Less than three weeks ago, I was using this space to preach about the injustice of including Virginia Commonwealth in this 68-team tournament when there were other worthier teams with better resumes.
How fortunate that the NCAA expanded the field by three teams this year because if only 65 teams had been chosen, we would have been denied one of the great Cinderella stories of all time.
Three weeks ago, I was citing the Rams’ January loss to sub-200 RPI Georgia State as a reason for their unworthiness. Well, a lot can change in three weeks. The Rams have proved that they are more than worthy.
That team that lost four of its final five regular season games is nowhere to be found. This refined and dangerous VCU squad is all about attitude, defense and sharp shooting.
Coach Shaka Smart has his kids peaking at the right time, and every player on his roster thinks they are going to win a national title this weekend. And why not? VCU has not slipped by five major conference foes; no, they have produced almost uniformly dominant victories, winning every game by double digits except for the overtime squeaker against Florida State.
Statistically, VCU is simply performing at a higher rate in this tournament in nearly every category. They’re just playing better. They are shooting the ball at a 44 percent clip from beyond the arc, while they only shot 36 percent throughout the year.
In contrast, Butler is shooting the three at a 32 percent rate. The three ball is critical to the undersized Rams’ hopes of moving on, as they lean heavily on the long shot in their drive and dish offense in which sharpshooter Bradford Burgess is 13-18 from deep in his last four games. Big man Jamie Skeen, who at 6 feet 9 inches tall, is often the inside presence for the Rams hit four threes against Kansas.
They often have five guys on the floor who are dangerous shooters—when shots are falling, an offense like that is almost impossible to defend.
Point guard Joey Rodriguez is dishing out more assists than he has all season, while doing an extraordinary job of taking care of the ball. Rodriguez had 11 assists and zero turnovers in the team’s shocking romp over Purdue, giving him an assist to turnover ratio that cannot be mathematically defined.
Dividing by zero is exactly what the VCU team has been doing in their last five games; players playing this high above their season averages is so implausible it defies explanation.
Defensively, the Rams are playing inspired basketball.
They have completely shut down the three ball. Opponents are 23-100 in the tournament from distance, and Kansas was a shocking 2-21 from beyond the arc. While they are still getting outrebounded consistently by huge margins, the commitment to lockdown defense and quick rotations has been enough to make up for the second chances that VCU sometimes gives up.
At this point, with the whole country behind the underdogs and their confidence visibly growing each game, the Rams are on such a hot run that it is hard to pick against them. If the threes continue to go down and the defense remains as focused as it has been, making every single possession a battle, why not?
By next week, the VCU Rams very well could be national champions.