by Rob Russell
The last time a Colonial Athletic Association team was a controversial at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament, George Mason put the Madness in March, advancing all the way to the Final Four. Coach Shaka Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth University Rams hope to follow the same script in their first trip to the Big Dance since they stunned Duke in 2009.
The Rams are an athletic, experienced squad, capable of creating turnovers in bunches. 6’9" senior Jamie Skeen led a balanced offense with 15.3 points per game, grabbing 7.5 rebounds per contest. Versatile 6’6" junior Bradford Burgess scored 14.0 ppg, pulled down 6.1 boards, and led the Rams in three-point accuracy, draining just over 40 percent of his longballs. 5’10 senior point guard Joey Rodriguez is VCU’s emotional leader, contributing 10.6 points and nearly 5 assists per game. Senior guard Brandon Rozzell also averages double figures, chipping in 11.3 per game.
Every Ram starter is capable of knocking down deep shots, with all 5 (including senior defensive stopper Ed Nixon) averaging better than 33 percent from behind the arc. VCU also boasts 5 players who average more than a steal per game, a testament to the aggressive defensive system Smart employs. The Rams tend to struggle on the glass, ranking near the bottom of Division 1 in rebounding percentage.
In 2006, George Mason went on the road to beat Wichita State, 70-67 in a high-profile Bracketbusters matchup. Three weeks ago, VCU went on the road to beat Wichita State, 68-67, in a high-profile Bracketbusters matchup. Rams’ fans don’t generally take kindly to George Mason comparisons, but they’ll take this one as far as they can.
RECORD: 23-11 (12-6 CAA – lost in conference tournament final)
89-85 over UCLA, Nov. 26, Madison Square Garden
The Rams bounced back from a tough loss to Tennessee to notch their best out-of-conference win of the season in a nationally televised contest against Ben Howland’s Bruins. Jamie Skeen led VCU with 23 points and 9 boards as the Rams’ frenetic defense turned UCLA over 21 times to overcome a 43-28 rebounding deficit.
59-50 over ODU, Jan. 22, Norfolk, VA
While it remains under the radar nationally, the bitter (http://www.caahoops.com/2011/
68-67 over Wichita State, Feb. 18, Wichita, KS
Bracketbusters came at a good time for Shaka Smart’s squad, as their win over the Shockers was sandwiched between two pairs of CAA losses – a four-game conference skid that seemingly dashed the Rams’ NCAA Tournament dreams. Mercurial point guard Joey Rodriguez was fouled with less than a second left to play, and calmly drained two free throws for the win. Rodriguez added 11 assists to his 15 points, which Burgess led the team with 17 points.
79-63 over George Mason, Mar. 6, Richmond, VA
VCU played as complete a game as any CAA team did all year in cooling off one of the nation’s hottest teams in the CAA Tournament semifinals. The Rams took a 14-point lead at the break and weathered a brief Patriot run at the beginning of the second half before pulling away. Skeen scored 21, Burgess grabbed 13 boards, and defensive stopper Ed Nixon contributed 5 assists to lead VCU into the tournament final.
77-72 to Tennessee, Nov. 25, Madison Square Garden
VCU shot 30.9 percent from the field, was outrebounded, 54-45, and still had Tennessee dead to rights in the semi-finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Brandon Rozzell scored 23, while Skeen recorded a double-double with 12 points and 14 boards.
72-60 to Richmond, Dec. 11, Robins Center, Richmond, VA
Cross-town rival Richmond handed VCU a bitter defeat, opening up a 23-point halftime lead and cruising to their first win in 6 years over the Rams.
68-65 to UAB, Dec. 18, Birmingham, AL
Fellow bubbler UAB overcame a 19-point second-half deficit to stun the visiting Rams, and give plenty of fodder to those that doubt VCU’s at-large cred. Billy Packer required sedation after the Rams appeared in the bracket.
76-66 to Georgia State, Jan. 3, Atlanta, GA
VCU’s first conference game of the year also represented their only really bad loss. Georgia State finished the season 221 in the RPI, but managed to beat VCU for the first time in 13 tries.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
After three consecutive sub-par offensive games in mid-February, Skeen closed the season on a roll, averaging 20.0 ppg over the Rams’ final 5 contests. He got his points all over the court, hitting 4 of 6 threes in the CAA semifinal against George Mason one day after he dominated Drexel in the low post, making 6 of 9 two-point field goals and 11 of 13 free throws on his way to 24 points. His versatile game creates matchup problems for most bigs.
VCU fans have a habit of covering their eyes from time to time when watching Joey Rodriguez. The senior floor general is capable of getting hot and carrying the team. He’s equally likely to follow a dumb shot with a silly foul. His ability to remain poised, manage VCU’s attack, and hit a few key shots is a significant key to the Rams’ success.
For more NCAA Tournament coverage of the VCU Rams, please visit SB Nation D.C.