On paper this is one of those games that should be easy to pick. The battle-tested, defense-minded, star-coach led Virginia Commonwealth University Rams versus the unknown, unchallenged and unexpected to do anything Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. It is the Atlantic 10 Conference, which received a conference record six NCAA tournament bids this year, against the Southland Conference, which routinely just sends its tournament champion to the Big Dance. Virginia Commonwealth University is a 6.5 point favorite for this South Region match taking place in San Diego. Should be an easy pick with the Rams right? Not exactly.
There are a few reasons why this No. 5 seed versus No. 12 seed game can be a trap for VCU, and a bracket buster nationwide. First of all, just look at the very recent history of what 12 seeds have done versus 5 seeds. Just last night No. 12 Harvard eliminated No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 12 North Dakota State took down No. 5 Oklahoma. Other possible hurdles for coach Shaka Smart’s club are the loss of Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year, Melvin Johnson, who averaged 10.5 points per game and having to take on one of the hottest teams in the nation. If the NCAA tournament is won by those teams that are on a roll, then you would be hard pressed to find a better team to latch on to than Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks have won 28 straight games. That is second in the nation behind undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State.
Considering the above factors, as well as the fact that the Lumberjacks have won 31 games this season, some prognosticators were going so far as to call 26-8 VCU the underdog in this match up. That talk has not set too well with the Rams, who will definitely be playing with a chip on their collective shoulder. VCU’s Briante Weber, a junior guard, had this to say:
“We read the clippings and see what comes on the TV. It adds to the fire as us being the underdog,” he said. “We’re going to attack from the get-go and see what happens.”
Stephen F. Austin is coached by 30-year veteran Brad Underwood. Underwood toiled as an assistant at various stops, including most recently at Kansas State, before getting the chance to see what he could do with his own program. The coach responded with a 31-2 debut that is tied for third best all-time for first year Division I performances.
Keys for Stephen F. Austin to win: The Lumberjacks have to keep from getting overwhelmed by the moment and the bright lights of the NCAA tournament. Instead, Stephen F. Austin has to stick to their game. They run a suffocating ma- to-man defense, and on offense, Underwood says that the Lumberjacks are a “positionless” team aside from their point guard. They evenly distribute the ball, running the traditional motion offense to a science. With five players averaging almost ten points per game, their team stats reflect this.
“”The more we got into our year, it just created mismatch problems [for other teams]. Our guys became confident in [the motion offense] and we shoot it from every spot,” Underwood said. “…We’re a very, very good passing team. So it became a great fit.”
Keys for VCU to win: The Rams have to play with an edge. If they take an “us versus the world” mentality, it does not bode well for Stephen F. Austin. Shaka Smart’s club is known for their “Havoc” full court press defense. If they can keep the Lumberjacks out of their rhythm by creating havoc, they should be able to advance.
Prediction : While the Lumberjacks have won 28 games straight heading into today’s NCAA tournament match-up, VCU is not exactly in a slump either. The Rams have won six of seven, with their lone loss coming to St. Joe’s in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship. The fact that VCU will not be overlooking this contest should make the difference. Look for the Rams to win a close, low scoring defensive contest.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika