Virginia Commonwealth 94, Purdue 76
(1.36 points per possession to 1.10 on 69 possessions per team)
There's no way to know for sure, but you figure the majority of hoops-mad tournament fans tuning in to the Purdue-Virginia Commonwealth game on Sunday were pulling for the Rams. They're a great story, the underdog, very likable, charismatic--all that. At the United Center, however, the sentiment was decidedly in Purdue's favor. The NCAA's pod system was at work in Chicago, with the quasi-local Boilermakers, as well as Notre Dame in the second game, both enjoying the energy of scores of loyal rooters. It was just another obstacle for Shaka Smart and company to overcome. Like the other hurdles the Rams have faced recently, they went flying over it.
"I didn't think we would score this easily," said Smart, after his team put up 52 points in the second half. "I'm kind of a loss for words because I don't think it's a reflection on Purdue so much as it's a reflection on our guys. I didn't think it would be this easy but at the same time, I know what our guys have inside."
Remember my musings about Purdue finding its Third Man? And how I said there wouldn't be one Third Man but a series of them, if Purdue were to go deep into the tournament? At the 13-minute mark of the first half, Ryne Smith looked like more than a sidecar on the E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson motorcyle. He looked like the go-to guy. VCU was overplaying the Boilermakers' dynamic duo, holding them to one combined field goal attempt in the early going. Meanwhile, Smith got loose a couple of times on the weakside, caught fire, and before you knew it, he had 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting. Before Purdue had even flexed its star muscle, they were off to a five-point advantage. Smith, who entered the game with the second-highest offensive rating in the country, had reached double figures once in Purdue's last 17 games. He got there in seven minutes on Sunday and finished with 20 points on nine shots.
Moore and Johnson went to work, but VCU hung tough. The fact that Purdue doesn't pound the offensive glass helped the Rams avoid one of their typical pitfalls. Of course, VCU's defense revolves around pressure and steals, but Purdue is one of the nation's stingiest teams when it comes to protecting the ball. It was an interesting clash of styles and 15 minutes into the game, it all sort of canceled out. VCU hadn't gotten hot from the outside, but was doing surprisingly well in the paint. The Rams led 28-24 with five minutes to go in the half after Bradford Burgess hit a corner three, his (and the team's) second trey of the contest.
After a timeout, we got to see Smart's brand of basketball in its full glory. Purdue's slashing point guard Lewis Jackson drove the left side of the lane and tried for a scoop. It was summarily rejected by Burgess, who flew over from the weak side. VCU broke out, with Brandon Rozzell taking the pass just beyond half court, with one Purdue defender back and two other Rams filling the lanes. Rozzell simply rose from the left wing and buried a three. The one section of VCU fans were rocking. The several thousand Boilermaker fans were sitting quietly, scratching their heads and dreaming of Joe Barry Carroll. VCU led 36-24 after Rozzell kept the momentum rolling with another three after a Matt Painter timeout.
VCU grabbed 15 of its first 16 opportunities off of the defensive glass. Purdue got some offensive rebounds in the second half, but at that point the game had been scrambled. Early, Purdue was not getting second shots and was also giving up points in transition. A nasty combo. The tally at the half was 42-32 Rams, who were putting up 1.20 points per possession on a .556 eFG%. They were winning on the boards, in the paint, in transition and had a 16-1 edge on points off the bench. What else is there?
How about an even better half.
At the beginning of the second half, Purdue got rolling on offense, with Johnson going to work in the lane and D.J. Byrd hitting a three. The problem was at the other end. VCU was attacking the paint, with jitterbug point guard Joey Rodriguez getting in the lane time and again, then dishing off to rolling screeners or big men stepping in from the baseline. VCU attempted just one three in the first five minutes of the second half, but had put 14 points on the scoreboard, of which 12 came in the painted area. For the game to that point, VCU held a 30-12 edge in the paint, and led 56-44 before Painter called his troops over for a chat. After the timeout, Moore missed a jumper for Purdue, then Rodriguez simply rose up and drilled a straight-on 24-footer, giving VCU its biggest lead of the game.
The onslaught continued. Purdue was continually beaten by cutters and even when Painter did get a stop, VCU was chasing down the long rebound and reversing the ball around, where an open shooter like Burgess was waiting with itchy fingertips. The lead stretched to 19, 65-46 and later reached 20. The Rams were basically getting anything they wanted on offense and, with Moore still yet to get going, Purdue just didn't have the firepower to match. After the game, Smart credited Ed Nixon for the bulk of the effort to contain Moore.
