VCU RAMS (26-8)
vs. SAINT MARY’S GAELS (28-4)
First Round – Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City, UT
Tip-off: Thursday, 7:20 pm ET
Line: Saint Mary’s -4.5, Total: 126.5
An underseeded Saint Mary’s team gets a dangerous first-round opponent in VCU.
If you need proof that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s level of respect is rather low for mid-major participants, look no further than the 10-7 matchup in this year’s West Region. Very few mid-major teams received at-large bids to this year’s tournament, with two of them being No. 10 VCU and No. 7 Saint Mary’s. At least one of them was underseeded—Saint Mary’s is rated 14th in the nation in KenPom ratings—and only one of them will have the opportunity to advance as, would you look at that, they’re playing each other. Cynicism aside, the silver lining of the situation is a damn good first-round matchup featuring two teams that have the potential to make some noise and bust some brackets. VCU went 26-8 on the year (12-17-1 ATS), finishing 14-4 in the Atlantic-10 and earning wins over tournament teams Princeton, Middle Tennessee State and Dayton over the course of the season. In their most recent game, they lost 70-63 to Rhode Island in the conference title game (URI -1). On the opposite coast, Saint Mary’s finished 28-4 (15-11-3 ATS) and 16-2 in West Coast Conference regular season play, with three of their four losses coming to No. 1 seed Gonzaga. The final one came by a 74-56 score in the conference championship game (ZAGS -4.5), but prior to that game the Gaels had won six straight games by an average margin of 23.8 points. In the second half of this season, VCU has gone 7-0 Under against the total when playing teams that force fewer than 12 turnovers per game. (Saint Mary’s is 347th in the country—which is to say dead last—in forced turnovers per game with 9.38.) Meanwhile, Saint Mary’s is 7-0 Under against the total in the second half of this season in non-home games played against teams that shoot at least 45% from the floor. (VCU shoots a strong 46.7% from the floor, tied for 62nd in the nation.
The VCU Rams rank 71st in the country with an opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 110.1 points scored per 100 possessions, and their defensive rating of the same metric of 95.7 is an impressive 36th in the nation. They averaged 74.7 points per game, fourth in the Atlantic 10. They’re not much of a threat from deep, as they were 11th of 14 in the conference in three-point attempts on the year and 12th in 3P% (33.4%). The offense is led by G JeQuan Lewis (14.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 1.7 SPG), who spends plenty of time with the ball in his hands as the team’s leader in points, assists and steals. He’s also the team’s lone consistent threat from three, as he’s shooting 37.3% from long range and hit nine threes in a game against Saint Joe’s last month. F Justin Tillman (12.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG) is the only other scorer in double-digits. He’s only attempted one three-pointer all year, so don’t count on him stretching the floor. He has been a monster on the boards, recently, pulling down an average of 11.6 in his last five games. He’s joined in the frontcourt by senior F Mo Alie-Cox (9.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG), who proved himself a big-game player with 23 points in a March 1 loss to Dayton. Guards Doug Brooks (5.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.6 SPG) and Jordan Burgess (4.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG) start in the backcourt. Coach Will Wade used exactly five players off the bench in each of the team’s three conference tournament games, so expect a similarly deep rotation going forward.
Saint Mary’s is, by at least some popular measures, elite on both ends of the court: They are 15th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency rating (119.0) and 26th on defense (94.3). They scored 72.5 points per game, third best in the WCC, and had the nation’s second best scoring defense in allowing only 55.9 points per game. Facing a VCU team with only one player over 6’7” on the roster, the Gaels will look constantly look to feed their star big man, 6-foot-11 C Jock Landale (16.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG). Landale leads his team in scoring and the West Coast Conference in rebounding, and he has had double-doubles in three of his last five games. He was one of three Gaels to be named First Team All-WCC honorees this season (of which there are 10 total), with the other two being F Calvin Hermanson (13.0 PPG, 43.7 3P%) and G Joe Rahon (8.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.0 SPG). Hermanson is a sniper from deep, shooting the third most threes of anyone in the conference (5.9 3PA) while making them at a significantly higher clip than those ahead of him in attempts. Rahon is the quarterback of the team on both ends of the floor: He is sixth in the country in assist/turnover ratio (3.6) and was named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year for helming the top of one of the nation’s best defenses. Joining those three in the starting lineup are G Emmett Naar (9.5 PPG, 5.8 APG), who leads the conference in assists per game (Rahon is second), and C Evan Fitzner (5.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 44.0 3P%), who forms a twin towers dynamic with Landale at 6-foot-10. Unlike Landale, though, he can stretch the floor, as he made the second-most threes on the team. A rotation that goes 11 deep features F Dane Pineau (6.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.1 BPG) and freshman G Tanner Krebs (3.6 PPG) as key reserves.