|Saturday's game against George Mason looms large for the Rams, who lost to GMU on Valentine's Day. (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Matt Norlander
No matter what happens from now until Selection Sunday, know this: VCU of 2012 is very different from VCU of 2011.
That's a narrative not natural to embrace less than a year after one of the three most unlikely Final Four runs in tournament history. Still, this team is nothing like last year's. Most of the talent that got VCU to Houston and in that game against Butler is gone. The only remaining recognizable name: Brad Burgess, who's taken on the load and done it well. He leads the team in points at 12.9 per game.
It's a young team, though. The average experience on the 13-man roster is 1.4 years. Last season that number was 2.17, according to KenPom.com.
No matter: VCU's been able to put itself in a good position, relatively speaking. Last year the team was 3-5 in February and now they’re a 30-foot bomb from undefeated since Jan. 9. The lone loss came on the road at 23-7 George Mason. This is how it happened. (Brief NSFW language after the shot falls.)
"It's a bitter, bitter pill to swallow, that loss," coach Shaka Smart said.
VCU's rematch with GMU comes Saturday. It's also the season finale for both teams. Getting swept by the Patriots has potential to be very damaging to the Rams, despite the run since conference play began wherein VCU's beating league foes by more than nine points per game.
Smart's had to balance a new type of life this season. He became the father to a baby girl in September and has coached under the expectation and heat lamp that a Final Four appearance brings. Nobody's expecting VCU to get back to college basketball's ultimate big stage, but another dance appearance wasn't too much to ask as far as VCU fans were concerned. Take that, then toss in the fact that soon enough his name will be placed onto, and probably at the top of, the list of candidates to coach the University of Illinois, as Bruce Weber is expected to be bought out of his contract when this season ends.
I didn't address that with Smart when I spoke to him on the phone Thursday morning. (No coach who respects the profession is talking out of turn about another job during the season anyway.) Right now, Smart's realistic about his team, meaning he doesn't know if it's worthy this year like it was last year for an at-large. That's not doubt, that's pragmatism and avoidance of media speculation. Fair approach; this year, the pool of bubble teams is as different as his team. VCU's not the 3-point-happy club that it was last year. This one's defensive-minded. The Rams lead the nation in steal percentage (15.9) and create the most turnovers per possession as well, tying Ohio at a 27.1-percent clip.
"A lot of teams can score in a lot of ways, but we’re not one of them," Smart said. "We have to be able to create offense in other ways. The style of play is the same, but the way the team executes is a little bit different. We’re better defensively, not even close really if you look at the numbers and watch us play."
The 3-point shot is what got VCU to the Final Four last year. Remember that game against Kansas? Unexpectedly, the Rams bombed away on 25 3-pointers and sank 12 of them. It was the rocket fuel that got VCU to Houston. This season, this team isn't not adept to the deep shot; it's hitting 32.9 percent of its 3s, putting it in the bottom third of Division I.
"And we don’t have Jamie Skeen to throw the ball to inside and get you a basket or get fouled every time," Smart said.
He also tossed out this: Last year, in his opinion, the CAA was better. Makes sense, as the league got three teams into the tournament, whereas this season you can find a heavy horde that think this conference should only earn one bid. I think I disagree, but regardless, the notion is interesting, considering the separation and chase we've seen at the top of the league. Drexel (15-2), VCU (14-3), George Mason (14-3) and Old Dominion (13-4) have provided intrigue for the past three weeks. Although the odds have Drexel winning the league title, realistically, the CAA tournament is going to be a blast. It's wide open and those four teams stand nearly equal chances at earning the auto bid.As the attention and speculation his team's chances will increase in the coming week, Smart said he and his staff do their best at avoiding the talk of their big-bracket chances. The team largely does, too. Last year, Joey Rodriguez practically tracked Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi's projections daily. This young group doesn't indulge in the prognosticating.
It doesn't do anyone much good to try and predict VCU's future anyway.