There’s no sugarcoating how bad of a loss last night’s head-scratcher at UMass was. VCU’s slow start in Amherst ultimately did the Rams in, allowing 43 first half points while getting just 63 VCU points on the evening, 14 below what the Minutemen have allowed on average this season and the black and gold’s worst offensive output since a 63-point performance against Cincinnati — who is Cincinnati (kenpom No.31), not UMass (kenpom No.185), making it that much more of a disappointing performance.
That letdown is officially the worst L in terms of opponent ranking since VCU dropped a CAA road game at No.210 Georgia State five years ago. More on that later.
In losing at UMass the Rams have ratcheted up the importance of their A-10 finish, not only for any at-large tournament hopes, but to keep pace with the top teams in the conference.
After a 9-0 start the Rams have dropped two consecutive games including that unforeseen slip-up at UMass (although I did hint at that potential here). But the black and gold aren’t the first A-10 team to fall victim to the classic “banana peel game” and they likely won’t be the last.
VCU joins a group of five of the conferences top seven, including three of the top four, who have dropped games to bottom half teams. And truth-be-told, VCU’s wasn’t as bad as those of current A-10 No.1, Dayton, who fell victim at No.296 La Salle or GW and Davidson who dropped games at No.251 Saint Louis.
TOP-HALF LOSSES TO A-10 BOTTOM-FOUR TEAMS
VCU 63 UMass 69
Dayton 57 La Salle 61
GW 62 Saint Louis 65
Davidson 87 Saint Louis 96
Rhode Island 56 UMass 61
*Richmond 74 George Mason 78
What makes VCU’s loss more painful however is the Rams weren’t able to match the non-conference success of conference mates Dayton and GW. VCU let all of their major opportunities get away while Dayton racked up wins over the likes of Iowa, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Arkansas as well as underrated wins over William & Mary and Monmouth, both kenpom top-100 squads. GW on the other hand owns a HUGE non-conference win over UVA as well as a nice bubble W over kenpom No.36 Seton Hall. They also own a neutral court top-100 win over kenpom No.90 Tennessee.
The black and gold competed well in the non-conference but were unable to pick up any good wins, dropping all five of their OOC kenpom top-100 contests, placing that much more importance on their A-10 schedule.
The Rams two-game losing streak has bumped them out of the RPI top-50 and quite possibly on the wrong side of the bubble.
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news: we ain’t hit the end of the runway yet.
Getting back to that Georgia State loss I mentioned earlier, the Rams managed an NCAA tournament bid that season and turned it into a Final 4 run. That’s not to say that will be the ultimate destiny of this year’s squad, but right now VCU fans would most certainly settle for a First 4 bid like the one that year’s group secured.
They did so by entering the tournament with an RPI of 51 (we are currently No.53). They won three top-50 games that season, two of which were neutrals v UCLA and George Mason, plus one road win at ODU, VCU’s best win. They added a very good BracketBusters win at Wichita State that February thanks to two game-winning free throws from Joey Rodriguez, finishing with a road record of 8-6. The Rams are currently 6-2 in true road games with three left to be played, two of which are against teams currently in the RPI top-50: GW and Dayton.
There’s also an A-10 tournament left to be played that will provide options at both good wins and an automatic birth in this year’s Big Dance. VCU’s 2011 team eventually fell in that season’s conference title game but not before picking up a big neutral court win over George Mason.
The Rams path is incredibly daunting, starting with not one, not two, but THREE games within the next seven days. That’s also a great opportunity to put this recent two-game streak behind us while gaining some momentum for a strong finish. But that won’t be easy.
So take a deep breath Ram fans. Last night’s loss stings, but it will go from annoying pain to fatal wound for VCU’s March aspirations if the black and gold can’t quickly put it past them while preparing for a gauntlet these next seven days.
Three ball – UMass won the battle of the long ball last night and that ultimately killed VCU. The Rams currently rank 44th nationally in three-point average while UMass checks in at 220th in that statistic, so naturally UMass hits their first eight threes (7-7 in the first half) plus some big ones late to pull out the win. Only two Rams hit threes last night. JeQuan Lewis was a hot 4-6 while the usually deadly Melvin Johnson struggled at just 1-9.
Tillman tweaks knee – VCU head coach Will Wade told the RTD’s Tim Pearrell the sophomore standout tweaked his knee in the first half and was unable to go in the second. Tillman played just seven minutes in the loss. The Detroit native currently leads the Rams in rebounds and is the A-10’s top offensive rebounder while on the floor (15.1% offensive rebound percentage). Without him VCU was out-rebounded 8-6 on the offensive glass. Tillman is reportedly questionable for VCU’s game against Saint Louis on Saturday.
My take – We are what our record indicates, which is a solid team that’s trying to learn to be a very good team. Our average margin in games against kenpom top-100s is -2.2 points (one possession). It’s just a little worse in games against top-50s at -3.4 (two possessions). Considering our personnel losses (Briante Weber and Treveon Graham) I think those are both solid numbers. Our adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies are almost identical to last season’s numbers. We can compete for an A-10 title at the level we’re playing but has this group reached its ceiling? I hope not and I think not. Our A-10 offensive numbers are much-improved this season (repeat: WITHOUT Graham and Weber, which is impressive), suggesting that we have indeed made improvements as the season has gone on. Our defensive numbers are close to last season’s final stats but also leave room for growth as well, particularly in defending the three-point arc (VCU is currently No.2 in defensive efficiency in A-10 play after finishing as No.3 this past season). Time will tell if those numbers will hold with a rough closing schedule against teams like Richmond, Rhode Island, Davidson, GW and Dayton, but I really think this team does some things that suggests this team could be dependable down the stretch. I’ve loved what Will Wade and his stuff have done so far this season and believe they have another trick or two up their sleeves to hopefully take this team to a level we have yet to reach so far during the beginning of the Will Wade era.