FAIRFAX—Even as they missed shot after shot in the first half of Tuesday night’s potential coronation game against George Mason, VCU’s players never showed any frustration or poor body language.
The Rams knew they had a card that no one else in the Atlantic 10 Conference can trump: a vintage pressure defense that can wither even the stoutest opponent.
The Patriots proved not to be the least bit resilient in a 71-36 blowout that gave VCU (24-6, 15-2) its 12th straight victory and its first outright regular-season conference title since joining the A-10 in 2012. George Mason shot just 25 percent and committed almost twice as many turnovers (22) as it made field goals (12).
“VCU is a really good team on the defensive end,” said George Mason senior guard Otis Livingston II, who managed just two points (and four turnovers) in the final home game of his distinguished career.
“They’re physical, they’re fast, they’re a good team—a great team, actually. It’s hard to get shots.”
If that sounds familiar, it hearkens back to the “Havoc” that boosted former coach Shaka Smart’s team to its improbable run to the 2011 Final Four. Smart’s right-hand man at the time was Mike Rhoades, who now occupies the corner office on Broad Street after three years as head coach at Rice.
Smart famously left for Texas in 2015, replaced for two years by Will Wade (who’s now at LSU). When Rhoades returned to VCU last season, he didn’t have the personnel to recreate Smart’s signature defense, and the Rams (18-15) missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
This edition is older and wiser, and it helps immensely that junior guard Marcus Evans, who followed Rhoades from Rice to VCU, became eligible after sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules.
But that didn’t automatically mean this year’s team could replicate the Rams’ former defensive success. Rhoades refers to the team’s “Army” approach, and he put his charges through a two-week summer boot camp that made them tougher.
“They didn’t like it,” Rhoades said of his players, “but we told them it would pay off. We said, ‘We’ve got to increase our work load and how hard we work.
“We had to work really hard. I challenged them … and they fought it early on, because no one wants to play defense. Everyone just wants to ball. But the best thing was when we got mentally tougher, and they saw the changes to their bodies.”
Now, the rest of the conference is paying the price for his team’s dedication. The Rams force 16.6 turnovers per game, have held 24 of 30 opponents to less than a point per possession, and they rank third in the nation in 3-point percentage defense (.277).
The Patriots made just 2 of 18 long-range shots Tuesday night as they watched an early 16-9 lead disappear. After missing 15 of their first 19 shots, the Rams scored 23 straight points early in the second half.
“It was embarrassing,” George Mason coach Dave Paulsen said.
That old-school defense will be the Rams’ calling card as they try to add an A-10 tournament title next week in Brooklyn, and as they likely go forward into the NCAA tournament.
This isn’t a team that will light up scoreboards; the Rams themselves shoot just 30 percent from long range (6 for 26 Tuesday night). But as Tuesday night showed, they’re never really out of a game as long as they defend.
“All year, our defense has helped our offense,” Evans said. “Once we get on a roll, there’s no looking back.”