College hoops powerhouses, beware: VCU’s back in the Big Dance. And there’s no debate about it this year.
The Rams held off Drexel 59-56 in the CAA tournament final Monday night, clinching the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and avoiding any drama on Selection Sunday. Last year, the Rams were one of the last teams given an at-large bid and played in the First Four before making an historic run to the Final Four.
“It’s great,” senior Bradford Burgess said. “Last year those six days after the championship were pretty rough for us not knowing what we were going to do. Now we can sit back and chill and relax and watch some basketball.”
Not that the CAA final didn’t have some drama.
VCU (28-6) used its pressure defense to make a 23-10 run over the final 10 minutes of the first half for a 16-point lead at the break. But Drexel (27-6), the CAA’s regular-season champs, slowly crept back into the game thanks to better ball-handling, some better shooting (star Damion Lee scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half) and some missed VCU free throws in the final minutes.
The Dragons cut it into a one-possession game, but VCU junior guard Troy Daniels hit two free throws with 11.9 seconds remaining, forcing them to try a 3-pointer for the tie. It missed, VCU batted around the loose ball and that was it.
Daniels finished with 11, while Darius Theus had a career-high 16 points and five steals.
The Rams have now won 17 of their 18 games and epitomize the word “hot” as the tournament rolls around. Their defense – no team forces turnovers at a higher rate – ensures they’ll be a handful no matter which team draws them to start.
And if a team avoids VCU, the Dragons won’t be any easier. Provided the NCAA seeding committee makes the correct call and places Drexel in the 68-team field, it’s a team capable of making the Sweet 16.
After all, this is a team that hadn’t lost since Jan. 2, a school-record run of 19 consecutive wins. It’d played a relatively soft schedule, but its on-court performance makes it worthy of inclusion. If the committee does so, it’ll certainly be the right move. CAA teams have shown as much in the past.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ask VCU coach Shaka Smart. He knows a thing or two about who belongs in.
“There’s no doubt that they’re an NCAA tournament team,” he said.
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