Final Four Breakdowns: VCU Rams
This team belongs!
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
There promises to be enough juicy storylines floating around Houston this week to write a book on each of your 2011 Final Four participants. But I have a blog and four days between now and when the madness resumes. Four days, four teams… sounds kind of perfect. Today’s team: VCU Rams.
Final Four History: None
Distance from Richmond to Houston: 1,158.2 miles
Quote of the Tournament: “[The George Mason run] was lightning in a bottle. These guys have won all but one game by double digits. It’s no fluke.” — CAA commissioner Tom Yeager on VCU after the Rams defeated Kansas 71-61 in Elite Eight.
|G-Joey Rodriguez||G-Brandon Rozell|
|G-Bradford Burgess||G-Darius Theus|
|F-Jamie Skeen||G-Rob Brandenberg|
|G-Ed Nixon||F-Juvonte Reddic|
Why They Are Here: Does anyone really know? Shaka may be Smart, but not even VCU’s own coach can explain how this happened. Can it really be as simple as an ultra-motivated response to the disrespect shown to VCU by the national media on Selection Sunday? No, but something certainly sparked the Rams, who, to be honest, were lucky to even make the Tournament. But just three weeks after being scrutinized as the biggest joke of any tournament team ever, VCU has made a historical Final Four run as an 11-seed, becoming the first team in tournament history to win five games en route the national semifinal (even if it is the first year of the new format, it doesn’t make the accomplishment any less remarkable).
If beating USC in the “first round” play-in game wasn’t an upset, then shellacking Georgetown and Purdue after that certainly qualifies. Then came the misfit Sweet 16 battle with Florida State, which despite being VCU’s lowest-seeded opposition of the Tournament outside of Southern Cal, proved to be the Rams’ stiffest test. And racing out to a 18-point first half lead and holding on for a double-digit win against overwhelming favorite Kansas was the most shocking performance of the entire Tournament. Whether it’s due to timely boons in chemistry, confidence, inspiration, swag, or some unprecedented combination of them all, VCU simply believes.
They Will Win on Saturday Because: Easy. VCU wins because it is easily the hottest team in the Tournament. It doesn’t matter that the Rams aren’t the most talented bunch in the Final Four (or the second most talented team). No one in the Final Four has won as convincingly as VCU. Joey Rodriguez’s floor game has controlled long stretches of games in this tournament, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell can’t miss, and this revived pressure defense that couldn’t stop anyone two months ago is bulletproof. It’s also worth mentioning that Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen just dragged Kansas’ lottery-bound Morris twins up and down the floor for 40 minutes.
The funny thing is Butler has serious momentum as well right now. But there is momentum, and then there is this maniacal wave of energy VCU is riding right now. Without discounting the play of the players themselves, if the Rams end up winning on Saturday night, give a lot of credit to Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, the catalysts of this suddenly explosive squad.
They Will Lose on Saturday Because: Final Four games are generally close. This is not a set in stone rule, but you’d be hard pressed to find too many decisive semifinal results. If history repeats itself, VCU could be in a pickle. I don’t think the Rams’ magic fairy dust will run out on Saturday. In fact, I fully expect the Rams to play well and loose like they have this entire tournament. But if the game comes down to the minutes, or even a final possession or two, all of my money is on Butler. VCU has proven it can win a close game if it needs to (Florida State), but Butler is in another stratosphere when it comes to crunch time situations. Even if VCU is leading the entire game, if Butler is within eight with five minutes to go, the Bulldogs own the mental edge. VCU’s players won’t lose any sleep over Butler’s Final Four experience or its closer’s mentality, but Butler knows it commands the final minutes. VCU can’t say the same.
Watch out for: The battle in the trenches between Jamie Skeen and Matt Howard should be fun. But their endeavors on the perimeter could be even more critical to the game’s outcome. Both players have proven throughout the Tournament that, in addition to being tenacious interior forces, they can stretch defenses and knock down open threes. Both usually exploit their quickness and skill advantage over big men who are unaccustomed to moving their feet and contesting shots outside the paint area. Skeen is the more athletic and Howard the more physical of the two, but other than that, the two tournament standouts are pretty comparable. The winner of this match-up won’t necessarily dictate the winner of the game. But both Skeen and Howard need to be on the floor for their teams to succeed, so if one is able to draw early fouls on the other, momentum and strategy could alter significantly.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.