This is the first in a new series here at March Madness All Season. “Mid-Major Madness” is simply a weekly column chronicling the small-conference sleepers that I feel have the best shot at pulling an upset or two during the NCAA Tournament. The only real criterion is that a team has to be a projected 11 seed or lower in the Big Dance and from outside the major conferences. First up: Virginia Commonwealth.
VCU was everyone’s postseason darling last year after knocking off Duke and taking Pittsburgh to overtime in the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, point guard Eric Maynor became a national sensation overnight with his late-game heroics against George Mason in the Colonial final and Duke in the first-round. The Rams lost two starters from that team, but they are still the best squad in the CAA (despite last night’s loss) and have the talent to pull another upset in March.
The success of VCU hinges on its pressure defense and high-scoring backcourt tandem. The Rams will guard the opponent all 94-feet, whether it be token man-to-man pressure early in the game or dangerous double-teams and traps in the second half. They love to force turnovers and score fast-break baskets in transition. 6-7 forward Michael Anderson guards the inbounds pass and ignites the pressure with his length and athleticism. As compared to last year, VCU doesn’t trap as much, but it still creates havoc. In the halfcourt, VCU is still a nightmare to play against. They trap more in a halfcourt setting than they do in the full-court, with constant double-team rotations to the ball, harassing the guards. The Rams defend the three-point shot better than anyone in the country and don’t allow easy shots. Anderson and 6-9 Larry Sanders alter a number of shots in the paint.
VCU was carried by its perimeter group last year, and it is much of the same this season. Maynor is back, but he has a new running mate on the wing in Jamal Shuler. The two combine to average almost 35 points per game. Maynor can get into the lane on any defender and can finish in a variety of ways, whether it is a pull-up jumper, a leaner in the lane or a lay-up around the basket. He is always under control and rarely tries to force anything, either in the halfcourt or in transition. He is playing more off the ball this season, with freshman Joey Rodriguez running the point. Shuler is a tremendous shooter who has made a great transition from sixth man to second-leading scorer. He is very strong and can also score inside the arc on leaners and mid-range jumpers. Rodriguez takes care of the ball and doesn’t try to do too much.
Up front, the big men don’t jump-out at you with their scoring numbers, but there are a variety of serviceable players who can score and rebound. In addition to Anderson and Sanders, Wil Fameni is a solid inside scorer who has struggled with injuries this season. VCU is an outstanding offensive rebounding team, and its second-chance points have made the difference in several games this season. The Rams’ depth is another major factor. In the frontcourt, Lance Kearse’s minutes fluctuate, but he has shown great inside-outside scoring potential. Kirill Pishchalnikov is very physical and doesn’t provide much in terms of stats, but he is a banger who sets picks and plays defense. Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell, who I think will be a very good PG one day due to his quickness and defensive ability, are solid freshmen in the backcourt, while forwards T.J. Gwynn and Franck Ndongo both saw key minutes last season.
VCU loses when it can’t force turnovers defensively and get transition baskets, and when it is not knocking down its three-point shots. While the Rams aren’t totally reliant on its fast-break offense, they are very solid in transition, knocking down perimeter shots and getting to the basket. An opponent needs to take care of the ball but also take advantage of mismatches once it breaks the press. Furthermore, VCU needs to get consistent inside production and offensive rebounds, or it becomes too perimeter-oriented. Teams with quality big men and rebounders can shut down their second opportunities.
Coach Anthony Grant has made an enormous impact in his first two seasons in Richmond. His team is disciplined at both ends of the floor, and they never seem to look pressured or nervous. That reflects Grant, who is usually calm on the sideline, but shows intensity when necessary. The Rams have been in the Tournament before, so they won’t be nervous on the big stage. If they get the right match-up and can come up with clutch plays late, don’t be surprised to watch another giant fall as a result of Grant, Maynor and VCU.
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