VCU beings Atlantic 10 play tomorrow with an approach rooted in efficiency. Although the out of conference schedule didn’t produce high-quality wins, Will Wade has helped facilitate a shift in the Rams style that will eventually yield results. The formula is right. As the team adapts and the dynamic continues to coalesce, the wins will follow.
January 1, 2016
I wrote those words one month ago when VCU was just three games into, what has now become, an eleven game winning streak. Despite being saddled with five non-conference losses at the time (7-5), VCU coach Will Wade had just recently doubled down on his formula insisting, “I know what we’re doing now is going to work.” [pullquote]”I know what we’re doing now is going to work.”[/pullquote] Based on shot location data I collected, it was evident that the necessary buy-in existed within the team. The Rams were, indeed, taking more efficient shots (and fewer inefficient ones), and it seemed as though the results would not be far behind.
It didn’t take a leap of faith to share Wade’s confidence that VCU was headed in the right direction. It would, however, have been hard to imagine the Rams shooting to the top of the league in such a dominating fashion – rattling off eight consecutive A-10 wins.
During Atlantic 10 play, VCU is second in points per possession (1.15) and ranks third in points allowed per possession on defense (.929), per kenpom.com. They are the only A-10 team currently ranked in the top four in both efficiency categories.
The success of the Rams can be closely tied to the ascension of rising A-10 star, JeQuan Lewis. Throughout his career, fans have been quick to criticize the junior guard for being both heedless and hangdog. But earlier this season, Lewis was on the wrong end of some harsh words not only from the stands, but also from inside his own locker room.
After Lewis watched the entire second half of a nationally televised, showcase game in Madison Square Garden from the VCU bench, Wade lobbed some decidedly pointed words towards the Rams floor general.
He needs to do things our way. If you don’t want to do them our way, we’ll sit him on the bench, because we almost won without him and we can certainly win without him again.
– VCU head coach Will Wade on the play of JeQuan Lewis against Wisconsin
With a renewed optimism and self-confidence, Lewis’ play over the eleven game winning streak has been nothing short of brilliant. Although in November Wade had hinted (coach speak though it may have been) that the Rams were prepared to find a way to win without Lewis, it’s now clear that VCU very much needs this JeQuan Lewis, in order to reach their full potential.
Lewis’ about-face certainly originated from within, but he’s also being put in increasingly good positions to succeed on the floor as well.
Will Wade’s formula for efficiency is built on the tenants of getting looks close to the basket and shooting open 3-pointers (respectively, the most efficient shot and the most valuable one). Of late, VCU, under the command of Lewis, is executing pick-and-roll situations with deadly effectiveness –creating easy opportunities near the rim and uncontested looks from range.
For Lewis, in these situations, reading the defense has been made easier by being surrounded with personnel that can threaten to convert if left unattended.
On this play, Lewis was able to scoot to the cup with little resistance, in part, because the Davidson defense was left in an utterly compromised position. Every VCU player here, is in a position where they convert at an above average percentage.
Lewis waits for the hedge defender to retreat, and simply follows him directly into the paint. Davidson’s Brian Sullivan, one pass away and guarding Melvin Johnson, is left in the tightest spot – he can’t leave Johnson to close down the driving lane or he gives up an easy 3-pointer. For his part, Mo Alie-Cox reads Lewis’ intent and sits down in space – closing off the recovering defender – and clearing a runway to the basket. Peyton Aldridge, defending VCU’s Justin Tillman, can’t fully commit to helping until the last second for fear of leaving Tillman wide open in the area of the floor where he is the most dangerous. There are so many threats out of this simple pick-and-roll for VCU, and JeQuan Lewis is proving capable of making the right read almost every time.
Against Davidson, VCU had a season-high 31 field goal attempts on the right side of the court, near the basket, and converted on 18 (58.1%). The most attempts VCU had at that spot last season was 22 in a game against Fordham. True to the Wade formula, this year’s Rams are making a concerted effort to get near the rim.
An improved conversion rate near the basket has been instrumental to the success the Rams have seen in conference play. Wade predicted this uptick. VCU faced length and athleticism during the non-conference schedule that the Atlantic 10 simply can’t offer from night to night, and he recognized some degree of improvement would happen when faced with a different kind of opposition.
But that shouldn’t diminish what the Rams have accomplished.
Their ability to threaten in the paint and near the rim, has led to a continued hot streak from beyond the arc. During A-10 play, the Rams are making 38.6% of shots from range, a rate good for second in the league. As defenses collapse to contain drives, or send help to defend Alie-Cox in post-up situations, VCU is finding open shooters lined up around the perimeter ready to take aim and fire.
The corner 3-pointers continue to be deadly for VCU – they are converting on a combined 51.0% of shots from that location (the national average for 3-point makes is 34.6%). For perspective on just how staggering that number is, VCU only converted on 50.0% of their attempts near the rim during out of conference play.
VCU is executing the Will Wade formula to near perfection right now. JeQuan Lewis is regularly dissecting defenses in pick-and-roll situations, Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman have been found money on the low posts, and Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury are knocking down triples at an alarming rate. The Rams are winners of eleven straight and own the country’s second longest active winning streak. Plenty of tests await them in the balance of the Atlantic 10 schedule but, for the time being, this team is clearly in a groove.