PORTLAND, Ore. – Remember VCU? The darlings of March are back.
Led by charismatic 34-year-old Coach Shaka Smart, VCU scored the biggest upset of the first day of the NCAA Tournament with Thursday’s 62-59 defeat of fifth-seeded Wichita State at the Rose Garden.
A year removed from a stunning Final Four run, perhaps the most unlikely ever, VCU stole the show again. Last year doesn’t feel so long ago anymore. But while the uniforms are still black and gold and still read VCU on the front, these aren’t last year’s Rams. This team has been determined to leave its own mark. Thursday will go a long way towards that end.
Seeded 12th in the South Region, the Rams (29-6) toppled another single-digit seed, a feat they accomplished three times in 2011, but did it in their own way.
Last year’s squad featured an arsenal of 3-point bombardiers in Jamie Skeen, Ed Nixon, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell. That team plowed through the field with offense. Thursday, as the Rams have done all year, VCU ground out an upset victory with unrelenting defense and timely shot making.
The Shockers (26-6) came into the game as one of the highest scoring teams in the nation, but failed to score 60 points for the first time this year. Wichita State ranked 15th in the country in rebounding margin (+6.7), but saw VCU battle for a 37-36 advantage on the glass.
VCU’s “Havoc” defense didn’t produce its normal batch of flustered turnovers -the Shockers committed a respectable 12 of them – but was enough to disrupt WSU’s offensive sets and force quick shots.
It allowed the Rams to hold the Shockers to 31-percent shooting (11-of-35) in the first half on the way to a 34-25 advantage, a lead that would eventually grow to as much as 12 on several occasions. And they would need every one of those points.
VCU’s halfcourt defense also forced Wichita State into near fire drill mode on the game’s final play, an errant 3-point attempt by 7-foot center Garrett Stutz that allowed the Rams to hold off an impressive WSU rally.
So yeah, while this is still VCU, it’s a different VCU. That’s fine by Smart, who, along with his players, has had to continually answer questions about last season’s Final Four squad. The Final Four, and the questions about it, produced an avalanche of attention for the school, but also a lifetime’s worth of unreasonable expectations for this group. Perhaps now, this team will judged on its own merits.
“Well, I think this team showed that in its own right, it’s a terrific team,” Smart said. “Now, we’re still going to get questions about last year, maybe even more than before, just because it’s that time of year where we’ve won one game in this NCAA Tournament, last year we won five, and people are going to want to compare.
“Honestly, we won 29 games already this year and last year’s team won 28. We won our conference tournament. Last year’s team lost in the conference championship game. So, in a lot of ways, we’ve done better than what last year’s team did. The only difference is obviously last year’s team went to the Final Four, and we’ve still got a long way to go before we can approach that.”
This year, there’s no Rozzell, but there is junior Troy Daniels, who hit a critical 3-pointer with VCU reeling with 2:52 remaining. Daniels was barely more than a spectator during last year’s Final Four march, but provided 10 points and six rebounds Thursday.
“It feels great,” said Daniels, who tied a VCU single-season record with his 91st and 92nd 3-pointers in the game. “It’s a testament to the summer that I had. We don’t stop here. We’re not done yet.”
There’s no Rodriguez, but there is Darius Theus, whose floater with 20 seconds left put the final nail in Wichita State’s coffin.
There’s no Bradford Burgess…actually…there is Bradford Burgess, who showed he saved some postseason heroics for this year when he canned a go-ahead 3-pointer from the left corner with 1:29 showing. He finished with a game-high 16 points and further cemented his status as VCU’s Mr. March.
Okay, so some things never change.