Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. – Shakespeare
In the only Atlantic 10 game to be played on Saturday, Massachusetts dropped their fifth straight game, taking it on the chin at the hands of the visiting Saint Louis Billikens by a final score of 86-75. The Minutemen had trailed by as many as 17 in the second half as Trey Davis started the period slowly – not getting his first basket until the 9:24 mark. But the senior leader would once again find his rhythm and, in part, helped cut into the deficit.
Having chipped away at the sizable lead, with just 49 seconds left, UMass’ C.J. Anderson went to the line with the Minutemen trailing only six. Anderson hit the first free throw to cut the lead to five, but during the second attempt, Davis would be charged with a lane violation – ostensibly closing the curtains on the valiant comeback. After being within five points with under a minute to go, Derek Kellogg’s bunch would go on to lose by eleven.
For his part, Davis finished with 36 points, the highest total he’s amassed in his career in an Atlantic 10 competition. Between a big first half and an impressive display down the stretch, he put together three solid quarters. But, the Minutemen couldn’t afford a turnover at that juncture, and that one minor foot fault – just a small detail – was the final nail in the coffin.
It brought to mind what has now become a familiar refrain in the press conferences of VCU’s Will Wade – the margins are thin. Those margins are thin for every team at every level, but with the out-of-the-box talent on teams in the Atlantic 10, those little edges are impactful.
Those margins exist everywhere too. On the court, in the locker room, at practice, and in the classroom. The details matter and carry consequences even, perhaps especially, when they seem trivial.
VCU got a glimpse of the difference those margins can make when they hosted Duquesne (get off that damn bus fellas) last Wednesday night.
Facing a 2-3 zone from Jim Ferry’s squad, VCU ran a play to set screens on the top of the zone – allowing JeQuan Lewis a free lane to penetrate – while also getting a screen on the back line to open a path to the basket for a free-ranging big (in this case Justin Tillman). The Rams executed well. Lewis launched a finessed lob over the outreached Duquesne defender, and Tillman was able to draw the foul on the would-be alley oop.
It was a play the Rams had an opportunity to execute in early December on the road against Middle Tennessee. As usual, Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis threw multiple looks at VCU that night, including a 2-3 zone. That night, however, instead of throwing the lob, Lewis attempted a difficult, thread the needle bounce pass to VCU’s Mo Alie-Cox. It was a low percentage decision. The pass had nary a chance to reach the intended target, and even had Alie-Cox come up with the ball, he would’ve caught it in a position that left him little room to operate.
In the most recent instance of this set, the Rams almost pulled off a three-point play. Measured against what was nearly a turnover in December, reveals a cross section of the margins. Something as forgettable as how a pass is delivered can be the difference between an empty possession and one that is optimally efficient.
For Massachusetts today, a minor mistake finally put a game out of reach. To create separation at this level, even the smallest details carry significance. The coaches and teams that can find little things to improve on, often reap the spoils of victory. It’s why coaches can find fault in a 22-point win. The margins are thin. It’s hardly too late for teams to uncover areas of improvement – who will diagnose and grow? It may be the difference between the teams that play on a Wednesday in Brooklyn, and those that take the court on the final Sunday.