Well, we’re here…again. VCU will dance for the seventh consecutive season and the second straight since losing head coach Shaka Smart, the Rams’ former coach who’s six-tourney streak came to an end this season at Texas. How ’bout that? The Rams are one of just eight teams in the country to have played in the last seven tournaments, joining Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Cincinnati and North Carolina and have continued to win despite a coaching change many thought had VCU in decline. Still winning. That’s the good news. The bad news is VCU drew one of the most under-seeded teams in the first round of this year’s tournament, a seventh-seeded St. Mary’s squad that going off kenpom rankings would’ve deserved to dance as a three.
This is it…don’t get scared now.
No.10 VCU (26-8)
No.7 St. Mary’s (28-4)
A QUICK LOOK AT ST. MARY’S
Going off the numbers there is a lot to love about the Gaels but also a bit of mystery as well. SMC ranks fourth nationally in effective field goal percentage offense and No.15 in EFG% D. Statistically there are next to no blemishes in this team’s stat sheet. A ridiculous 26 of St. Mary’s 28 wins have come by double-digits, many of which were by 20 or more points including a 31-point WCC semifinal win over top-100 BYU. The obvious knock however against St. Mary’s, and why I suspect their seed was so low for how good they’ve been, is in who they’ve played. St. Mary’s played just nine games against kenpom top-100 teams this season, finishing 5-4 against that group. Three of those loses however are against No.1 Gonzaga, but all by double-digits. Of the wins as well, three came in a season sweep of No.75 BYU, the Gaels opened their season with an easy win over No.54 Nevada and then shortly after almost blew a 20-point lead at Dayton but survived the Flyers in the four-point win despite Dayton playing without star bigs Kendall Pollard and Josh Cunningham. SMC also dropped a 14-point home loss to a very underrated UT Arlington team (who also won at Texas). Long story short, the numbers look good…scratch that…they look REALLY good, but the concern is if they were padded against a week WCC schedule. But putting the numbers aside for a second, I’ve watched a ton of film on these guys and what my eye-test tells me is these numbers are very much legit. St. Mary’s is one of the most skilled teams I’ve watched this season. They are basically like a Richmond or Princeton or the 2015 Davidson team that won the A-10 regular season, but with a much more skilled roster that includes a 7′ Australian big, Jock Landale, that kenpom ranks as the second best player in the country (note: Landale took about 1/3 of SMC’s shots when on the floor this season, so expect a heavy dose of him on Thursday). Landale is joined in the paint by underrated senior big, Dane Pineau, another Australian (6’9 225) who will attempt to back Justin Tillman and Jordan Burgess down in the post all night on Thursday. He finishes 66.7% of those baskets. Those two are joined by a roster of sharpshooters that rank 14th nationally in three-point percentage (39.9%) including two junior guards shooting over 43% from downtown. SMC is patient/deliberate and get a ton of open looks, 41.6% of which come from behind the three-point line. The knock on this St. Mary’s team — or at least the narrative, I think cause they are a bunch of white Australian dudes — is that they aren’t athletic and can be beat by a team like VCU who most closely resembles the Gonzaga group that swept SMC this season. We’ll find out just how true that is on Thursday.
