Fans of the CAA and members of Ram Nation will tell you they saw this coming - and maybe they did. Perhaps VCU's 16-point win over then #25 George Mason in the conference semi-finals was foreshadowing for something bigger. It certainly seems that way now.
The Rams run of three straight wins by a minimum of 13 points has captured the college basketball world and put them in a very winnable Sweet 16 match-up with Florida State. Imagine, a team widely considered inadequate for an at-large berth on the verge of reaching the Elite Eight. Obviously the parallels with George Mason's 2006 Final Four run are there and they'll only continue to manifest themselves in headlines and discussions if the Rams run continues.
For now we're not interested in what lays ahead, what match-ups will be key to beat the Seminoles and continue this postseason run. How exactly has VCU gotten to this point? Beyond the simple case of scoring more points than the opposition, what has been the deciding factor in wins over USC, Georgetown and Purdue?
Let's take a look at some advanced numbers after the jump.
In winning three games by a combined 49 points, VCU has made some slight adjustments to their offense as compared to the regular season, but in general the Rams are sticking with what they do best - just doing more of it.
Entering the NCAA Tournament the team was posting a three-point field goal percentage of just over 36% and was a strong overall spot-up team, be it shooting from the perimeter or attacking off the dribble. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Rams average just over one point per possession, a mark that puts them in the 86th percentile nationally. Needless to say, VCU has upped its production from the perimeter in the postseason, hitting on 29-of-70 attempts from the outside for a 41.4% shooting mark. Regardless of how the rest of the offense is operating, shooting at that level of accuracy with that kind of a volume is going to almost single handedly keep a team in the game. With that said, Synergy Sports categorized the overwhelming majority of these three's as "unguarded shot attempts", which can be attributed to other facets of the offense.
The Rams next most productive play-type during the regular season was entering the ball into the low post, something they only did about 9% of the time. In their three NCAA Tournament games this has seen a slight increase to 13% with VCU connecting on nearly 49% of their shot attempts on the block. This may not seem like a significant increase, but over the course of three games, those added touches inside are collapsing opposing defenses into the lane. Furthermore, when incorporating passes out of the post that lead to shot attempts, VCU sees a significant jump in offensive efficiency, jumping from the 84th percentile in low post scoring to the 91st.
The single greatest change to the offense over the course of the last three games however has been the amount of time the Rams spend isolating the basketball. Iso plays accounted for just 6% of VCU's offense during the regular season, with a resulting field goal percentage of 34 in this setting. Those marks in the NCAA Tournament have spiked to a 17% usage rate and 39% shooting. Regardless of how you feel about advanced statistics and play-type breakdowns, this is significant, as VCU is isolating the basketball nearly three times as often as it did during the regular season and converting with greater efficiency. Much of the credit here goes to Joey Rodriguez who struggled in this area during the regular season despite getting the most iso touches, but has significantly improved his scoring efficiency as of late.
The defensive end of the floor however, is where VCU has made the single greatest adjustment leading to its run to the Sweet 16. The Rams have not been known as a strong rebounding team this season, ranking 301st in rebounds per game. Things get even worse on the defensive glass where they ranked 306th in the country in opponent offensive rebound rate, allowing teams to snare 35.8% of available offensive rebounds. Teams were capitalizing on a high rate of second chance scoring opportunities. Since the NCAA Tournament began, VCU's offensive rebound rate against has plummeted to 23.9% which would have been the second best mark in the country during the regular season. In a tremendous swing of both fortune and effort, the Rams have turned by far and away their biggest weakness into quite possibly their greatest strength in the games that matter most.
None of this is to say that VCU has drastically altered its style of play - in fact quite the contrary. In general, the Rams are executing the same game plan that led them to a fourth place finish in the CAA during the regular season, they're just going to their bread and butter to a greater degree. Those areas where they have struggled with, have managed to be sured up in impressive fashion. In short, VCU has quite quickly turned itself into a complete team.