Monday, March 28, 2011

In Making the Final Four, VCU Sets Its Own Standard

At the beginning of March, shortly before the CAA Tournament began, I wrote my CAA preview entitled "It's 2006 All Over Again - The CAA Tournament Preview".   And what I wrote in my preview was that based on all the facts/statistics/rankings/RPI ratings/history etc. that we were seeing the second coming of the 2006 season.  In that preview, I talked about #3Bids4CAA.  But I predicted (wrongly so) that Hofstra was going to win the tournament and that ODU and George Mason would be at large teams (I had facts to back that up at the time).

In the same preview as far as VCU, I mentioned that the "Rams were in the hunt for an at large bid when they were first in the CAA at 10-1 and 18-5 overall.  But the Rams lost five of their last eight and in the three games they won, one was in overtime and the combined margin of victory in the other two games was a total of five points."  Even I thought that their struggles down the stretch were too much for them to overcome.

Then came the CAA Tournament.  The Rams survived Drexel in the quarterfinals, then basically thrashed George Mason (much to the delight of Defiantly Dutch) in the CAA semifinals, before valiantly losing to ODU in the CAA final.   As a result of the neutral site win over Mason, the tough loss to Old Dominion, along with a regular season road win over ODU. a neutral site win over UCLA and a BracketBuster road win over now NIT semifinalist Wichita State, VCU started getting press for a potential at large bid.  Though it seemed a remote possibility, #3Bids4CAA still had a pulse.

Then came Selection Sunday.  Even the Rams decided not to get together to meet to watch the selection show.  Hell, Bradford Burgess was at a Five Guys Burgers and Fries when "it" all went down.  "It" being VCU selected for one of the two at large First Four Games to play for an #11 seed.  ODU was already in as an automatic with a #9 seed and George Mason grabbed an at large bid with an #8 seed.  For the first time ever in the Colonial, #3Bids4CAA became a reality. 

Then of course came the Tournament run.  First was the win over USC that showed how VCU could slug out a defensive win over a supposedly better defensive team beating the Trojans at their own game by 13.  Then the Rams followed with a Libyan No Fly Zone Offense as they bombed the Hoyas from beyond the arc for an 18 point thrashing of the six seed Georgetown.   Then VCU followed that up with their most impressive win as they dominated the lane in a 94-76 thrashing of Purdue, one of the best defensive teams in the country.

In all three cases, the Rams were given very little chance of winning.  But anyone who saw VCU defeat UCLA ( a team that throttled Michigan State in the round of 64 NCAA game) like I did at the NIT Tipoff knew the Rams could beat the Bruins' fellow PAC-10 team.  Georgetown was also a team that had struggled down the stretch, so VCU had a legitimate chance of winning.   Finally, Purdue had lost to a team VCU had played (though lost to) in Richmond.  The Rams certainly could play with the Boilermakers.

Thus after three wins, VCU had made the Sweet Sixteen.  Yet many pundits had them losing to a #10 seeded Florida State team.   And it was really the Rams first tough challenge as the Seminoles rallied from a nine point second half win and the game went to overtime with Florida State up late by a point.  But thanks to a patient Joey Rodriguez and a nice move by Bradford Burgess, VCU had a terrific inbounds play for a layup and an overtime win.

Then came VCU's ultimate challenge yesterday, #1 seeded Kansas in the regional final.  The Jayhawks had previously systematically destroyed the Spiders in the Sweet Sixteen, the aforementioned team the Rams lost to earlier in the regular season.  And when Rock Chalk came out working it inside to the Morris twins for a quick 6-0 lead, one had to wonder if VCU could survive this last challenge.  

They did more than survive this challenge.  The Rams took charge.  VCU buried KU with nine three pointers during their 39-15 run in the first half to go up by 18 points.   Their fast paced style of basketball which Shaka Smart calls "havoc" forced numerous Jayhawk turnovers.   Kansas was stunned, winded and down fourteen points at the half.

But a top seeded team doesn't give up without at least one run.  And Kansas went on a 12-0 run early in the second half to cut the lead to two.  With a raucous pro Jayhawk crowd, the Rams were on the verge of losing their lead and possibly the game.  But again, the Rams faced with adversity rose to the challenge.   VCU responded with an 11-3 run that basically ended the game with less than nine minutes left and the Rams up ten.  VCU would win by ten, 71-61.   

So the Rams became the second team from the CAA to make the Final Four.  And thus began the inevitable comparisons for VCU to George Mason in 2006.   And while yes, there are similarities, there are many differences.   The Rams have set their own standard and here's why.

1) Obviously, the Rams were the first team in NCAA history to win FIVE games to make the Final Four.  Of course this was the first season that there was a First Four as there are now 37 at large bids as opposed to 34.  The Patriots obviously only won four games to make the Final Four in 2006.  