"They were very good tonight, and we were very bad on the defensive end," said Painter. "You've got to stop layups and work you're way out, and they just exposed us. Seventy-six points should be enough to win, but if you're going give up 94--we were telling (our players) for awhile that if you don't (get it together), they're going to score 100 points on you."
With VCU holding steady at about 1.3 points per possession, it was up to the Purdue offense to close the gap. Smith, having a career night, broke loose and drilled back-to-back threes. Moore then stepped into the lane and picked off a pass, missed the layup, but Johnson was there for the follow. VCU called timeout, still up 69-56, but the Boilermakers were showing signs of life. Painter extended his defense to full-court pressure, but VCU has players that can handle the ball at every position. The lay-up drill continued and the lead jumped back to 19. And that's where it stayed.
VCU advanced to the Sweet 16 by a comfortable margin, racking up 48 points in the paint and dominating the Boilermakers in every way a team can be dominated. Do they run the pick-and-roll in the Big Ten? It certainly looked like Purdue had never encountered that obscure offensive strategy before. VCU exploited the Boilermaker defense with simple ball screens on what seemed like every possession of the second half. (After the game, Painter said the breakdown came because Purdue's help defenders on the weakside wouldn't leave their perimeter assignment, though that's exactly what they're coach to do.) Moore scored late in the game to finally reach double figures. Johnson put up a respectable double-double on offense, but wasn't able to protect the rim on defense. VCU rolled up 94 points against a defense that hadn't allowed more than 87 all season and had given up more than 70 just three teams.
"It was probably as good a job as we did all year sharing the basketball, led by Joey," said Smart.
Smart said Johnson was the target for the Rams at the offensive end.
"It was a combination of the way we've been playing and also that Johnson wanted to play the whole game," said Smart. "He's only had 50-some fouls this year, so you know he wants to stay on the floor. We wanted to go at him."
"It becomes somewhat of a snowball effective in there, you think once you get some, you can keep getting them."
For Purdue, the loss brings an end to the fine careers of Johnson and Moore, both of whom seem to have been in West Lafayette since the Nixon administration.
"You want those guys to go out with a bang," Painter said. "They deserve better than this, but so do a lot of seniors across the country. They are two classy guys that have worked hard and it's unfortunate that it's got to come to an end."
VCU was 29-off-44 inside the arc (and 8-of-21 behind it) and held a 29-5 edge in bench points against the short-handed Boilermakers. Even though Purdue tried to ratchet up the pressure on the ball for much of the second half, VCU finished with 26 assists and four turnovers. Rodriguez had 11 assists and zero turnovers. I could go on all night with these numbers.
The Rams have now knocked off the Pac-10, the Big East and the Big Ten in the last few days. If Florida State knocks off Notre Dame in the night's second game, they'll get a shot at the ACC. And, of course, the Big 12's Kansas likely awaits in the regional final. By the time the Rams are finished, they may have every major conference in their hip pocket. Why not? Right now, anything is possible for Shaka Smart.
Painter marveled over the transformation the Rams have made this season.
"You see them earlier this season, they didn't look anything like what you saw out there (tonight)," Painter said. "You look at other parts of the season and they literally looked like they could be any team in the country. On a neutral floor, they can beat any team in the country. They are a championship caliber team. You just saw a glimpse of a team that can make even a deeper run in the NCAA tournament."
Several of the postgame questions directed at Smart centered around that fact, that they lost 11 games yet suddenly look invincible.
"Anybody can beat anybody," said Smart.
That's just the way basketball works. We're not out there coaching robots.
"The biggest key is to get to this time of the year playing your best basketball and that's what this group is doing."
One thing that Smart is not doing any longer at this point is playing the disrespect card.
"That was more of a factor earlier this week, now it's just a matter of our guys realizing how good they can be," said Smart. "This time of the year, you know that if you lose, you're done. Our guys have made a conscious decision that they don't want to be done.
"When we started the year, we gave our team a motto: Our time. Right now. The purpose of that motto was for our players to understand that Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders are in the NBA. This is your team. The last couple of weeks has really sunk their teeth into living that motto."
Suddenly Richmond, Va., has become the capital of the Southwest Region. One more VCU upset combined with one more Richmond upset would set up an all-Richmond regional final.
"Richmond is a great basketball town," said Smart. "It's going to be buzzing."
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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