A QUICK LOOK AT VCU
The Rams survived two in-state rivals in this year’s A-10 tournament before advancing to a tourney final (for the fourth time in a row) that showcased VCU’s biggest weakness this season: an offense that at times goes ice-cold. VCU hit just 31.3% of their attempts in the loss including a slew of missed point-blank attempts (32.1% shooting on twos) that surely could’ve won the game for the Rams. But the other side of that coin is despite the miserable shooting, VCU was able to fight back from down big to trim the lead to three late. VCU has fought hard all season and has shown a never-give-up mentality and a defense that has almost always been tough to beat. But the Rams will likely need more than just grit and solid defense to defeat the second highest ranked (kenpom) team they will have faced all season, they need shots falling and they need Mo dunking. VCU needs nuclear JeQuan, the version of No.1 that hits three consecutive threes and starts smiling as he walks aimlessly around the court, staring at the crowd. They need Bad Mother SHUT YOUR MOUTH Mo Alie-Cox dunking on a 7′ Aussie, not finesse Mo who was 2-8 against Rhody and finished in double digits just twice in his final nine games including a scoreless 0-4 night in the opening round of the A-10 tournament. This is the end of the runway from those two and VCU needs them big on Thursday.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Scoring Offense: VCU 75, SMC 72
Scoring Defense: SMC 56.5, VCU 66.3
Effective Field Goal% Offense: SMC 57.9%, VCU 52.7%
Effective Field Goal% Defense: SMC 45.2%, VCU 47.1%
3-Point Field Goal%: SMC 39.9%, VCU 33.4%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: SMC 30.3%, VCU 33.8%
2-Point Field Goal%: SMC 56.5%, VCU 51.5%
2-Point Field Goal% Defense: SMC 45.1%, VCU 45.5%
Rebounds per game: VCU 36.3, SMC 35.6
Turnover% Offense: SMC 17.3%, VCU 17.9%
Turnover% Defense: VCU 21%, SMC 15.4%
VCU WINS IF
You see all that red up there? That’s what we’re up against. This is a very tough team in front of us, but I think the Rams can win by doing two key things: 1) Finishing at the rim. That’s exactly what we didn’t do against Rhode Island but it’s typically something we’ve been quite good at. Almost half of St. Mary’s games this season have come against teams ranked 200 or below by kenpom, meaning while you can’t discount them because of their schedule, you also have to realize ANY good team’s numbers are going to be a bit inflated when they play that many bad teams. On the season SMC has defended the two well but against good teams that can attack the basket, they’ve been obviously less impressive. Nevada finished 56.7% of their twos on the Gaels, UT Arlington hit on 55.6% of theirs and Gonzaga finished over 59% of their twos on SMC twice including a 68.4% thrashing inside the arc in a Zags home win. That’s key No.1 The second key is to defend like your lives depend on it. Again, St. Mary’s schedule has been somewhat of a walk in the park outside of Gonzaga, but credit to them, they’ve taken that walk and looked great along their way. However, VCU will be just the second top-35 defense St. Mary’s has played all season. They are 0-3 against the other (Gonzaga). SMC managed just 61 points and 37.7% shooting against a Dayton team (No.45 in adjusted defensive efficiency) playing without their two best bigs. Also worth watching is the turnover count for St. Mary’s. VCU is one of just two top-40 turnover defenses SMC has played this season. The other, Loyola Marymount, forced 19 turnovers in one loss to St. Mary’s and 13 in the other. That Lions team doesn’t defend anywhere close to VCU’s level however when they aren’t turning teams over (sub-230 in 2p% and 3p% D).
ST. MARY’S WINS IF
Look, these guys take close to half of their shots from three (41%, close enough), so when those things are falling there’s not a ton you can do. We saw exactly what that looked like in the first half of VCU’s A-10 title game against Rhody as well as earlier in the season against a red-hot first half for the Fordham Rams (six first half threes and a stunning 12-point lead back in a stunning January loss). The Rams have to close out on shooters, which basically means everyone on the court. But St. Mary’s will spread you out with all those shooters then dice you up inside the arc where they rank eighth in the country in two-point field goal percentage. So basically if the Gaels can methodically get open shots like they’ve done all season, they can present a long night in Salt Lake for the black and gold. Defensively St. Mary’s will have to defend that rim because the Rams are going to attack it. VCU’s shot selection is incredibly similar to that of the Gonzaga team that just completed a 3-0 season sweep of St. Mary’s, so if the Gaels can’t protect the rim, they will be on the receiving end of a first round upset in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Kenpom: 65-59 VCU loss with just a 29% chance of a Rams victory.
Game tips at 7:20PM ET at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah
Watch: TBS, Official game day headquarters are Baja Bean Co. in the Fan and Buffalo Wild Wings locations at Virginia Center and downtown on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom.
Listen: Fox Sports 910 AM & 98.5 FM
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation