Once again VCU finds themselves in a 12 v 5 matchup in the South Regional of the NCAA tournament, this time however as the 5 looking to avoid what’s been one of the most consistent first round seed upsets in tournament history–VCU upset 5th-seeded Wichita State just this past season playing as the 12 seed in Portland.
The Rams will take on a familiar Akron Zips squad led by an even more familiar coach, Keith Dambrot, who just happens to be Shaka Smart’s mentor and good friend.
The two programs have played almost as much as conference opponents lately, facing off four times since 2008 because of ESPN BracketBusters pairings. VCU won all four contests, most recently in a 76-75 overtime thriller in Akron this past season. The teams have played six times since 1969, with the Rams a perfect 6-0, five games of which were decided by five points or less.
5- VCU (26-8, 12-4)
12- Akron (26-6, 14-2)
A quick look at Akron: Keith Dambrot has what he believes to be one of his most talented teams since he’s been at Akron in this 26-win Zips squad. Akron comes to this year’s tournament as the 2013 MAC Champions, having defeated last year’s Champ, Ohio, in a 19-point blowout despite trailing the Bobcats at the half. The Zips went 5-3 against RPI-100 teams this season, with three of those wins coming against No.67 Ohio. Only one of those wins was against a team in this year’s tournament (MTSU). Akron comes into this game with the 131st-ranked strength of schedule, mostly dragged down by their conference schedule, but proved they could compete with the best in a close neutral court loss against Oklahoma State at the start of the season. The Zips are led by 7′ shot-blocking sensation Zeke Marshall. Marshall is a Larry Sanders type in that he is incredibly long with great anticipation. He’s blocking an insane 3.7 blocks in his 28.1 minutes this season, and connects on an eye-popping 65% of his shot attempts on offense. Marshall is joined in the frontcourt by 6’7 Demetrius Treadwell. Treadwell is an extremely gifted talent who has overcome adversity to receive a scholarship and make his way into the D1 hoops scene despite lacking all the academic requirements needed to play as a freshman. Treadwell, or “Tree”, as his teammates call him, is the Zips second-highest scorer and rebounder at 11.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. One major missing piece for Akron will be the loss of senior point guard Alex Abreu. Abreu led the Zips with six assists per game and also chipped in 10.3 ppg for Akron, but has been suspended from the team due to a drug arrest. In his place will be 5’11 freshman Carmelo Betancourt who is averaging 3.6 points, 3 assists and 2 turnovers in 24.6 minutes in his three starts since being handed the reins. VCU will also enjoy the absence of 6’8 Nikola Cvetinovic who dropped a season-high 21 points against VCU last season as a senior.
A quick look at VCU: VCU comes into this one having lost a tough A-10 title game to regular season champ Saint Louis (a No.4 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament). The Rams fought hard despite trailing by double digits early, but in the end couldn’t match Saint Louis’ big shots, falling 62-56 in Brooklyn. One positive in that loss however was the Rams defense. VCU gave up an average of 83 points in their final two regular season games, but tightened up the halfcourt D, surrendering an average of 67.6 per game during this season’s A-10 tournament, 20.6 of which came at the free throw line. In that sentence is the key really for VCU. If the refs are calling games tight, things can get tricky for VCU. If they are letting them play, the Rams are downright dangerous. Either way, VCU has displayed an ability to win. The Rams were whistled for an insane 71 fouls in their three A-10 tournament games, yet were within single digits of a championship.
Tale of the Tape…
Scoring Offense: VCU 77.3, Akron 72.7
Scoring Defense: Akron 62, VCU 64.8
Field Goal%: Akron 45.7%, VCU 44.9%
Field Goal% Defense: Akron 39%, VCU 44.4%
3-Point Field Goal%: VCU 35.2%, Akron 33.7%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: Akron 31.8%, VCU 33.6%
Rebounding Margin: Akron +5.9, VCU +0.1
Turnover Margin: VCU +8.03, Akron +0.19
VCU wins if: They wreak havoc on the Zips. VCU is the best team in the country at turning teams over, Akron ranks 202nd in the country at holding on to the ball, and that is weighted by the majority of the season when they had a senior point guard. The Rams forced 20 Zips turnovers last season in Akron, and this VCU team is even better at forcing tempo than last year’s squad. Thursday’s game will most certainly be a battle of styles: VCU’s speed versus Akron’s size. If the Rams can create points in transition, hit the deep ball, and limit Akron’s strength (both defending the paint and scoring in it), VCU has a great chance at their third-straight season with at least one NCAA tournament win.
Akron wins if: They hold on to the ball. Coach Dambrot has already said his big men will be forced to do some of the ball-handling duties, which is exactly what some of VCU’s presses are designed to do…get the ball to opposing bigs to either pass or attempt to bring the ball up the court. If they can break the press however (not to mention hold on to the ball in the halfcourt), the Zips will have a size advantage in 7′ Marshall, 6’7 Treadwell and 6’7 Nick Harney, all of which score at a very high percentage. Minus Abreu, those three rank No.1, No.2 and No.3 in scoring for Akron, good for 34.1ppg for the Zips. Good news for VCU is their previous game came against a similar Saint Louis team that is not only big (and incredibly good), but loaded with experienced guard talent as well.
Game tips at 9:45PM EST on CBS, Thursday, March 21st in Auburn Hills, Michigan