Wednesday January 28th, 2015

Watching VCU play sometimes resembles the fantasy of opening the fridge, seeing nothing you like, shutting the door and opening it once more to find a ton of new possibilities. 

Shaka Smart wasn’t getting the defensive energy he wanted out of his first unit early on against George Washington on Tuesday, so he changed it up. The VCU coach is fully comfortable making substitutions, and he proved it by using 10 players before the 10-minute mark in the Rams’ 72-48 win. The Colonials had active hands and got into passing lanes early, taking opportunities to break the press and get quick shots on offense. George Washington is 248th in tempo, according to KenPom, but delivered its best VCU impression in the first nine minutes of the game to take a 13-12 lead. That’s when the Rams cranked up the defensive pressure, and Smart looked toward the bench for a spark.

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One of Smart's options was freshman Terry Larrier. The four-star recruit out of The Phelps School averaged six points in 15.5 minutes in VCU’s first 13 games. In the next six games, those averages crept up to eight points and 19.3 minutes.

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​​Against the Colonials, Larrier piled up 11 points on just four shots as the Rams built an eight-point halftime lead, and he finished with 15. Scoring has never been Larrier’s problem -- he poses a serious matchup nightmare for defenders with his lanky frame on the perimeter and can drive or shoot from outside. It was his defense that needed work early on this season.

And make no mistake, defense is what makes No. 14 VCU go. The reason you hear so much about Havoc when anyone talks about the Rams is because it’s a part of their identity. It’s in everything VCU does on the floor, and it takes full commitment out of players who are often still trying to find their way around campus.

Havoc was again effective on Tuesday. George Washington turned the ball over 17 times and the Colonials were unable to shoot their way out of the press, hitting just one of their 17 three-point tries and shooting 26.9 percent on the evening.

During the game, the CBS Sports Network broadcast crew mentioned how Smart had said “the light was flickering” for Larrier on the defensive end. That’s how he’ll stay on the floor with the Rams. And that’s how VCU, and Larrier specifically, will get better in the long term.

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The same 6-foot-8 frame that causes problems for defenders should eventually become a perfect fit in the Havoc defense. If the light stays on for Larrier, Smart could have yet another dangerous option to slot in come tournament time.

VCU stretched its winning streak to 12 games with Tuesday's win and is now 7-0 in Atlantic 10 play. The Rams have already played 12 games against teams in the top 100 of the RPI (as well as KenPom) and hold the nation’s toughest non-conference schedule per RPI and eighth-toughest per KenPom.

This is another strong year for Smart, who has stayed at VCU despite overtures from plenty of programs with more history and more prestige. He sees not only an opportunity to build his own history and prestige with the Rams, but a chance to be there for the kids he recruited to play in Richmond.

“So when I get asked that question -- 'Why do you stay at VCU?' -- and I get asked that question all the time,” Smart told Gary Parrish of CBSSports, “the school-pride answer is that this is the place to be, that we really, really like it here, that we've been to a Final Four, that we're building this great practice facility, that the program is on the rise. And that's all true. But, in addition to that, there is also what happened to me in my experience as a player. I cried for three days and felt lost. I still remember what it was like when my coach left.”

The Rams aren’t leaving the top 25 any time soon with the variety of players capable of turning defense into offense that Smart has at his disposal. Now it’s time to see just how far they can go in March.

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