HOUSTON -- There were dunks, a few of them anyway, but when VCU took the court for its open practice here on the eve of the Final Four, the Rams deviated from the typical crowd-pleasing, throw-down script.
They spent most of their time parked on the arc.
It is what they have done most every day this season, devoting a good bulk of their practice time to that occasionally lost art of basketball: shooting.
“We shoot a lot,’’ Brandon Rozzell said. “I mean a lot. Did you see us out there?’’
The homework is certainly paying off here in this magical NCAA tournament run. VCU has shot its way through the bracket, swishing 53 of 121 3-pointers, a mind-boggling number only outdone by this one: In five games, the Rams are outscoring their opponents by 90 from the arc.
VCU’s torrid shooting has turned the 3-point line into the line of demarcation here for Saturday’s national semifinal between Butler and VCU.
Whoever controls it wins.
“I don’t think it’s the key to making Butler play our game, but it’s the key to making the scoreboard move,’’ coach Shaka Smart said. “The scoreboard never moves any faster than when that ball goes in from behind the arc, for any team, not just us.’’
That the Rams just seem better able to inch that board along than most isn’t an accident.
Riding the advice of an assistant coach and the bravery of the head man, VCU long ago decided that theirs would be a fearless, shoot-first, never-ask-questions mentality.
As a high school player in Mahanoy City, Pa., Mike Rhoades remembers his coach, Mickey Holland, devoting at least 30 minutes a day to shooting. Rhoades tucked that message into his coaching pocket when he embarked on his own career, bringing it to his 10-year stint at Randolph Macon and now in the past two seasons to the VCU bench.
“It’s not that complicated,’’ Rhoades said. “It comes down to making shots and you can’t make them if you don’t practice taking them.’’
Yes, the Rams are making buckets in buckets because they practice, but also because they take buckets of buckets. Rozzell alone has launched 35 3-pointers in five NCAA tournament games, a brazen assault that some might label unconscious, but Rozzell considers just another day at work.
He, like the rest of his teammates who hover on and around the 3-point arc, have a perpetual green light from their trusting coach.
“In two years I have never heard Shaka say, ‘That was a bad shot,’’’ Rhoades said. “They know they have the freedom to keep shooting and it’s been like that from Day 1. That’s why a guy like Brandon Rozzell can play the way he does. I’m not sure he could play for a lot of other coaches in the country, but here it’s perfect for him.’’
The comfort that they can keep shooting is why the Rams believe they won’t fall victim of the old adage -- live by the 3, die by the 3.
If the shots aren’t falling, they’re still shooting, which is what they’ve done all season.
VCU ranks first in the nation in 3-pointers made (351) and second in 3s attempted (979). Only high-flying VMI launched more than the Rams this season.
It is the quantity as much as the quality that matters, said one coach who fared well against VCU’s 3-point attack.
In three games this season against the Rams (two regular season and one in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament), Drexel held VCU to just 14-of-50 from the arc.
Asked how his team was able to hold the Rams to so few makes, Bruiser Flint offered both a correction and an explanation.
"They only took 50,’’ Flint said. “That’s the difference. You have to make sure you keep how many they shoot down. They want to shoot 20 or 30 a game. We wanted them to shoot layups because they do not want to shoot layups.’’
To limit those attempts, Flint said, it takes more than just flying to the arc. He said he told his players to make sure they stopped the ball between half court and the top of the key, ensuring that point guard Joey Rodriguez was held up before he was just a dribble away from a drive and a kick.
He also put one of his bigger defenders on Rodriguez.
“Rodriguez is a little dude,’’ Flint said. “We talked about getting big on him. Even when he drove to the basket, we wanted to contest that layup and he struggled with that.’’
If somewhere Brad Stevens’ ears are perking up, he needs to remember this somewhat alarming caveat: As well as Drexel defended VCU, in three games the Dragons won just once.