What to expect: 2,239 miles and a shot at #12 Stephen F. Austin

#12 Stephen F. Austin has earned plenty attention as a potential upset over #5 VCU, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt the doubters.

  • What: #5 VCU (26-8, 12-4) vs. #12 Stephen F. Austin (31-2, 18-0)
  • Where: Viejas Arena (San Diego, CA)
  • When: Friday, March 21st at 7:27 PM
  • Watch: Tru TV
  • Listen: Rams Radio

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For a school-record fourth consecutive year, Virginia Commonwealth University is going dancing in the NCAA Tournament. The Rams face the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. #12-#5 upset pick, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt the doubters.

The Rundown

Any team that is 31-2 and has won 28 games in a row deserves serious respect. The Lumberjacks have established a culture of winning that deserves a #12 seed and deserves national recognition, but outside of an abundances of tallies in the win column, Stephen F. Austin hasn’t shown much to suggest they are a serious threat to upset the Rams.

The reality is, every other five seed in the tourney would willingly trade for VCU’s matchup. If you’re VCU, you look at #5 Cincinnati playing #12 Harvard, #5 Oklahoma playing #12 NDSU, and #5 Saint Louis playing #12 NC State, and you pause for a moment of gratitude before getting to work and taking care of business.

For VCU this is a cake and eat it too situation. The Rams get the advantage of being a #5 seed and the additional motivation of being doubted. For a skilled motivator like Coach Smart, the doubters are serving up bulletin board material on a gold (and black) platter.

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This is all said repeatedly knocking on wood–this is March, expect the unexpected. Friday is a good reminder of how much has changed since Rob Brandenberg, Juvonte Reddic, and Shaka Smart entered their first NCAA Tournament just three years ago in Dayton.

Expectations were so monumentally low that aggressive, confident, and loose looked natural. Ten tournament games, a 7-3 record, and one Final Four later everything has changed. VCU is playing just its second game in the modern era as a favorite, and anything less than a win against a lower seed would be a severe disappointment for the team that basically rewrote the book on Cinderella.

In their first experience as a favorite, the Rams set the tournament record for margin of victory over a twelve seed with an 88-42 route of Akron in 2013. Tightness and nerves were clearly not a problem. The Rams need to enter Friday with the same balance between eagerness and business as usual–because for VCU, the Second Round, where Coach Smart is 3-0, is becoming business as usual.

Despite the loss of Melvin Johnson and Sunday’s loss to Saint Joseph’s, Coach Smart has his team playing their best basketball in March. Briante Weber, Treveon Graham, Rob Brandenberg, and Mo Alie-Cox all have positive momentum heading into the tournament.

Weber showed never before seen parts of his game against Richmond and George Washington. Treveon Graham’s 3-point shot has returned, and he’s scored 14+ points in his last six games. Rob Brandenberg is also knocking down 3-pointers, and he scored 18 points on Sunday. Finally, Mo Alie-Cox had a dominant weekend. He tallied 20 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, and blocked six shots in 59 minutes. He has 50 pounds on any Lumberjack and could be the Rams’ X-factor.

The only player without momentum is Juvonte Reddic who scored 16 total points on 7-of-21 shooting in three games in Brooklyn. VCU’s ceiling will likely be decided by which #15 shows up and the Rams’ ability to hit shots. One of those is decided before the tip-off.

5 Numbers

In November, SFA lost to East Tennessee State University. The Buccaneers rank 238th on KenPom. VCU hasn’t lost to a team outside the top 100 since 2/14/2012 when they lost to #107 George Mason. While marginally improved, VCU beat ETSU 109-58 last season when Troy Daniels happened.

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VCU’s strength of schedule ranks 27th according to Jerry Palm while Stephen F. Austin ranks 297th. Here are both teams’ wins divided up based on two popular metrics:

Opponent Ken Pomeroy Rankings

While Ken Pomeroy does not consider his system a ranking, the data is useful for slicing teams into large chunks.

1-50 0-1 4-6
51-100 0-0 7-2
101-150 1-0 8-0
151-200 9-0 4-0
201-250 4-1 4-0
251-300 6-0 0-0
300+ 11-0 0-0

Opponent RPI

While I am not advocating the RPI’s accuracy it is at least useful for slicing the teams into large chunks.

