What many consider the "official" start of March Madness is less than a day away, but that doesn't mean the stakes are any lower for those taking the court tonight. Not only are VCU and USC playing for a chance to win an NCAA Tournament game tonight, but with questions still lingering about the health of Georgetown's Chris Wright, the winner of tonight's game could face a wounded Hoya team on route to a berth in the round of 32.
Both the Rams and Trojans were questionable selections for the First Four, but they can put all of the criticism and questions to rest by doing one simple thing tonight: win.
Follow along after the jump for a breakdown of both teams and to share your thoughts in our open thread.
USC Trojans, 11-Seed
In the wake of head coach Kevin O'Neill's suspension following an altercation with an Arizona booster, the Trojans have to be happy about the opportunity to get back on the court and play actual basketball. The regular season was a series of ups and downs, bottoming out in November with back-to-back losses at home against Rider and Bradley, but highlighted be a four-game winning streak in the Pac-10 in February that included a win over then #10 Arizona.
This is a fairly efficient USC team, but one that plays at a snails pace, ranking 314th in tempo. The offense is built from the inside out thanks to the imposing duo of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson in the frontcourt, the former who averaged 17 and 10 during the regular season. As a whole the Trojans do well scoring on the block, but it's Vucevic who is responsible for three-fourths of the touches in this scenario that does the heavy lifting inside. The junior averaged better than 1 point per possession on the block this season, shooting nearly 47%, while proving a match-up nightmare giving his ability to step out beyond the arc and knock down shots.
The perimeter and transition games are just average for the Trojans, though they have shown some degree of success in the spot-up game, proving to be a respectable three-point shooting team. Their guards have quick releases from the outside however, as USC ranks in the 86th percentile in the country in catch and shoot play types, posting an adjusted field goal percentage of nearly 56% here.
USC makes it's mark as a defensive team, allowing opposing teams to eclipse 80 points just four times all season. Given the talent in their frontcourt it isn't surprising that the Trojans are one of the top 20 teams at the Division 1 level in opponent offensive rebound rate, meaning they severely limit second chance scoring opportunities for opposing teams. They do a strong job of limiting scoring opportunities in the immediate area surrounding the rim but have been below average defending mid-range shooters. It should also be noted that despite their great success offensively scoring in the low post, the same degree of accomplishment doesn't carry over to the defensive side of the floor, where USC allows 44% shooting on the block.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams, 11-seed
The Rams are very much in the same position that UAB was last night entering the First Four, looking to prove their NCAA Tournament worthiness with a win. Despite a 23-win season and a 12-6 showing in a tough CAA, VCU struggled down the stretch of the regular season, losing four of their final five games, with the lone win being a non-conference tilt at Wichita State. A run to the conference championship game, including a semi-final win over then ranked George Mason, was enough to land the Rams one of the final at-large berths and the school's first since 1984.
VCU builds around an efficient offensive attack that excels across the board in all play types. Upperclassmen Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess lead four players in double figure scoring while point guard Joey Rodriguez paces the offense with nearly five assists per game. The Rams are good in transition, but great in the half court set, ranking in the top 10% nationally in points per possession here. They are a unique team in that they excel as both a jump shooting and low post scoring team, scoring more than a point per possession in both scenarios. Burgess, Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell pace the perimeter scoring attack, with Rozzell proving one of the best spot-up scorers in the Colonial Athletic Association. Skeen handles things inside, accounting for 72% of the teams post-up scoring possessions, shooting an efficient 53% on his shot attempts here.
Defense is where the Rams need to be concerned, especially against the interior scoring of the Trojans. While VCU forces a high number of turnovers, they struggle to contest shots and prevent second chance scoring opportunities. They rank 235th nationally allowing an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 and are even worse on the glass, ranking 320th in offensive rebound rate allowed, giving up an offensive rebound on greater than 1 out of every 3 available. They do excel at defending isolation sets, holding opposing players to just 35% shooting here, but have issues defending perimeter shooters and pick and roll sets. With all that said, the single biggest concern will be keeping USC's Vucevic in check all over the floor, which will ultimately be the deciding factor in this contest.