VCU became a March staple under Shaka Smart, and second-year coach Will Wade has kept the train rolling.
With an at-large bid, the Rams will appear in their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament. There was little drama, even with Sunday’s loss to Rhode Island in the A-10 title game. VCU picked up non-conference wins over Princeton and Middle Tennessee, and then stormed through the A-10 at 14-4. This included a great win (Dayton) and slew of good wins (at St. Bonaventure, at Richmond).
Nationally, this year’s Rams might be most remembered for a wild two-game stretch in early February.
St. Bonaventure’s Matt Mobley appeared to hit a game-winning three to sink VCU as time expired on Feb. 4. But with 0.4 seconds left, the Bonnies were given a delay of game technical as fans ran onto the court. Rams point guard JeQuan Lewis hit the free throw to send the game to overtime, where VCU notched an 83-77 win.
One game later, the Rams trailed GW by one with 0.4 seconds remaining and the ball under the Colonials’ basket. Wade drew up a play that had the inbounder run a GW player into Lewis, who drew the foul. Lewis again came up big at the line, hitting both free throws to clinch a 54-53 win.
Wild finishes aside, the Rams have yet again put themselves in the NCAA Tournament because of a great defense. VCU posted the 32nd-best defensive efficiency mark in the country, and created turnovers at the 31st-best rate. The Rams are also physically-imposing, with a front court that can dominate the glass. Forward Justin Tillman finished in the top three in the A-10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, and Mo Alie-Cox is an efficient, big-shouldered low-post scorer.
Lewis (14.7 PPG, 4.6 APG), who was recently named to the all-league first team, can carry the team on offense. If the Rams are in a close game late, it’s a safe bet Wade will have the ball in Lewis’s hands. Here’s former UMass coach Derrek Kellogg on Lewis after the senior buried his team earlier this season.
“We saw it first hand in the (A-10) tournament last year. It was kind of something that I was hoping wasn’t going to come, but he kind of freed himself a few times,” Kellogg said of Lewis. “He’s very good on broken plays ... then he’ll give you that dagger 3. He did that three times tonight.”
Why the Rams can win
VCU can feel right at home in an ugly game. The Rams’ defense and rebounding should be slump-proof, and able to ensure some base-level of competitiveness, no matter the opponent. Although nominally a mid-major, their front court size will match up with most power conference teams.
Lewis is also an experienced lead guard who’s having his best offensive year. While he’s the most consistent scoring threat, the roster has multiple players capable of scoring 20 points or more on a given night, including Tillman, Alie-Cox, and athletic sophomore wing Samir Doughty.
Why the Rams can lose
You can probably file it under coincidence, but the last three times the Rams have lost, they’ve followed it up with another loss.
VCU is also not great shooting the three, shooting just 31.8 percent as a team during A-10 play. While the Rams aren’t reliant on outside shots, it could make it difficult should they fall behind early (like they did in the A-10 title game).
Their offense is reliant on looks in the paint and offensive rebounding. While Tillman and Alie-Cox have done a good job avoiding foul trouble throughout the year, a few tough calls early could put the offensive load heavily on Lewis, and take away the low-post presence that gives VCU such an advantage.