SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 27: Rob Brandenberg #23 of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams celebrates after defeating the Kansas Jayhawks during the southwest regional final of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Alamodome on March 27, 2011 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Shaka Smart should've had his VCU basketball team fitted for a glass slipper before its flight to Houston for the Final Four. The team tailor will also have to make room for the giant chip that resides on the collective shoulders of the Virginia Commonwealth basketball program. There's no time for glad-handing members of the press or Thank You cards for Jay Bilas - the Rams are on a mission and it'll be college basketball's most improbable one if they find a way to close the deal against Butler in Space City.
Up until this point no self-respecting college basketball pundit or enthusiast has given the Rams a realistic chance to win the whole enchilada. They've gone from play-in game afterthoughts to a David who slays Goliaths by wielding an AK-47 named Bradford Burgess and a hammer called Jamie Skeen. They'll look to take down the original underdog, the Butler Bulldogs, in the first game at Reliant Center on Saturday.
Players to Watch
Skeen and Burgess comprise the dynamic inside/out duo that has largely carried the Rams to Houston but VCU's chances for victory are often attached at the hip with Brandon Rozzell's performance because he gives the Rams that coveted third scorer off of the bench to go along with Skeen and Burgess. The rest of Shaka Smart's rotation consists of role players like Rodriguez, Nixon, and Veal who fill ball handling, perimeter defense, and rebounding roles, respectively, while the headliners do the heavy lifting on offense. If Rozzell continues his torrid shooting from behind the arc in support of Skeen and Burgess, the Rams go from Cinderella to perhaps a favorite to cut down the nets.
Heading into this game, Shaka Smart knows that Brad Stevens is going to try to make Saturday's contest as ugly as possible. Stevens will want this to be a halfcourt-to-halfcourt meat grinder with limited scoring. It's one of the reasons why Butler manages to not only stay competitive in every game but actually win them in the end because the Bulldogs always manage to dictate pace. To accomplish this goal, the Butler guards Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack will try to slow the pace and run their own possessions deep into the shot clock. The slow-down style helps the Bulldogs exploit their advantage on the glass, limits possessions for the better shooting club (smaller margin for error for VCU), and puts a premium on what Butler does best - win close, ugly games.
Fortunately for the Rams, Smart has the perfect arrow in his quiver to counteract the Bulldogs slow-down strategy-full court pressure. Most every team in college hoops has some sort of press in their playbook, but very few squads have fullcourt pressure in their team's DNA like the VCU Rams. Look for Smart to press the Bulldogs from the outset which should accomplish two things that will give VCU an advantage.
First, a 90 foot game means higher quality shots and more of them for the better shooting team, which is unquestionably the Rams. Butler does such a good job constricting the floor on defense in a halfcourt setting. Second, the pressure will probably force Butler to go to its three guard look more often which helps mitigate Butler's advantage on the glass. If you don't believe me then ask Leonard Hamilton of FSU. When VCU went to its pressure trapping, it forced the Seminoles to go small to break the press and the Rams suddenly became a much better rebounding team.
There won't be a bigger If/Then scenario in any of the remaining three possible tournament matchups. If VCU can force turnovers Butler, if VCU shoots it well, and if VCU can speed up the pace they should win going away. Take the contra-argument to each of those aspects and Butler's your winner. I'm guessing VCU will continue to shoot it well but I'm not sold on experienced guards like Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored being turned over on a consistent basis. If the Bulldog duo doesn't take care of the ball, VCU will be in the finals.