Well, the Zips let a good team off the hook @ the JAR. It was an entertaining game for certain. But I can't shake the sense that the Zips really let a good resume win sneak out the back door. Kept some mental notes as it went down, and with apologies to Sergio Leone .. here goes:
- Nikola carried the Zips for much of the game. The feeling I had watching this was that Nik is really starting to emerge as the clear leader of this team (with AA as well). He really played his tail off tonight. Was pretty efficient with the ball, and hit some clutch baskets. Along w/ Tree, did a pretty good job on Burgess tonight.
- The Defense. For most of the game, the Zips did a tremendous job of forcing VCU to score in the half-court set. VCU loves to force turnovers and get out on the break. For the game they had 8 fast break points (4 buckets?). That's pretty good. Furthermore, VCU only scored 22 points in the paint. The Zips forced them into making shots .. which is reflected in VCU shooting percentages of 26% on 3's and 39% overall. That's good defense against any team. Against a team like VCU .. great D. The team is starting to find defensive cohesion and identity. I like that a lot.
- Alex answers the bell. Dude just played 37 minutes 9 days after surgery. Played pretty well too. Had a big +/-, best of the Zips, even though it was clear he wasn't nearly 100%. He didn't have the quickest first step, and his strength wasn't all there. You could see that he was a bit off when he couldn't get some of the early layups to drop. That I think affected his 2nd half as far as going to the hole. He's not going 4-12 very often. Good game by AA.
- Couldn't put them away. A big game at the JAR with a lively crowd & a good opponent, and a very winnable game gets away from the Zips. It was clear at half time that this could go 3 ways. The Zips could win close, the Rams could win close .. or the Zips could pull away. One or two more buckets in the middle of the 2nd half, and this game is a 10 point win by the Zips. They just couldn't finish the deal. There were several times in the second half where the D did it's job, but they couldn't finish on the offensive side. This is a young team. We all get that. Tough one to see get away from them. They played hard and put it out there .. but they didn't ultimately finish. This one unfortunately got away.
- Turnovers. You aren't going to win often against good teams with 20 turnovers vs. only 15 assists. Those turnovers resulted in 25 points for VCU. That's 11 more than the Zips were able to generate.
- Untimely misses @ the line. When you go to the line 12 fewer times than your opponent in a close game, you've got to make yours. The Zips shot 68% as a team, which isn't really that bad .. but missed some really critical shots at the stripe. 2 front ends in the 2nd half, and one that could have iced the game late in regulation, or at least forced VCU to foul on the ensuing possession.
- Breaking the Press. There are a few things that as a hoops fan I may never understand. #1: Why is it that teams that are pretty good on defense and have some success pressing themselves are almost never good at consistently breaking the press? #2: When you're getting pressed in the back court, doesn't it make it harder to get up the court if you have all 5 of your guys in the back court, and as a result the D has all 5 defenders back there, enabling zone traps? There must be a strategy to it .. but I don't understand these things. I don't understand how hard it is to throw a pass 20 feet to a guy who's 7' tall, can jump really well and isn't being fronted. There were some harrowing moments last night watching the Zips face the press w/ AA on the bench.
- Stretches of not playing together. Mostly early in the game, but also a bit in the second half when VCU was making their run, the Zips drifted back into one on 5 offense at times. Where one guy would take the ball to the rim against 2 or 3 defenders, and try to make everything happen by himself. Midway through the first half, we saw the Zips settle down and play offense together, and it was a beautiful thing. The lone ranger offense while out of control with the ball? Not so pretty.
A Fistful of Talent
Once the early nerves settled down for the Zips, it was apparent to me and most of those around me that this was a pretty even matchup. Talent, size, and athleticism were pretty much a wash. This against a top CAA team just off a Final Four trip. That wasn't the case against teams like Nevada, Rhode Island, Dayton in recent years. There was always a little quickness or size deficit that KD needed to scheme creatively to overcome. Not so vs. VCU .. the Zips were right there with them. I think it's been a little while since a MAC school was on par with the top rosters in the A10 or CAA. Great sign IMHO.
... And a few Comments More
- Gilliam played well when out there. Didn't hit much, but was a part of some of the best runs the Zips put together all game. Foul trouble I think limited his time in the second half, but when he sat down, the Zips led by 10, and he never re-entered the game. Hopefully there's not an injury at play here. I like having Gilliam out here, and think he'll be a critical component of the Zips success this season.
- I think Walsh & Deji need to be the backup PG's soon. We can't have AA going 30+ all season or he will wear down. So we need 10-15 minutes at the point from other places. Against all but one or two teams in conference it isn't going to be a problem, but against high caliber teams, it will be an issue. My point isn't that Diggs was struggling with the ball (which he did and can do) as much as the belief that Digs is one of our most explosive scorers from the SG or SF spots. He's best slashing from the wing and scoring from outside. Having to use him as the PG for stretches is disrupting one of the best weapons the Zips have. Hopefully they can get to the point where he can play less PG, and KD can count on Deji or Walsh for the minutes that AA sits. The PG depth might be the Zips' Achilles heel?
- Not referring to the last possession here, but I though the move to having Nikola bringing up the ball against the press was a great one. It really pretty much unplugged the pressure, since Nik was clearly quicker than the big guy guarding him, and so the guy couldn't really pressure him much. Shades of using Linhart the same way against Can't State in the MAC title game 4 years back. I think it was a good move.
Well that's what I got for now. These were the thoughts that stuck with me a day after the game. Much more to come as the season progresses. A 1 point loss doesn't change my outlook on this team or this season. Sure would have been a nice win, but we move on to the next.
Sincere hopes & wishes for all Zips fans and observers to have a safe Holiday weekend and prosperous New Year. May one of us win the Powerball Lottery in 2012 so we can solve the hoops facilities problems once and for all.