|VCU, UCF prepare for defensive battle|
VCU's upset loss to Rhode Island in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament ultimately had no impact on the Rams' seeding for the NCAA Tournament.
Expected by most experts to earn an 8 or 9 seed, VCU indeed picked up an 8 seed in the East Region and gets to wear the white uniforms for Friday night's first-round matchup with Central Florida in Columbia, S.C.
The Rams went 25-7 and won the A-10 regular-season title by two games, going 3-3 against NCAA Tournament teams and going toe-to-toe with Virginia for 40 minutes in Charlottesville before eating a 57-49 defeat.
They did so by playing elite defense, holding opponents to 38.4 percent field-goal shooting and 27.6 percent from the 3-point line, with the latter figure ranking second in Division I. VCU permitted just 61.6 points per game, outscoring the opposition by nearly 10 points.
It was the type of turnaround coach Mike Rhoades envisioned when he told his team they could make the tournament after an 18-15 campaign in 2017-18, which saw them miss the postseason for the first time in 12 years.
"The guys bought into it, and they held each other accountable," Rhoades told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "And you could see a lot of love among them. They were really excited for each other, and that's the challenge I gave them a year ago -- to get back to the NCAA Tournament our way."
Offensively, the Rams are balanced, although not always efficient. Four players score in double figures, led by Marcus Evans (13.8 points per game). De'Riante Jenkins (11.4), Isaac Vann (10.9) and Marcus Santos-Silva (10.1) also serve as reliable sources of offense.
VCU makes just 44.2 percent of its field goals and only 30.7 percent of its 3-point tries. On paper, the presence of UCF and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall doesn't figure to lead to a whole lot of improvement offensively.
After the Knights scored an upset win at No. 8 Houston on March 2, Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said that Fall takes away half a team's playbook because of his height and ability to block shots. Fall blocked 77 shots in 31 games and probably altered at least twice that many, while chipping in 10.9 points and 7.3 boards per game.
Like VCU, UCF (23-8) overcame an early exit in its conference tourney, absorbing a 79-55 rout at Memphis in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals. But the Knights were never in real bubble trouble, thanks to consecutive late-season wins over the league's top two teams, Cincinnati and Houston.
It's the first at-large bid in program history and only the fifth NCAA appearance for UCF, which had never been seeded higher than 14th before. Its last game in the NCAA tourney occurred in 2005, after it won the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament.
"It's just really exciting," said guard B.J. Taylor, the team's leading scorer at 16 points per game, to the Orlando Sentinel. "It's a great moment for the school and a great moment for the basketball program."
The winner will play Sunday against either top-seeded Duke or the winner of Wednesday's play-in game between North Carolina Central and North Dakota State. If the Knights and Blue Devils both win, it will pit Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski against his first great player, UCF bench boss Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins was the star player for Krzyzewski's first Final Four team in 1986.
--Field Level Media