NEW YORK – Before the season, Shaka Smart said he felt like he had six starters on his team. The VCU mentor wasn’t sure who the odd man out would be, but that’s a nice luxury to have, especially when you’ve lost the player who the prior year won Defensive Player of the Year honors. So it’s a given that depth was not going to be a weakness for VCU entering the season. After the Rams’ first five games, one can get an idea of just how much of a strength it will be, as they are developing that depth further.
The Rams had an impressive showing in their 89-85 win over UCLA in the consolation game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. They shot over 48 percent from the field, including 45 percent from long range, and committed just three turnovers in the second half. They led throughout the game, countering several second half charges from the Bruins with one answer or another. One time it might have been a three-pointer, another time it might have been a turnover and layup.
“It was huge for us,” senior guard Joey Rodriguez said. “Last year, we would give that up five out of six times.”
Rodriguez is the player that makes this team go, and he showed it on Friday. He had 14 points and five assists, while going 4-6 from behind the arc. He didn’t lead the team in scoring, but his competitiveness is ever-present and he’s the unquestioned leader of the team. There was also good timing on his part, as he scored 11 of those 14 in the second half. A three-pointer capped an 8-0 run to push the lead to 50-41, then he later stopped a 5-0 run with another from behind the arc. Then when UCLA got within 75-74, it was Rodriguez who hit a three-pointer to push the lead back up over a possession.
There was plenty of help, and a lot of it came from Jamie Skeen. The senior, who transferred from Wake Forest, wanted the ball more earlier in the week, and when he got it, he produced. On Friday, he had his way inside with 23 points on 8-13 shooting, along with nine rebounds.
“We all know he’s really talented, we’ve known that for the past year and a half,” Rodriguez said of Skeen. “It’s just him being aggressive and wanting the ball, and once he told us he wanted the ball, we started getting it to him.”
Bradford Burgess is an X-factor with this team, and he had 15 points on Friday. The Rams can use him at a few positions, so he can play with several lineups.
Smart said something one often hears from coaches in a win – “Really, everyone that came in the game gave us positive production.” But it wasn’t coach-speak. The Rams had a double-digit scorer off the bench in each of the first four games, as senior Brandon Rozzell is actually their leading scorer despite not starting. On Friday, they didn’t have one, but their bench out-scored UCLA’s by a 26-8 margin.
While Rozzell didn’t score as well and was just 2-8 from the field, Rodriguez was quick to note other things he did, including a key steal late in the game. The big keys were guys like Rob Brandenburg (nine points) and walk-on David Hinton (four points in six minutes). Darius Theus’ numbers won’t jump out at you, but he did a couple of things at key junctures.
Smart said he’ll have to work Brandenburg into the lineup more because he’s been productive in relatively limited minutes. He has a long wingspan and is the team’s best leaper, so he can affect the game without scoring.
The Rams are happy to leave Madison Square Garden with at least one win, although they know they could have had one on Wednesday night as well. The win at Wake Forest is, based on the Demon Deacons’ early struggles, unlikely to be a quality win aside from it coming on the road. How good the UCLA win will ultimately be is unknown, as the Bruins are hard to figure right now, but the experience certainly helps.
“We’ll have played four BCS teams in a row after we play South Florida next,” Rodriguez said. “It’s nice to get two BCS wins against Wake Forest and UCLA. It’s a good win and a good opportunity, UCLA is a really good team we played against today.”
The Rams are developing depth, even more than what they had coming into the season. They could stand to develop more of it up front, and maybe Hinton’s play will help since he would be one more they can go to for a few minutes. As they continue to get deeper, they’ll look more and more like a tough out come the month of March.