powerhouse teams. Georgetown is not a great rebounding team, but VCU is dreadful, ranking 310th nationally off the defensive glass. The Hoyas had grabbed 12 of the 16 available rebounds in the game, six off the offensive glass. Despite their hot shooting, the Rams weren't going to get by on three-pointers because no team will maintain a 71 percent success rate. They were going to have to diversify things. Right?
Well, a leper can't change his blots, as they say, and VCU is a three-point shooting team, ranking 25th in highest portion of attempts that come from behind the arc. Yet, the Rams did diversify, just a little, grabbing a 35-24 halftime lead over the Hoyas by doing things well that normally they do not do well. After the ugly early rebound disparity I referred to, VCU went on to grab seven of the next eight rebounds. It didn't last--Georgetown finished the half with eight of 17 available offensive rebounds--but it was enough to get the Rams by when their three-point shooting cooled.
By limiting Georgetown to a .380 eFG%, the Rams were also contesting shots much better than they had through the season. Meanwhile, the Rams kept firing away from outside, even though they missed five of their last six treys of the half. The offensive efficiencies at the break: 1.21 for VCU, .80 for Georgetown. The Rams didn't do a great job of defending threes during the regular season, but against Georgetown, the perimeter defense was terrific, at least in the first half.
"I thought we were terrific defensively," said Smart. "We really dedicated ourselves to the defensive end and took them out of what they do."
"They out-played us," said a teary-eyed Wright after the game. "They shot the ball well and beat us."
Overall, Smart's bunch just seemed like a much more energetic team. Perhaps there was an advantage in having already waded into the tournament water, while Georgetown was working out the yips. If that was the case, we'd probably find out in the second half.
"We clearly did not protect the three-point line as well as we needed to," said John Thompson III. "We gave good shooters open shots and they made them."
The action after the break looked like more of the same. At no time did Georgetown look or play like the higher-seeded team. Well, the Hoyas might have looked better in their uniforms--bigger, stronger, faster--but VCU had them beat when it came to actually playing basketball. Rozzell stayed hot from deep. Rodriguez was creating havoc, getting into the lane off ball screens and kicking out to eager shooters. Georgetown continued to pound the offensive glass but couldn't convert, with just seven second-chance points off 10 offensive rebounds. Burgess' three put VCU up 46-28 with 15:59 left. Georgetown limped into the media timeout, clearly on the ropes. The VCU sideline was full of life; the Georgetown bench looked lifeless.
Of course at the heart of that life is Smart, who coaches so hard he ought to wear a jersey. He's into every play call, he leans on every three-point shot, he stamps his foot on every missed free throw and he yells encouragement to his guys constantly.
Georgetown hit a couple of buckets to close the gap and Smart, clearly annoyed, called timeout. After his team broke the huddle, he turned and saw his reserves sitting quietly, waiting for the action to resume. He turned and yelled and clapped his hands furiously, bringing his troops back to life. Rozzell drove the lane and banked in a driving layup. The Hoya run was over, and VCU followed that up by forcing another turnover. A couple of possessions later, Rozzell nailed his fifth three of the game. VCU 54-36, 11:12 to go. Timeout.
"(Rozzell) says he's open. A lot," said Rodriguez. "He's always telling people he's open."
A couple of minutes later, Georgetown was finding the going increasingly tough on the offensive end. Still stuck at 36 points and an offensive efficiency that had dropped to .80, Wright picked up a technical foul after complaining about a non-call on offense. The VCU players were yukking it up, especially Rozzell, who tried to sneak over to the line to shoot the free throws. Rodriguez chased him off--that's his job--and sank both free throws, giving the Rams a 20-point lead. Georgetown never threatened again as VCU cruised home with the shockingly easy win. Not shocking that they won--just shocking that the Hoyas put up so little resistance.
"I feel like me, Chris, Julian, Ryan, we did what we could for this program," said Georgetown guard Austin Freeman, fighting back tears. "We did the best we can. Period."
Wright finished 3-of-13 in his first game back from injury and his last game of the season. That could perhaps have been anticipated, but backcourt partner Freeman was 3-of-14. Big man Julian Vaughn was also a non-factor. Only Thompson, who had 26 points on 10 shots, showed up to play.
"I challenged our backcourt guys to step up be better (than theirs)," said Smart. "And they were."
As ever, it's tough on the losers, especially the seniors. As flat as I felt Georgetown looked during the game, in the postgame, they were anything but apathetic.
"It's hard when you get to this point and the season's over," said John Thompson III. "You end up thinking of certain player. We've got a group of seniors, Chris, Austin (and others). Four years go by fast. They've given a lot to this school."
This wasn't a game about player usage or strategic decisions. It was all about preparation and approach. Attitude. (Yeah, says the stat guy.) Grim-faced Georgetown outscored VCU 26-12 in the paint, but the all-smiles Rams outscored the Hoyas 36-15 behind the arc. It wasn't just threes, either. VCU attacked enough to out-point the Hoyas 26-11 from the foul line. Georgetown did go on a late-game three spree, but it was far too late to save their season. Hell, VCU even had a cheerleader nearly walk the length of the court--on her hands.
The Hoyas finish the season with six losses in seven games. As for VCU, one week after the Rams spent a long day wondering which tournament they'd get into, they'll be playing Purdue on Sunday, one step away from the Sweet Sixteen.
"Our guys our competitors," said Smart. "They love to respond when people disrespect them. I learned very early in the year about our team, they like a challenge."
You know come Sunday, VCU will be playing with swagger, energy and everybody is going to have a good time.
"That (disrespect) stuff is kind of fading now," said Smart. "We've proven that we belong. Sunday's game against Purdue will be decided on the court."
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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