1-50 0-1 5-5
51-100 0-0 6-2
101-150 4-0 3-1
151-200 7-0 8-0
200+ 18-1 4-0

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Eleven of the Lumberjacks’ 28 straight victories have been decided by 10 or fewer points. Stats like these have been interpreted many different ways. Maybe SFA has a particular knack for closing games. Maybe SFA has been lucky and on the right side of all of the close games. Either way, their three point victory over High Point and two point victories over Incarnate World and Northwestern State aren’t signs of an elite team.

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SFA ranks 342nd in effective height. Size isn’t everything. VCU went to the Final Four and has found plenty of success playing small ball. Kansas’s Morris twins, Thomas Robinson, and Jeff Withey probably all salivated at the notion of facing up against 6-foot-9 Jamie Skeen and 6-foot-5 Bradford Burgess.

That being said, SFA is woefully undersized. Their starting front-court is 6-foot-6, 210 pounds and 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and lacks the mobility and perimeter skills to burn VCU like Skeen or Burgess burned Kansas. SFA isn’t particularly good in transition where teams can outrun size disadvantages, and the Lumberjacks’ haven’t been practicing against talented front-courts like 2011 GMU or 2011 ODU all season.

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March is VCU’s Month. Despite playing their most difficult opponents in March because of tournaments, Coach Smart is an incredible 28-8. All eight of those losses are to teams that made the NCAA Tournament with three coming against conference champions, one against a Sweet 16 team, and two against teams that lost in the National Championship Games. The average KenPom ranking of those teams is 22.6 and three of the last four were in the top 16.

The Team

Brad Underwood is in his first year of coaching but he’s had a strong senior core to help him accomplish a .939 winning percentage. The Lumberjacks have started the same five players in all 33 games this season, and their unity on the court is apparent at first glance.

On offense, the Lumberjacks make even UVA look slow. They run plenty of action with very few screens and all five players in motion, and it has been successful all season. They have nice balance from all over the court, they don’t turn the ball over, and they rank 11th nationally in offensive rebounding.

They play man-to-man defense and the matchup has caught headlines because they rank 3rd in defensive turnover percentage, a stat in which VCU leads the nation. While the Lumberjacks do put tons of pressure on the ball in the half-court they don’t actually steal the ball very often and Eastern Kentucky-VCU was a much more interesting matchup in terms of thievery. They are also deft rebounders, but they simply haven’t faced anyone like Juvonte Reddic all season.

The Star: #34 Jacob Parker

14.2 PPG (134-245 2PFG, 19-42 3PFG), 7.1 RPG, 2 ASP, 1.4 SPG

Parker recently took home the Southland Player of the Year award after an impressive junior campaign. He is very skilled on the offensive glass where he earns plenty of second chance points, and he has a few moves around the basket. Second chance points and drawing fouls are huge keys to pulling off upsets, Parker excels at both.

Supporting Cast

#10 Trey Pinkney (PG, Sophomore) • He’s able to get his teammates involved but he is 5-foot-9, moderately quick, isn’t a big scorer, and has a turnover rate of 35.2.

#25 Desmond Hayman (G, Senior) • He’s the Lumberjacks’ leading and most explosive scorer. He had a 27 point game on Friday in addition to 30 and 36 point performances earlier in the season.

#0 Thomas Walkup (G, Sophomore) • At times, Walkup is the Lumberjacks’ most talented player. He is extremely efficient at putting the basketball in the basket.

#4 Nikola Gajic (F, Senior) • Gajic does it all. He’s a solid senior forward, despite being undersized, who can rebound, block shots, steal the ball at a very high rate, pass, score in the paint, and step out and hit 3-pointers. He is a skilled 3-point shooter but can also get to the rim.

#3 Deshaunt Walker (G, Senior) • Walker is an excellent catch and shoot player. Coming off of the bench, he attempt plenty of shots including 3-pointers where he is 76-of-201 on the season. The Rams have excelled at 3-point defense but Langston Galloway and Nemanja Mikic were able to hit big shots against VCU. Eliminating Walker will be important to avoiding the upset.

The Prediction

Crazy things happen in March. Just three years ago VCU was considered an afterthought, and VCU fans took every win as a gift from the basketball gods. Now VCU is a perennial favorite trying to stave off the mystical powers of March. Expect VCU to win by somewhere between 3 points (sorry, Wichita State) and 46 points (sorry, Akron). KenPom picks VCU to win 70-65 with a 72% chance of victory.

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Stephen F. Austin Profile

  • Location: Nacogdoches, Texas
  • Enrollment: 13,000
  • Conference: Southland
  • All time series: 0-0
  • Last meeting: N/A

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Aaron Williams

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

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