We all know the story by now.
Shaka Smart’s scrappy VCU team was a questionable addition to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, finding their way into the play-in game, before putting together one of the most memorable runs in tournament history. The Rams won five straight games over power conference foes, making their way to the Final Four before finally seeing their run end at the hands of the nation’s preeminent cinderella in Butler.
VCU lost four starters off of that team, but the Fighting Shakas have once again found their way into the tournament, winning 16 of their 17 games as they earned the CAA’s automatic bid with a win over Drexel in the tournament final.
Is there more magic to be had?
Well, I’m not so sure.
The Rams play the same style that they did last season, but this is a different team. They don’t shoot the three nearly as well as they did last year for a number of different reasons. The biggest reason for that drop-off? Beyond the simple fact that the senior that graduated were better shooters than the young guys that filled their roles, without Jamie Skeen in the lineup, VCU doesn’t have a big man that can step out and knock down a three. Juvonte Reddic is a terrific player, but his effectiveness offensively doesn’t stretch that far away from the rim.
What VCU does do effectively this season is play the “havoc” defense that Smart as become known for. They press, and they do it very well, leading the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage. This gets them quite a few baskets, but the problem with running a pressing defensive system as a mid-major team is that it relies heavily on having better athletes. Once you get matched up with a team from a bigger conference, a team that is similar athletically, you can run into some trouble.
That is precisely the reason that Dick Bennett, the former UW-Green Bay head coach, altered his defensive philosophy from that of a pressuring defense to the Pack-Line defense his son, Tony, currently runs at Virginia.
Throw in the fact that VCU’s first round opponent, Wichita State, is a veteran laden group that is adept at protecting the ball (47th nationally in turnover percentage) and it is easy to understand why VCU is not as trendy of a pick as you would have thought before the bracket was released.
That said, Joe Ragland and Demetric Williams, WSU’s starting back court, can be turnover prone. And the Shockers don’t have the kind of athleticism that will blow you away.
We’ve picked against the Rams before, and it back-fired. Just be aware that while the jersey and the head coach may be the same, VCU is a very different team than the one that made the Final Four a year ago.