Thursday, January 16, 2014

Can the Rams Adjust?

VCU Rams fans may not like it, but "HAVOC" isn't scaring good teams like it might have in previous seasons. Rather than merely facing their opponents on the floor each game, the Rams (13-4, 1-1 in A-10) are battling expectations.

What’s wrong? Don’t the Rams still have Shaka Smart, the most talked about young head coach in college basketball?

Yes they do. Smart even lives in the Fan District.

Doesn’t VCU still have the Peppas, best pep band in the land?

Yes, and they’re as good as ever.

Aren't the local wags still saying this year’s ten or eleven guys who get regular playing time are the best, athleticism-wise, ever to put on VCU uniforms?

I’m still hearing that unprovable claim at happy hour.

Unfortunately, none of those factors mean the current basketball team will ever jell into a cohesive unit. Every season has its own chemistry, or lack thereof. So storm clouds are beginning to gather around the Siegel Center on West Broad Street.

Before a single game had been played VCU was sitting at No. 14 in the AP Poll. Likewise, in the preseason the Rams were named as most likely to succeed in the Atlantic 10. Because living up to lofty preseason rankings can’t be as easy as wearing the underdog label, this could be Shaka Smart's most challenging season as a head coach.

In Smart’s four previous seasons on the bench he has taken VCU to unprecedented accomplishments. Now we’ll see how good he is at fixing problems, in the short-term and for down the road. Smart’s HAVOC concept worked like a charm when his players saw themselves as underrated. With supposedly better talent can HAVOC still deliver when his players fear they are overrated?

Can carrying a catchy trademark slogan over, from one year to the next, wear it out? 

After 17 games this year's squad has looked good at times but eye-popping highlight reel material doesn't necessarily win games. And, sometimes young and gifted athletes, who are too sure for their own good they're going to the NBA, can be harder to coach in the moment.

Here's what VCU doesn't have this year: The half-court defense and senior leadership of Darius Theus; the three-point threat and senior leadership of Troy Daniels. Their contributions to last year's 27-9 record were more important than some boosters may have understood when looking at this year's potential.  

Yes, beating bad teams may be easier than ever now. But with 14 regular season tilts to go, some of the problems that have been exposed aren't easily fixed. There are some brutal road-game assignments coming up. So don’t be surprised if VCU struggles to win just seven or eight on its remaining slate.

The Rams schedule is as follows:

Jan. 18 (home): Duquesne (8-7)
Jan. 22 (away): Dayton (13-4)
Jan. 25 (away): La Salle (10-6)
Jan. 29 (home): Fordham (7-9)
Feb. 1 (home): Richmond (11-6)
Feb. 6 (home): Rhode Island (9-9)
Feb. 8 (away): St Joe’s (11-5)
Feb. 12 (home): Geo. Wash. (14-3) rematch!
Feb. 15 (away): Saint Louis (16-2)
Feb. 21 (away): UMass (15-1)
Feb. 27 (away): Fordham
Mar. 1 (home): Saint Louis
Mar. 6 (away): Richmond
Mar. 8 (home): St. Bonaventure (11-6)

Say they win eight. A 21-10 record would probably have them on the periphery of the bubble-talk. They would likely need one or maybe two wins in Brooklyn to be in the running for an at-large invitation.

For the Rams, getting into the Big Dance this time may be more about selfless role-playing and togetherness. Against good teams it may be less about relying on the frenzied play of last year's trademark slogan. In the next seven weeks, plus, we'll see how this story turns out. That’s why they play the games.

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