March Madness: Getting back to winning

VCU comes off a disappointing A-10 championship loss, but it’s likely they’ll get back to winning in the NCAA tournament, which begins (for them) this Friday! Augh! Too exciting!

The most important data to know

10th-seeded VCU will take-on 7th-seeded Oregon State Friday afternoon in Oklahoma City. The game will be broadcast on TNT at 1:30 PM.

And now, the other stuff

This season, the Rams extended their improbable and impressive run of success at winning games and getting to the NCAA Tournament, but it’s been a few years since they won a tournament game.

“We gotta get back to winning. We haven’t won one in a couple of years.” Coach Wade

Friday will be VCU’s eighth trip in the last 10 years to the NCAA Tournament, and they’re just one of seven teams to go dancing each of the last six seasons. The consistency is remarkable –especially since four of those bids have been “at-large.”

And for years, those bids were more than tourist trips and participation trophies. There was the dagger against Duke and overtime against Pitt in 2007. There was the missed game-winner against UCLA in 2009. In 2011, the Rams won five games en route to the Final Four. In 2012, they beat the Wichita State team that was supposed to be “that year’s VCU” before giving offensive juggernaut Indiana its toughest defensive test of the season. Finally, in 2013 they set the record for
margin of victory for a team not seeded 1 or 2 by beating Akron by 46 points (a record they held for an hour).

Since then, the Rams have been upset by 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin and 10th-seeded Ohio State. Winning in March is a gift, not a privilege, but a win on Friday would cap off an incredible season while taking back the crown as March’s ultimate underdog.

Frequent flyer miles

VCU’s consistency of invitations is only exceeded by consistency of distances the Rams have been forced to travel.1

Year 2nd Round Location Roundtrip Distance
2011 Chicago 1600 miles
2012 Portland 5,400 miles
2013 Auburn Hills 1,300 miles
2014 San Diego 5,200 miles
2015 Portland 5,400 miles
2016 Oklahoma City 2,600 miles2

The top four seeds in each region get geographic preference, so VCU needs to win more games if the Rams want to guarantee games closer to home. While fans let out a collective groan, Tulsa native Korey Billbury is having a good week. He transferred from Oral Roberts so he could go to an NCAA Tournament–check. And, it’s in his back yard–bonus.

Putting Brooklyn to bed

Maybe putting Brooklyn way in the rearview mirror is exactly what VCU needs after struggling against Saint Joseph’s 87-74 Sunday afternoon. The Hawks dismantled the Rams for most of the game and the margin could have easily been greater than 20 had VCU not had six straight free-throws after Papa Ndao was ejected for yelling at a ref.

Saint Joseph’s executed a great game plan. On defense they quickly double- and triple-teamed Mo Alie-Cox on every post touch. He didn’t find any looks early and he struggled to kick it to open shooters–especially with Melvin Johnson limited to one leg.

The Hawks were even better on offense. Their unconventional big men, Isaiah Miles and Pierfrancesco Oliva, stretched the floor with their jump shots and Saint Joseph’s ran pick-and-rolls, back-door cuts, and high-low action to get layup after layup. The Hawks finished with 1.23 points per possession, 19 assists, and 72% shooting from 2-point range.

“We just gotta play better. We were just tired. We were a step slow. There are no real adjustments.” Coach Wade

It’s all about Gary Payton II

Oregon State is led by Gary Payton II, who is averaging 15.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 5.1 APG, and 2.5 SPG. Like his NBA hall-of-fame father, Payton is an exceptional defender whose quick hands are Briante Weber-esque and 6-foot-6 wingspan allows him to block shots despite his height only be ing 6-foot-2. He is a two-time Pac 12 defensive player of the year.

GP2 is also an able offensive player. He lacks a 3-point shot, but can play above the rim. He lacks height but can play all over the court–including on and off the ball. And he is a great point guard who runs what Coach Wade called, “as good of offense as we’ll see all year.” Think St. Bonaventure, but with better big men.

“I’m going to try to pick his brain after the season on some of his offensive stuff. I gotta get his cell phone number when we’re out there.”Coach Wade on Coach Tinkle

Olaf Schaftenaar, a 6-foot-10 stretch power forward who can hit the 3-pointer and do a little of everything else, is an able complement to Payton II. Their combined senior leadership has been invaluable for a team that’s talented but young.

Freshmen Stephen Thompson and Drew Eubanks are two other players to watch. Thompson is an able shooting guard averaging 16 points per game over the last four games, and Eubanks is a super athletic, 6-foot-10 center with a 32 inch standing vertical.

The Beavers, who are dancing for the first time in 26 years, finished 9-9 in the strong Pac 12 Conference, including a win over #1-seed Oregon back in January.

Getting back to winning

March is about match-ups. Just this weekend, the Rams had a favorable matchup against Davidson and won by 22 points, and they also had an unfavorable matchup with Saint Joseph’s and lost by 13 points. Friday is a favorable matchup compared to years past–and it’s on Friday which gives VCU more time to rest and Melvin Johnson more time to heal.

The Rams will be most successful if they are able to establish an early post presence with Mo Alie-Cox before allowing their perimeter to start slashing to the rim and taking corner 3-pointers. Those 3-pointers will be important when Oregon State, who switches defenses, goes zone.

On the defensive end, slowing down GP2 needs to be priority number one. Korey Billbury has gone from not really playing defense to capable defender in the course of a season, and he could see plenty of time on the Beavers’ star. But like any great player, Payton is exceptional at getting others involved when a team over commits.

Friday is a 50-50 game. Play defense and force a couple things the way of VCU, and the Rams will have a good shot at getting back to winning.


KenPom picks VCU to win 71-69 with a 41% chance of victory. FiveThirtyEight give the Rams a 73% chance of victory.

  1. Maybe this is the CAA’s cosmic way of getting back at VCU for years of the Rams getting hometown advantage in the conference tournament. 
  2. One of the defining moments of my college experience was road-tripping to Dayton and Chicago during the 2011 NCAA Tournament. I’m a little sad for VCU students right now. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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