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March 31, 2011
What the Heck Happened
VCU

by Drew Cannon

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There are two things I want to write about today. They are both about VCU, and they were both inspired by Seth Davis. The first one came to me courtesy of Davis's Twitter feed:

I'd love to see @kenpomeroy do a broad statistical analysis of how much better VCU is playing in the tourney vs the regular season.

Me too, but, in the meantime, here's mine.

VCU then and now
Offensive and defensive efficiency vs. opponent efficiency

                     Opponents'       PPP      Opponents' 
            PPP    Defensive Eff.   Allowed  Offensive Eff.
Pre-NCAA    1.08       1.04           1.02        0.99
NCAA        1.13       0.90           0.94        1.11

Three of the four factors on Pomeroy's site have sharply improved from the Rams' season numbers, and one of them is offensive free throw rate -- which in all likelihood is simply a function of them getting fouled at the end of all these tournament blowouts. Turnovers are down, but virtually the entire difference there is due to a startlingly low six percent turnover rate against Purdue. The other difference is a chasm: opponents' effective FG percentage has dropped from 51 percent pre-Selection Sunday to just 43 percent in the tournament.

Here's VCU's real secret: They own the three-point line now. Their two-point defense, just like seemingly everything else the Rams are doing statistically, is slightly better despite the tougher schedule. But their opponents, who, respectively, shot 35, 35, 36, 33, and 38 percent on their threes this year, have shot 11, 19, 32, 37, and nine percent against Shaka Smart's team in the tournament. The Rams gave up 34 percent shooting from long range all season long. Over the last five games, that number's down to 23 percent.

And it didn't get mentioned two paragraphs ago because VCU's two-point percentage has dropped enough to nearly cancel out the difference, but, as John Gasaway has mentioned in multiple locations, their three-point shooting has spiked as well -- going from 36 percent during the year to 44 percent in the tournament. They're shooting threes more often in the tournament, as well.

On offense, the spikes have been from Bradford Burgess (who has gone from shooting 40 percent to 59 percent), Jamie Skeen (40 to 50), and Brandon Rozzell (39 to 49). And if you drop Burgess's opening round 0-for-4, he's 13-of-18 (72 percent) from deep since.

As for the defense? Well, let's look at who's been successful and who hasn't thus far, and see if anything sticks out.

Austin Freeman, Georgetown: 0-7
Donte Smith, USC: 0-6
Chris Wright, Georgetown: 0-6
Tyrel Reed, Kansas: 1-7
D.J. Byrd, Purdue: 1-5
Heights: 6-3, 5-11, 6-1, 6-3, 6-5

Deividas Dulkys, Florida State: 2-4
Michael Snaer, Florida State: 3-6
Hollis Thompson, Georgetown: 4-6
Ryne Smith, Purdue: 6-8
Heights: 6-5, 6-5. 6-7, 6-3

The only player over 6-3 on the bad-shooting list (Byrd) only shot 33 percent from long for the year, and the only one under 6-5 on the good-shooting list (Smith) shot 44 percent. This is probably nothing, but I couldn't find anything interesting that separates the two groups any more clearly.

On whether VCU should have received a bid in the first place
This week Davis argued that VCU's run doesn't prove they should have received a bid, just like Louisville's lack of tournament success doesn't prove they shouldn't have been invited. I read the column, agreed with almost all of it, and then moved on with my day. And then I suddenly realized that everyone talking about this has been missing the point entirely.

Butler makes sense to me. That's what a Cinderella story looks like. Win on a buzzer beater, win after insane decision-making, win by just holding off an under-athletic No. 4 seed, win an overtime thriller. Crazy stuff happens. If you told me you don't think Butler's one of the 25 best teams in the country, today, I wouldn't argue with you. Do they deserve to be in the Final Four? Absolutely. And I would be a less happy person if they weren't there.

But VCU bothers me. If you told me you don't think the Rams are one of the 25 best teams in the country, right now, I would most certainly argue with you. No, they would not have been in my personal 68-team field on Selection Sunday. (Although if you think I won't milk my highest-of-anyone-but-Shaka-himself preseason rating of the Rams for all it's worth, you're crazy). Everyone is right. Their recent performance shouldn't change whether they deserved the spot that day. We have, however, long ago passed the point where it makes any sense at all to argue that they are not one of the 37 best teams who didn't win their conference tournament.

This is where everyone is missing the point. The question should no longer be, "Should VCU be in the tournament field?" It should be, "Why on earth didn't everyone agree they should be there in the first place?"

Crazy things happen, sure. Wildly improbable things happen every day. But, in a world where statisticians are willing to take five percent unlikelihood as a standard of proof, that 0.03 percent next to VCU and the Final Four in the pre-tourney log5 tables looks mighty small. Especially when we ask ourselves what the likelihood is of the Rams, as considered by the current ratings, cruising through four of their five games on the way there. I was surprised when Butler beat Florida, and I didn't even think Florida was that good. I wasn't surprised when VCU beat Kansas, and I thought Kansas was awesome.

This is the part where I make sure everyone reading this article understands that I think the Pomeroy ratings are the best around, and it's not especially close.

And this is the part where I end this article without any answers whatsoever. I'm not sure what, exactly, we're missing. I just know that, somehow, we need to make certain we're consistently catching the VCUs of the world, and that, right now, the way the committee does what it does the Rams were awfully close to being left out.

Drew Cannon is a college student and a contributor to Basketball Prospectus.

Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Drew by clicking here or click here to see Drew's other articles.

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