Justin on basketball: “It might be that my American sports brain has adapted only to natively handle discrete sports, warming to continuous ones only slowly.”
Every year at this time it takes me a while to get into basketball.
It might be that I didn’t grow up in or around an NBA city. We have the Braves in Richmond, and we have the racetrack. Many of us have adopted the Redskins from DC, especially if the formative years of your sports consciousness involved Redskins winning championships.
It might be that my American sports brain has adapted only to natively handle discrete sports, warming to continuous ones only slowly. Football and baseball are turn-based. Between every play and every pitch I get to think about what’s coming next. After months of languid baseball and the metronomic precision of the play-clock in football, it’s tough for me to get used to even a sport with as many pauses in the action as basketball.
It might be a reaction to my days as a player, when I felt betrayed by my own body. I was a decent center when I was fourteen, because I was the only 6’0” fourteen year old on the court. But that was as tall as I’d get. At sixteen, six feet is nothing if you want to play center. So I quit.
But just about the time of the conference tournaments, I’m ready. It helps if there’s a Virginia team in the NCAA tournament, and this year we’re in danger of going without. But I think that’s unlikely. Let’s take a stats-heavy look around at the three Virginia teams with the best look at a trip to the NCAAs.
Virginia Commonwealth University
The VCU Rams are off to an excellent season again, making me glad as heck that Billy Donovan didn’t bolt to the pros. This is a defense minded team that is not letting their opponents get off good shots, particularly at the perimeter. Maybe the CAA has some spectacularly poor three point shooters, but VCU currently #1 in the nation at 3-point-shooting defense.
On the defensive side of the ball, special mention goes to 6’9” freshman Larry Sanders, who, so far this season, has blocked 19.7% of the opposing team’s shots while he was on the court. Even though he’s only averaging just over 16 minutes a game, that’s still monstrous. Nobody else in the nation that plays any more gets a hand on even 18% of the other team’s shots.
If one of their out-of-conference losses to excellent teams like Miami or Arkansas hadn’t gotten away from them, they’d be a lock for the NCAA tournament based on what they’ve done so far. It looks to me as though they have a little more work to do to get in. But with the top seed in the CAA tournament waiting for them at Coliseum Will Call booth, those last few wins won’t be too tough to come by.
The Hokies have been teasing us all season long. With four tantalizing three-game-winning streaks, the team with the 316th most experience out of 341 Division I teams has seemed like it could sustain a high level of performance. Then things would sputter out.
Virginia Tech is also a defensive minded team, not giving up the easy shot, blocking a high percentage of their opponents’ shots (13.9%, not as many as VCU, but it’s probably a bit tougher to block shots in the ACC), and crashing the defensive glass (their opponents are only grabbing 29.2% of the available offensive rebounds, and only 28 defenses in the nation allow fewer). On the offensive end they do take a slightly higher than average number of free throws, but that may be because they’re in the bottom half of the country when it comes to free throw shooting.
But the real story is their youth. Six freshmen compete for 54% of the minutes played, with only one senior suiting up. This team is going to be ferocious as they gain experience (and as they learn how to shoot foul shots), but they may not be there yet.
Even with 9 ACC wins they’re still not quite on the NCAA bubble because of a glaring 0-5 record against the RPI top 50, but a big upset or two in the next few weeks is well within their reach and would just about put a bow on their tournament resume.
Here’s a team with a consistency problem. Mason has the worst two losses and the best two wins of any of the three teams in this article. First, the good news: the Patriots beat Dayton, before Dayton rattled off a 13 game winning streak including their destruction of Pitt. George Mason also beat Kansas State, a decent Big 12 team that just happens to have this year’s likely Player of the Year, Michael Beasley (who just happened to get into foul trouble in that game).
But Mason also lost to currently-six-and-sixteen East Carolina, along with a two-point decision to CAA bottom-dweller Georgia State. They’ve managed to beat VCU, but so has every other team in Virginia (four of VCU’s six losses have come to Mason, Madison, Hampton, and ODU).
Statistically, George Mason is a better offensive team. They don’t turn the ball over and make their shots, with a 2-point FG average of 52.1%. They’re good on the defensive glass, but don’t get many steals.
Currently, Mason is riding a seven-game alternation streak, where they haven’t won or lost two games in a row since a three-game win streak early in February. And the losses weren’t to particularly great teams: NC Wilmington, ODU, Ohio University. Alternating your wins and your losses is a great way to get bounced early from the CAA tournament and not invited to the NCAAs. But I don’t think any of us who watched it will ever forget their crazy run to the final four, and as long as Larranaga has a decent team to coach, I can’t count them out.