VCU Likely Crushes Richmond’s NCAA Dreams, Bolsters Hopes of March Success

Posted by Lathan Wellls on March 7th, 2014

VCU continued to put thoughts of their three-losses-in-four-games stretch to rest Thursday night, vanquishing their city rivals from Richmond, 56-50. While the depleted Spiders didn’t appear on paper to have the manpower to match up with a Rams squad fresh off an upset of Saint Louis, it was still a rivalry game in which anything can and did happen. Richmond’s 26-22 halftime edge and 11-point lead with 15 minutes to go was enough to prove that. Still, the comeback win was encouraging and important for VCU’s push into March, and also emblematic of the reason Shaka Smart’s club becomes so dangerous come tourney time. A look into Smart’s numbers away from home and against familiar opponents while at the helm demonstrates why opponents hate to meet the Rams late in the year, no matter the game’s location.

Coach Smart's team is ridiculously successful in "return games," boding well for conference tournament play (sportsillustrated.com)

Coach Smart’s team is ridiculously successful in “return games,” boding well for conference tournament play (sportsillustrated.com)

Everyone knows about the well-documented defense that VCU employs. The attacking Havoc style has been alive and well all year long, as the Rams currently rank third in the Atlantic 10 in defense (allowing 66.0 PPG coming into the match-up with Richmond) and lead the nation in turnovers forced. The key to this team’s success, though, is in its balance. VCU also ranks second in the conference in scoring, making it the only team in the A-10 that can boast top-three rankings in both statistical categories. That means the Rams can hound their opponents to death with the full-court press, but also boast five starters averaging at least nine points per game. While Richmond’s formidable match-up zone defense had its way with Smart’s offense for the bulk of the game and there was a definite lack of impact from the bench, the frenetic pace the Rams employ and the variety of scoring options at their disposal proved vital in the second half and illustrated why they’re a scary team to meet late in the year.

The reason that VCU under Smart is so intimidating in postseason play is that they aren’t rattled away from their home base at the Siegel Center. VCU is now 5-4 against top 100 RPI teams on the road, a key reason that their slip-ups in February didn’t derail their NCAA Tournament chances. This victory puts their previous three road losses in the rear-view mirror, capping a stretch that includes a bounce-back victory over Fordham and a huge home win over Saint Louis last week. Even though the Spiders were missing leading scorer Cedrick Lindsay and power forward Derrick Williams — both of whom were lost after the previous VCU contest due to injury and personal reasons, respectively — Richmond has shown a propensity to beat good teams at home during coach Chris Mooney’s tenure. This was another important resume-booster for the Rams, which Joe Lunardi currently lists as a #7 seed in his latest Bracketology, and it effectively knocked their local rival from contention for the NCAA Tournament.

Smart’s amazing 26-6 record in games in which he’s faced a team for the second time in a season is a key statistic as to why this team contends in March. The conference tournament, on a neutral floor at Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena next week, will not deter the Rams, which bodes well for their ability to win several games there. In fact, the Rams are now one of only five teams in the entire country with more than 50 road wins since 2010-11 (Kansas, Belmont, Wichita State and Florida are the others). This is not a team that relies on a raucous home court for energy but falls flat when they have to travel. Come postseason play, a team has to be as good away from the friendly confines as it is within them, and the Rams certainly have fit the bill by proving that point under adversity in last night’s close call with the Spiders.

For Richmond, barring an unlikely run to the Atlantic 10 tournament championship, this is probably where their (very slight) bubble hopes officially burst. An NIT invitation will be the likely consolation prize, and fans can be left to wonder if they would have joined their local brethren in the Tourney if the losses of Lindsay and Williams hadn’t made their roster paper-thin and overly reliant on Kendall Anthony (roughly 38 minutes per game in A-10 competition) over the last third of the year. VCU, on the other hand, is playing aggressive, efficient basketball on both ends of the court. They’re finding ways to win even when their patented transition opportunities aren’t available, and, in the case of this match-up, their defensive catalyst in Briante Weber is saddled with foul trouble. VCU’s record when familiarity is taken into account speaks well of their ability to acquit themselves well in next week’s conference tournament, meaning this should be a very confident, dangerous basketball team coming into March Madness.

Lathan Wells (48 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.


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