Previewing The CAA Championship Game

A little over a year ago I was browsing a forum dedicated to Colonial Athletic Association basketball when I stumbled on a thread lamenting the absence of a clash between Old Dominion and VCU in the ESPN's Rivalry Week coverage. That's how much this rivalry means to people. 

The Rams storied run of epic clashes with George Mason generally receives a little more publicity - due in no small part to the Patriots Final Four run of 2006 - but the annual run-ins with the Monarchs spans three decades, two conferences and has even featured a degree of coaching crossover.  VCU leads the all-time series 43-41, but ODU has the edge in tournament championships 5-4 including beating the Rams in the 2005 final. 

Mason may have carried this conference to national fame, but recent historical dominance in the CAA Tournament has belonged to these two teams, as five of the last seven trophies hoisted on Championship Monday at the Richmond Coliseum have been held by one of the two. Toss in back-to-back years in which VCU had a player selected in the first round of the NBA Draft and this rivalry has never been hotter, or carved out a bigger space under the national spotlight. 

Just in case that isn't enough to have you on the edge of your seat by the time tip-off rolls around at 7 PM ET, a win by VCU suddenly makes the CAA a very real threat to place three teams in the field of 68, as both Old Dominion and George Mason have resumes worth of an at-large bid. 

Now, on to tonight's participants.

 

Old Dominion Monarchs, #2 Seed, 26-6 (14-4)

It's hard not to appreciate watching Old Dominion play basketball simply because, the Monarchs just play so hard and smart. No one really personifies this more than senior Frank Hassell who has slowly developed into a double-double machine in his final season (ironically enough he's coming off a season-low for rebounds in the conference semifinals). The unique thing about ODU, is unlike a lot of teams that truly play a hard-nosed brand of basketball, you can quantify it in the numbers for the Monarchs. 

We all know it starts with defense for this team, it's a Blaine Taylor coaching staple. For the second consecutive year Old Dominion has posted a top 50 adjusted defensive efficiency based on data from Ken Pomeroy. Opposing teams have been able to shoot the three against them this season, but trying to score inside the arc has been a completely different experience altogether as the Monarchs are among the best teams in the country at defending two-point field goals and blocking shots. This is reflected when examining a breakdown of how ODU defends specific play types on Synergy Sports. Not surprisingly they struggle in spot-up scenarios, giving up an adjusted field goal percentage of nearly 50 which ranks in the bottom one-third nationally. On the other hand, they excel defending the post and off the ball movement, which again speaks to the dedication this team gives to working hard on defense.

The Monarchs offense builds largely around a remarkably efficient post game that sees a lot of action. Of the teams ranking in the top 50 nationally in scoring efficiency on the block (ODU is 49th) only two teams have a higher usage rate than they're 14.9%. A lot of the credit here goes to Hassell who shoots better than 55% from the floor, with more than half of his shot attempts coming in post-up situations. Adding further to the potency of Old Dominion's inside game is the excellent job the team has done passing out of these situations. According to Synergy Sports the Monarchs average nearly 1.3 points per possession in scenarios where the defense doubles down on the post - which tells us the ODU bigs not only recognize when this is happening but also know how to find the open man.

Old Dominion is an average scoring team overall in most other situations, though they have shown a knack for scoring effectively in the mid-range off the dribble. They play at such a slow pace however that their overall scoring numbers don't necessarily stack up with many other quality programs, as the Monarchs have reached the 80-point plateau just once time all season. 

One factor that will be key tonight has to be ODU's effort on the offensive glass - they rank number one nationally in offensive rebound percentage. So effective have the Monarchs been in this regard that put backs from offensive rebounds make up a whopping 10 percent of all shot attempts, easily one of the highest marks in the country.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams, #4 Seed, 23-10 (12-6)

It's hard to argue that a conference championship game is more important to one team over another, because in this game, this rivalry game, both schools want to be the last one standing. But when discussing NCAA Tournament hopes, tonight is infinitely more important to the Rams. A win secures a berth and Old Dominion still likely gets in as an at-large bid, it won't work the other way around. This is it for VCU.

The Rams aren't a polar opposite of the Monarchs, but they certainly push things to a greater degree offensively. They have a balanced scoring threesome of guards and the inside-outside threat of forward Jamie Skeen leading the way, while Joey Rodriguez is the catalyst, filling the playmaker role. While VCU doesn't exactly blow you away with any one discipline at this end of the floor, they were the third most efficient offense in the CAA this year thanks to the versatility they show with the basketball. Of course having a remarkably low turnover rate has proven to be equally beneficial as well. 

VCU's offense is strongest in spot-up situations, posting an adjusted field goal percentage of 53 and averaging better than 1 point per possession, very good when you consider average is typically .9. This is definitely a team that goes to the jumper, with nearly 55% of all shot attempts in the half court setting being jumpers. Of these, 77% are three-pointers, which depending on the night can either be a good or bad thing as the Rams shoot a respectable 36% from beyond the arc. They have greater success shooting from the outside in transition however, where their adjusted field goal percentage is 60.5%. This is by no means the highest mark here, with that said though, they shoot a base mark of 54% and few teams in the country have such a jump from base to adjusted field goal percentage in transition. This is because the Rams guards do an excellent job of running their lanes and moving to open spots on the floor, capitalizing on holes in the defense while is rushes to recover and set up.

Defensively we're talking about a good, not great team here. With the plethora of talented guards the Rams employ in their rotation, it's no surprise they are among the Division 1 leaders in steal percentage. VCU is at its best defending the fast break game and isolation situations, holding opponents to under 37% shooting in the latter. Where they've consistently been hurt all year has been on the glass. They rank 311th in the country in offensive rebound percentage allowed, absolutely terrible. Keep in mind, in the second meeting of the regular season between VCU and Old Dominion, the Monarchs won by 11 after outrebounding the Rams 46-21. When VCU won the first meeting, they also had a slight edge on the glass. There's a very, very good chance this will be a deciding factor tonight, especially when you consider the sheer disparity in how these teams have faired on the glass this season.

 

Final Prediction

There's no question the inconsistency of VCU down the stretch of the regular season. The Rams fell to ODU and George Mason, bounced back with a win at Wichita State during Bracket Busters, only to drop two more to James Madison and Drexel. With that said, they know their NCAA Tournament hopes depend on this one game and it's hard not to be impressed with the way their defense kept the Patriots off balance in the semifinals. 

In a 10-game series, the Monarchs may ultimately win 6 or 7 times, but tonight, this one goes to VCU to give the CAA three bids for March Madness. 

 

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