It’s almost bizarre how this nonconference schedule has played out. Yes, it’s the toughest in the country. Let me repeat that for effect: 351 college basketball programs scheduled roughly a dozen nonconference games, and nobody, not one program, created a more difficult slate than VCU.
Here’s the rub. Yes the Rams are being tested and all that “paying off later” stuff the coaches love to talk about. But think about the progression of games and the styles of the teams: good opening tests against athletic teams, a breather (UMES), a rival (ODU), a long roadie (ISU), a top five team (UVA), an offensively gifted team (Northern Iowa), a team built on execution (Belmont), and now, a big, tough, physical, defensive juggernaut in Cincinnati.
Side note: Rock fight alert.
If there’s ever such a thing as a plan coming together, this scheduling approach has done just that, in a brilliant fashion. VCU is not just being tested, but being tested in a variety of different styles and abilities, both physically and mentally.
The last time we were in Cincinnati, Xavier was riding a 53-1 streak in the Cintas Center. The Musketeers were, almost literally, unbeatable at home. The Bearcats are similarly seemingly invincible at home. They have won 16 straight nonconference games there, including Wednesday’s overtime win over 19th-ranked San Diego State. In all, Cincy is 24-1 in the building.
If you remember two Februarys ago, you remember Xavier rolling to a 17-point second half lead. This was on the heels of a dispiriting loss at St. Louis for VCU. But at that point our guys jumped into road warrior mentality and snapped off a 24-5 run. Rob Brandenberg, who was from just outside Cincinnati but was not recruited by Xavier, made the clinching free throws in an emotional win. The next game was Butler inside That Animal, and you know what happened there.
That road warrior mentality is paramount tomorrow because this Cincinnati team is beastly–and that is a compliment. Honestly, they remind me a lot of the late 2000s Drexel Dragons, or the 1990s Carleton Hawks.
The Bearcats rebound and play physical defense that is unrelenting. They rebound hard, especially on the offensive end. You earn your keep. They don’t shoot the three well and struggle to score at times, so the progress on the defensive end we talked about yesterday will have to continue to move forward.
Cincinnati has a guard that controls the ball in Troy Caupain and a couple guys in Faried Cobb and Kevin Johnson who like to shoot more than skill should permit. Shaquille Thomas is a 6-7 pure athlete who loves to drive and create as well. The strength is in the post. Like Samme Givens, Octavious Ellis is most effective because he outworks and out-toughs his opponent. Gary Clark is a freshman and cut in the similar mode–go get the ball off the glass.
Caupain scored 12 points in Cincinnati’s overtime win over 19th-ranked San Diego State on Wednesday night, giving him a 10.1ppg mark and the leader on the team. Both Ellis and Clark are 8-point, 8-rebound guys. Head coach Mick Cronin distributes minutes through nine or 10 players.
It’s too easy to chalk this up to a style game–the faster and free-flowing VCU can make it, the better it is. To me this one is about toughness. That means keeping the Bearcats out of the paint, off the offensive glass, and out of kilter by blowing up their offensive rhythm. Put another way: Cincinnati struggles to score, so VCU cannot make it easy for them to score. And that includes protecting the basketball when the Rams attack. The Bearcats don’t mind running, so keep your eye on turnover differential.
A rock fight is not a bad thing, just as a ballet isn’t necessarily a good thing. Being tough in either style of play is the differentiator. But I’ll take a high scoring sprint.