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VCU is giving away its at-large hopes

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An overtime loss at Fordham is the latest blow

NCAA Basketball: Princeton at VCU Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlantic 10 is becoming its own worst enemy.

In a year that the league could boast half a dozen NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, it may only get two bids, as losses begin to pile up with a lack of non-conference wins to support them.

The latest such example came Wednesday night in the Bronx, when the Fordham Rams escaped in an overtime thriller over VCU, 69-67.

In spurts, VCU played to its brand: intense, relentless traps, forcing turnovers, and facilitating big plays on the other end.

The problem is, those spurts came too late. They came after Fordham raced out to a double-digit lead, controlling the game for much of the first 30 minutes.

Fordham led for almost all of regulation, including by 14 early in the second half. VCU’s late run to force overtime and subsequent five-point overtime lead was all for naught, as Antwoine Anderson’s buzzer-beating jumper sent Rose Hill Gymnasium into a frenzy.

The ramifications extend far beyond the tiny arena in the Bronx.

VCU has now lost back-to-back games at Davidson and Fordham, and don’t have a signature win to compensate. Home wins over Middle Tennessee and Princeton are both solid on paper, but, fair or not, will hardly raise an eyebrow to the Selection Committee. Meanwhile the loss to Fordham and a defeat to Georgia Tech at home in December are both ugly blotches on the Rams’ record.

VCU has played in every NCAA Tournament since its memorable Final Four run in 2011, which is a far tougher task than it sounds when you consider that it played four of the past six seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association.

While a seventh consecutive trip to the Big Dance is certainly still possible, this team has yet to demonstrate why it belongs, which is something that could not be said for previous Ram squads.

Watching VCU come back in the second half against Fordham, it was hard to fathom. Though previous VCU teams were known for their havoc-style full-court press, VCU excelled in its half-court defense, often forcing Fordham guards to handle the ball far from the basket. Traps beyond the arc were frequent and dangerous passes gave the Rams opportunities for steals. When Fordham managed to get a shot up, it was often a low-percentage look — something head coach Will Wade would sign up for, even if they occasionally went in.

Had VCU been able to take advantage, then the first half of Wednesday’s game could be chalked up to a slow start and forgotten about. VCU would have taken the lead midway through the second and won going away.

But in what has become a trend for this team, it could not capitalize. The Rams committed 22 turnovers of their own against Fordham and rank 240th in the country in turnover percentage.

In turn, that has made VCU uncharacteristically inefficient at times. In its five losses, the Rams are averaging just 0.88 points per possession, with 17 turnovers per game, or on nearly a quarter of its possessions.

It’s thwarted what could be an otherwise exceptionally effective offensive team. Justin Tillman and JeQuan Lewis can score in bunches. Mo Allie-Cox is a force inside who is hard to stop. The team as a whole is well organized on offense and can electrify the crowd on the break and on lobs in the half court. VCU is an average three-point shooting team, but the Rams rank in the upper half of the Atlantic 10 in effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage.

Despite that, Anderson’s buzzer-beater on Wednesday eliminated virtually any margin of error that the Rams had. Upcoming games against La Salle, Dayton, and first-place Richmond are near-must wins if they want to be considered for an at-large bid.

Of course, despite being 5-0 in the Atlantic 10, Richmond can use a big win itself. The Spiders missed early-season chances against Old Dominion, Maryland, and Wake Forest, but can get back into the tournament conversation by knocking off other teams near the top of the league.

Surely you can see the problem for the Atlantic 10 as a whole. With the exception of Dayton, no one has put together a clear-cut bid-worthy resume. By virtue of simply winning a lot of games, the Rams were in prime position to grab a bid before its last two games.

There are plenty of opportunities on the schedule, the Rams just haven’t grabbed them yet.

Unfortunately, they’re running out of time.