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VCU notes: While the Rams' offense sorts itself out, defense has been business as usual

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Pittsburgh VCU Basketball

Pittsburgh’s Greg Elliott, center, fights for control of the ball with Virginia Commonwealth’s Jayden Nunn, left, and Jamir Watkins, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the consolation round of the Legends Classic Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Defense succeeding where offense isn’t

While the sorting hat figures out VCU’s offensive identity without injured point guard Ace Baldwin, the Rams’ other identity has been business as usual.

VCU’s defense has limited opponents to an average of 60.4 points in five games. It hasn’t yielded more than 67.

“Our defense is absolutely good enough to win basketball games against anyone we play,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “But our offense isn’t.”

The Rams (3-2) ranked seventh nationally last year in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 88.8. They rank 29th this season in KenPom.com’s ratings at 91.8.

They’re generating 19.2 turnovers per game (23rd). On the other hand, they’re giving up 17.4 turnovers (337th).

VCU’s overall identity figured to take some time this season with seven newcomers: transfers Brandon Johns Jr. (Michigan), Zeb Jackson (Michigan) and David Shriver (Hartford), and freshmen Fats Billups (Varina), Tobi Lawal, Christian Fermin and Obi Okafor. The Rams also got Jamir Watkins back after he missed last year with an ACL injury.

That the defense is up to speed should bode well for VCU if it can get the offense in sync. The left-handed Baldwin (broken right wrist), a preseason first-team pick and all-defensive pick in the A-10, is expected back in a few weeks.

“No. 1, you’ve got to be able to stop people in the half court if you want to win and win big,” Rhoades said. “That’s important without a doubt. So you want your defense to show up all the time. I think we all agree on that.

“Our offense has got to show up all the time, not always by making every shot but having a rhythm on offense of getting good shots all the time or very consistent [shots]. When you turn it over at a high clip like we have been and are taking tough shots, that’s a recipe for not having a consistent offense. We’ve just got to continue to bring great awareness to that, keep working on it and not letting that ball stick.”

VCU is shooting 39.3% and 29.6% on 3-pointers.

Staying on their feet

Two of the things Rhoades sees re-occurring on turnovers are ball handlers leaving their feet to pass and “fighting the defense.”

“We practice it all the time,” he said. “You can call it games slippage, whatever it may be. It’s disappointing the group of guys we have right now that can handle the ball, that are strong.

“Fifty-fifty passes, I like to say. It’s 50-50 I’m going to throw it and see if I can get it through. You don’t do that to go get another shot, to get to the next action of your offense. We work on it, but when you go into the game and try to hit triples and home runs instead of singles, that’s where those turnovers occur.”

Rhoades also said he hopes the team’s togetherness will help curb some of the turnovers.

“I told them this [Monday] in the film session, ‘How well you guys get along, how you guys can talk to each other, you’ve got to use that for each other on the court,’ ” he said. “Not every team has that. These guys get along so well on and off the court. But they’re just all trying to fight it.

“We’ve just got to continue to build on that and work on that. We’ve still got a lot of new faces and new roles. But no matter what, if you don’t turn the ball over, you give yourselves a chance. We’ve got to improve on that so much.”

VCU, Kennesaw State to meet for first time

VCU will meet Kennesaw State (near Atlanta) for the first time Saturday at the Siegel Center (4 p.m.). Rhoades said the Rams needed a game during Thanksgiving weekend, but “it was really hard to find standalone games.”

Kennesaw State, picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic Sun (joining Conference USA in 2024-25), is 4-2, its best start in Division I. The Owls lost at Florida by 10 (88-78) and have beaten Southeastern Louisiana (72-68) and Appalachian State (71-67). They lost at Campbell 85-61 on Sunday.

Guard Chris Youngblood, a preseason all-conference pick, is averaging 16 points and shooting 45.7% on 3-pointers. Kennesaw State is shooting 40.1% on treys and averaging 79.3 points.

— Tim Pearrell

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