2) VCU received much more negative press for making the tournament than George Mason did in 2006.  Yes, Mason received negative press for their inclusion in the tournament, especially by one Billy Packer, who wouldn't know a mid major from a sergeant major.   But most of the negative press was a result of Mason making it over Hofstra, who had swept the Patriots in their season series.   I remember vividly Jay Bilas of all people defending the Pride, er Flying Dutchmen, stating that the committee should have used head to head to decide which CAA team should have been taken.  Perhaps I am mistaken and my brain is faulty from having two kids, but the general consensus was that it was OK that a second CAA team, in this case Mason, was in the tournament.

And for further proof that a second CAA team deserved to be in, look at George Mason's seeding in the NCAA Tournament in 2006.  In one of the strangest seedings ever done by the CAA (perhaps even tops this season's weird seedings), Mason was not only not the lowest at large seed in the tournament, they were not even the lowest team in the East - Washington DC regional.   Mason was the #11 seed, but Utah State was the #12 seed and Air Force the #13 seed (further proof of my CAA-WAC-MWC conspiracy).  Bradley was the #13 seed in the West-Oakland regional while Texas A&M was the #12 seed in the Southeast - Atlanta Regional.    There were four at large teams seeded lower than Mason.

In the case of VCU, a good number of pundits, especially Bilas ripped the Rams inclusion as one of the last four play in teams.  They felt VCU didn't belong in period, that the CAA didn't deserve three bids. Bilas commented that not only did VCU fail the eye test, it failed the laugh test as well.  It was much more hostile for VCU than it was for Mason (at least that I can remember).

3)  VCU had a much tougher road then Mason.   Think about this.  With the First Four play in game then the two regional games in Chicago, VCU had to play three games in five days.   And to win the third game by 18 points over the #3 seed on the fifth day is one of the most impressive feats in NCAA Tournament history.  Mason of course only had to play two games in three days in Dayton in 2006.

4) VCU has been much more dominant than Mason in 2006.   In 2006, Mason only won one game by double digits, their 75-65 first round win over Michigan State.  The other games were decided by five, eight and two.   Meanwhile, VCU has only had one close game, the one point win over Florida State in overtime.  All their other wins were double digits - thirteen, eighteen, eighteen and ten.   

5) Finally, Mason was a six man rotation team in the tournament.  You had the five starters - Jai Lewis, Will Thomas, Tony "Nut Punch" Skinn, Lamar Butler and Folarin Campbell with Gabe Norwood as the sixth man.  Jordan Carter and Sammy Hernandez played some minutes in some tournament games and barely played in others.

VCU is a much deeper team with a ten man rotation, all of them playing a good number of minutes over the five games.  Of course you had the five starters - Jamie Skeen, D.J. Haley, Bradford Burgess, Ed Nixon and Joey Rodriguez.   Brandon Rozzell has been a huge sixth man, but Darius Theus, Rob Brandenburg and Juvonte Reddic have all seen major minutes during this run.  It's probably one of the main reasons why they won three games in five days.

So there are five reasons why VCU is different from George Mason.  Now many pundits think it's their three point shooting that has made the difference for the Rams.  In fact Jay Bilas said last night that if you limit VCU's three point shooting, the Rams can't shoot enough twos to win.   That's hogwash.  Against Purdue, VCU shot only shot 8 of 21 from beyond the arc, while shooting 29 of 44 from two (66 percent).  So VCU can attack you from beyond the arc and drive to the basket too.

If you really want to see why VCU has been so dominant in their run, it's because of their half court defense.  During the regular season, VCU was at the bottom of the CAA in FG percentage defense at 45 percent.  If you look down below, only one team has shot better than 39.5 percent against VCU.

USC - 39.5 %
Georgetown - 38.5 %
Purdue - 44.8 %
Florida State - 36.6 %
Kansas - 35.5 %

So when you combine the fact that they have forced 69 turnovers in 5 games with that significant improvement in field goal percentage defense, that's why the Rams have been on such a terrific run.  They could always score points (99th overall at 71.5 points per game).  They now can play half court D as well.

So VCU stands on their own in NCAA Tournament history.  They have set a new standard not just for mid major teams but for power conferences and wannabe conferences (C-USA, A-10 and MWC) as well in winning five games to get to the Final Four.  In some aspects the 2010-11 VCU Rams remind me of the 2005-06 George Mason Patriots.  But it's my belief this VCU team has set their own standard and has passed that George Mason team as the greatest team in the history of the CAA.  

And the Rams still aren't done yet.

1 comment:

  1. This has been one the strangest tournaments I’ve ever seen. VCU’s win sets up a historic game with Butler, two unranked teams in Final Four game. This occurrence says a lot about college basketball today, anyone can win it all.