Thursday, March 08, 2012

VCU Post-CAA Notes

Darius Theus drives into the paint in regular season action. Theus was named as the CAA tournament’s MVP.

Good news: As we approach Selection Sunday, which will open the starting gate for March Madness, the bubble-talk for the VCU Rams is over.

Yes, the absolute addicts will keep the bubble-talk going by questioning whether Virginia needs to win a game in the ACC tournament, or talking about Drexel’s chance of getting a second bid for the CAA. But for avid Rams fans, now the conservation is about where VCU will go for its first-round game … and, of course, will Shaka Smart being lured away to coach elsewhere?

More good news: the 2012 Colonial Athletic Association’s postseason tournament set a new attendance record for the four days of hard-fought college basketball games at the Richmond Coliseum — 47,833. It was a first class show and my hat goes off to CAA commissioner Tom Yeager and his staff.

VCU took 20 three-point shots against Northeastern; nine were good. The Rams fired up 25 treys against Mason; they made 11 of them. In the championship game against Drexel they shot outside the arc only 15 times; just four went through the net.

Drexel’s defense had a lot to do with limiting VCU’s scoring from outside, but the number of log jumpers the Rams took from in that game also seemed somewhat by design. I saw the Rams long-distance marksmen passing up chances to shoot treys several times. It was obvious they wanted to drive to the basket as part of a game-plan.

Drexel’s coach, Bruiser Flint only wanted to use six men, seven at most. VCU’s coach Shaka Smart knew that and had to figure going inside would put a lot of pressure on the Dragons, who understood they couldn’t risk fouling out early.

What I wondered before the game was whether the Rams had the personnel to pull off such a strategy, successfully. Could they set the screens just right? Could they handle the ball? Did they have the confidence?

Well, (junior guard) Darius Theus, (senior guard/forward) Brad Burgess, (sophomore guard) Rob Brandenberg and (freshman guard) Treveon Graham provided the answers. Maybe the Rams couldn’t have done it two months ago, but they sure did on Monday night. And, remember, it was accomplished against an excellent defensive team.

The coach of the team that draws the Rams in the first round of the Big Dance is going to be sweating it after he watches a couple of video tapes from the CAA tournament: The first one will be of the first nine minutes of the Mason game (the 32-4 run); the other will be highlights of how steady and unflappable VCU was in defeating an excellent grind-it-out team, in Drexel.

After the Mason game, Brad Burgess was asked how it felt to break Patrick Ewing’s all-time collegiate record (142) for consecutive starts. Burgess who now has 144 straight starts under his belt said, “I’m very grateful … appreciative for it.” Then he added, “I love the game.”

After Drexel’s loss to VCU, Flint was asked several annoying questions. He handled them with patience and class. Then one reporter asked him a longwinded question about how unfair it must be to play the tournament in Richmond every year.

Flint would have none of it. He laughed and said, “It is what it is.” Then he said he’d rather have it staged in Drexel’s [tiny] gym. Flint went on to say the tournament just completed was a great atmosphere and how much he loved that.

VCU (28-6) heads into Selection Sunday’s news of their first NCAA match-up with a nice head of steam. The Rams’ RPI is now No. 38 and they have been getting votes in the AP poll for the last month. The Rams are a versatile team that rightfully feels it can play with anybody, from any conference.

The Rams are both the 9th youngest squad in all of Division I (344 teams) and the team that led D-I in steals. Smart’s hungry VCU team is also an outfit that doesn’t depend on one or two players so much that they can’t win without superior performances from such stars. The 2011-12 Rams have developed into a well balanced machine. In some ways it’s a scarier team than last year’s model.

Finally: As for whether Smart will leave VCU after this year’s Rams squad finishes its postseason play, well, I have no inside track. Perhaps others do.

This is Smart’s third year at VCU. My guess is that right now he’s looking forward to being back on Broad Street to see his third-year players through their fourth season. But who knows how far the Rams will go into the NCAA tournament or what offers my come his way?

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