RICHMOND, Va. – Duke, Louisville, Minnesota, Memphis, Missouri, Stanford, Northern Iowa. Coach K, Tubby, Frank Haith, Josh Pastner. That’s the lineup and the names of some of the marquee coaches in the Battle 4 Atlantis field, in which VCU will participate Nov. 22-24 in the Bahamas. This is big-boy basketball.
The Rams (2-1) will open with 19th-ranked Memphis on Thursday. After that, it’s fifth-ranked Duke or Minnesota, which is lurking just outside the top 25. Then, take your pick of second-ranked Louisville, or perhaps, 13th-ranked Missouri. Usually these tournaments have a punching bag, a Chaminade (too soon, Texas?), if you will. Not here. VCU will play three games, and there’s no such thing as a day off or an easy road.
It looks and feels a lot like the postseason, and more specifically, the NCAA Tournament, and the experience could pay dividends for the Rams down the road. VCU will play three NCAA-Tournament quality teams regardless of how the brackets shake out. You can’t simulate that elsewhere. It’s like a March Madness primer on steroids. It’s like Chuck Yeager’s Flight Simulator for championship basketball. A win, or two, or three would not only bolster VCU’s NCAA resume, it could also prepare the Rams to make another tournament run.
“It’s the best tournament there is in the country,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart Monday. “It’s better than the Maui Invitational, it’s better than any of the other tournaments that are going on, in terms of the field. That’s why we’re going to the Bahamas. If the best tournament in the country was held in Richmond, Va. then we’d stay right at home and play here. It’s a great barometer for your team of where you are right now and also where you can go.”
What the Rams hope to prove is that they’re ready to run with the big dogs, that all that preseason publicity wasn’t just good public relations. Last season, the Rams played at the Charleston Classic and struggled against a lesser field. It was a critical gut check for a team that whipped itself into shape over the following weeks. This time, Smart and his team hope they’re farther along than a year ago.
They’ll know soon enough. Four of VCU’s potential opponents (Duke, Louisville, Memphis and Missouri) played in the NCAA Tournament last year. Louisville reached the Final Four. The other three (Stanford, Northern Iowa, Minnesota) all played in the NIT. The average RPI of those seven teams in 2011-12 was 35.
Three times this week, the Rams will meet a terrific team with little preparation on short rest. It’s grueling, and It’ll feel a lot like March, except that teams won’t leave the island if they lose.
“Three games in three days. That’s exactly what we want to do in March up in Brooklyn,” Smart said, referring to the location of the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship at Barclays Center. “The physical preparation is a great opportunity to train our bodies. The way we play and how hard our guys play, it takes a lot out of you, and then you’ve got to get ready to play again the next night. This is a great opportunity to work for that.”
A poor showing isn’t the end-all, but it does make the road to the NCAA Tournament a little more slippery. You could argue that VCU’s 1-2 performance in Charleston last year probably did more to save the Rams’ season than it did kill it. But if the Rams can make some noise in the Bahamas this year, they’ll give themselves a shot of confidence and serve notice to the NCAA Selection Committee that VCU is one of the best teams in the country.
It won’t be easy. Atlantis will be a gauntlet, but the Rams have made it clear they’re ready to test their mettle.
“We’re real excited,” senior point guard Darius Theus said. “There are a lot of great teams in this tournament. We just want to go down there and prove we’re one of those great teams also.”
By Sunday, we’ll know.
VCU will meet Memphis (2-0) on Thursday at 7 p.m. That game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network.
Here are the RPIs from last year of the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis field: