You don’t need me to tell you that VCU’s run to the Final Four was improbable. But let’s take a look at just how unforeseeable it really has been.
During the NCAA Tournament , the Rams have improved their offensive and defensive efficiency by more than twice as much as any team did in last season’s tournament. The change is so dramatic that you’d think that we’re dealing with an invasion of the body snatchers. Would whoever kidnapped the average three point-shooting, defensively suspect Rams please return them to Earth?
It’s that remarkable.
Entering the CAA tournament, VCU allowed its previous 11 opponents to score at least 1.00 points per possession, and the Rams had only a 6-5 record during that span. In the conference tournament, the Rams showed some signs of life on defense, holding Drexel to 0.894 points per possession. The Rams stomped George Mason 79-63 in the quarterfinals, as the Patriots barely cracked the 1.0 mark at 1.004 points per possession. However, Old Dominion brought VCU back to reality as the Monarchs slowly grinded past the Rams’ defense with 1.126 points per possession.
We’re not going to even touch the issue about whether VCU’s body of work was worthy of an at-large bid. That discussion is dead and gone. Instead, the team’s outstanding play deserves all the press.
As VCU prepared for a First Four game against USC, the Rams ranked No. 84 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, with an offense averaging 1.096 points per possession and a defense allowing 1.008 points per possession. That’s not terribly impressive. The match up against the Trojans seemed fairly even, and a second-round upset against a struggling Georgetown team that didn’t know what it would get out of Chris Wright wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. But an extended run through the likes of Purdue and Kansas definitely didn’t seem plausible.
But that’s before VCU’s defense but everyone on lockdown.
In the tournament, the Rams have held every opponent except Purdue to less than 1.0 points per possession. In fact, USC, Georgetown and Kansas barely came within 0.1 points of that mark. The Boilermakers made it to 1.157 points per possession, which was nothing compared to VCU’s deadly 1.431 points per possession on offense.
The catalyst for VCU’s defensive resurgence is the team’s pressure defense. Coach Shaka Smart has his guys getting in the grill of every opposing guard. Kansas’ backcourt players looked flustered as they forced ill-advised entry passes and failed to organize the Jayhawks’ offense. VCU also thrived on team efforts in rebounding, which was crucial against the likes of USC, Georgetown and Purdue. The Rams survived Florida State and Kansas despite giving up a ton of size in the post and a bunch of offensive rebounds.
Offensively, VCU’s shooters just caught fire. Jamie Skeen and Brandon Rozzell helped VCU shoot 43.8 percent from three-point range, a massive improvement from the 36.2 percent that the team shot heading into the tournament. It almost defies reason that multiple players could improve that much almost overnight. Skeen and Rozzell are solid shooters, as each entered the NCAA Tournament shooting around 38 percent from beyond the arc. However, they shot at least 50 percent in five games so far. If the shots keep falling, the Rams will be extraordinarily tough to beat.
In sum, VCU has improved from 1.096 points per possession on offense to start the tournament to 1.133 points per possession now. Defensively, the Rams trimmed their points per possession allowed from 1.008 to 0.977. Collectively, that’s a 6.8 points per possession improvement in five games, and the Rams are up from No. 84 to No. 49 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. In comparison, Cornell improved more than any other team in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when the Big Red reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. The team improved by a total of 3.3 points per possession. VCU has more than doubled that, and the Rams needed to make that happen to have a shot against strong teams like Purdue and Kansas.
Regardless of what happens today against Butler, Smart’s crew has delivered one of the most memorable runs in NCAA Tournament history. If the Rams keep up their pace of improvement at both ends of the court, this team could easily be cutting down the nets as the national champion Monday night.