Earlier this month I wondered if, in terms of at-large selection, the single most important game of the college basketball season may have been Virginia Commonwealth's surprisingly decisive 79-63 win over George Mason in the CAA tournament semifinals. I now realize this is clearly incorrect. Before they made it that far the Rams had to win in the quarterfinals -- and Shaka Smart's team very nearly lost. If not for VCU's 62-60 win over Drexel on March 5, we wouldn't be talking about this team right now.
That's a pretty amazing thought now that we've seen what the Rams can do, up to and including dismantling a very good Purdue team by the score of 94-76. Could a team this good really have been sent to the NIT? You bet. The margin between the Sweet 16 and not even getting into the tournament can be very thin indeed.
Of course the VCU's far from the first CAA team to demonstrate that double-digit seeds can be dangerous. In fact the parallels to George Mason in 2006 are pretty insistent. The Rams made it one round further in the CAA tournament this month than did the Patriots five years ago (Jim Larranaga's team lost in the semifinals that year), but otherwise the two teams' stories track each other pretty well. Both received a rare and precious commodity seldom glimpsed outside the major conferences: an at-large bid. Both saw their inclusion in the tournament field criticized immediately on national TV as soon as the brackets were unveiled. Both promptly set about defeating major-conference opponents in the tournament: Mason beat Michigan State and North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16; VCU has defeated not only the Boilermakers but also USC and Georgetown.
Nevertheless we do Smart's team a disservice if we merely slap a "this year's George Mason" on them. For one thing the Rams have executed a truly remarkable turnaround. Just three short weeks ago you could have lumped this team in with other late-season under-performers like Missouri and Villanova. Over their last eight regular season games VCU went just 3-5, a record that included a 20-point loss at home to, you guessed it, George Mason. This most certainly did not look like a team that would be playing deep into March, at least not in the NCAA tournament.
But, my, how times have changed. Maybe the key moment came earlier this month when Smart walked into practice with a calendar, ripped out the month of February, and burned it to pieces in front of his team. Whatever the reason, VCU is now a completely different team. In advance of their game against Florida State on Friday night, here's what you need to know about the new-look Rams:
VCU does what it takes.
Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess are having a great March.
Is it the Rams' offense that's propelled them into the Sweet 16, or is it their defense? The correct answer would be: Yes. If you ask USC, they'll tell you about a swarming D that held first-team All-Pac-10 performer Nikola Vucevic to just three made shots. The Trojans mustered just 46 points in 59 possessions in that game. But if you ask Purdue, they'll probably marvel at the efficiency with which VCU rang up points against the Big Ten's best defense. Smart's team needed just 66 possessions to put up 94 points on the Boilers. The Rams have shown they know a number of different ways to advance in the bracket.
Skeen has performed at a high level all year long, mind you, but in the postseason he's been even better. In VCU's last six games, the 6-9 senior has made 57 percent of his twos and 53 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Meanwhile the last time we saw Burgess he was lighting up Purdue for 23 points on just 12 shots. For the year the 6-6 junior is connecting on 40 percent of his threes. It's no mistake that VCU's made it this far. Smart has the weapons to score some points.
The perimeter belongs to the Rams.
Even Sweet 16 teams have certain areas where they can improve, of course, and for the Rams that area is called the paint. This is not a particularly good two-point shooting team. In the tournament the Rams have made 47 percent of their twos, while allowing opponents to connect on 53 percent of their attempts inside the arc. But on the perimeter Smart's team has been so dominant it's not fair. Over the last three games VCU has made 41 percent of their threes. Opponents? They're shooting just 23 percent from the perimeter. Basically every three-point shot, whether by the Rams or by the other team, has been good news for VCU.
It's the wave of the future: Zero-turnover basketball
At the risk of sounding too obvious, before a team can score points it has to have the ball. And if the declining turnover rates that we see in college basketball are any indication, teams are catching onto the fact that fewer turnovers translates directly into more points. Look at VCU. In 187 possessions in the NCAA tournament the Rams have committed just 19 turnovers. Over those three games they've shot pretty well from the field, but it's the fact that they've ended 90 percent of their tournament possessions with a shot that really puts pressure on opposing defenses. For the most part those defenses have buckled under that pressure: in their three tournament wins VCU's averaging 1.21 points per possession.
Shaka Smart is a 30-something head coach at a mid-major that's reached the Sweet 16, so it goes without saying that his name's being mentioned for openings at major-conference programs. Little wonder. In just seven days VCU went from bubble team to dominant team -- no tournament opponent's even come with 12 points of the Rams. We can't know if Smart will be back in Richmond next season, but at minimum he's shown he can make a struggling team suddenly catch fire.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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