A-10 Non-Conference Grades: VCU Rams
Only one Atlantic 10 team has danced in the NCAA tournament for the past six seasons and that team is the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University. A big part of that success has been combining a solid non-conference showing with successful play in both the CAA and Atlantic 10 conferences the black and gold have called home during what has been the most successful era in VCU’s history. So the question is: come selection Sunday, should they need it, did VCU once again do enough in the OOC portion of their schedule?
In years past VCU usually picked up an obvious big win or two that you just knew would aid them in March. Perhaps the only group of the six-year successful run that did not boast such a win was the 2012 squad who’s biggest victory came against a South Florida team most casual fans would not get excited about. Both VCU and that USF team would ultimately advanced to the round of 32, South Florida by way of a First 4 appearance, VCU as the automatic bid recipient from the CAA they then called home for one last season. This year’s VCU start appears to have some nice wins but like in 2012, perhaps no hang-your-hat type of wins like the Rams got when winning at UVA in year’s past, defeating UCLA at the Garden, and so on.
This year’s best win appears to be a recent home win against Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders (10-3) return an extremely talented group from a team that upset second-seeded Michigan State in last season’s NCAA tournament. They currently rank 16th in the RPI (according to CBSSPorts.com), a number that’s likely to fall as Kermit Davis’ squad enters CUSA play, even if they continue to win. MTSU was a top-10 win even after the loss at VCU but fell to 18th after losing their next contest, a surprising home L to Georgia State (they have since risen to 16th). They are likely a NCAA tournament team and one that should move the needle of the selection committee more than they will for the casual hoops fan. VCU’s other “best wins” are debatable depending on which rankings you prefer. RPI is highly volatile early on and with that sees the Rams’ other two top-100s victories coming over UNC-Asheville (last year’s Big South champs) and LUS. Neither team however cracks kenpom’s top-100, Pomeroy favoring wins over Princeton (Ivy Leaue Preseason No.1) and Old Dominion (a road win for the Rams). It’s incredibly tough to figure out which of those groups will prove to help the Rams most in March. Princeton was a very dangerous team starting the season but may have to temper their expectations due to several key injuries. Old Dominion is healthy and dangerous while LSU ultimately could have the highest ceiling thanks to conference affiliation.
VCU owns three losses, two of which are questionable in just how bad they are. The Rams lost to Baylor after leading the undefeated Bears at the half and won’t have to worry one bit about that loss hurting them. What will be fun to watch however are their losses to Illinois and Georgia Tech. The Rams were favored in both contests, lost to the higher ranked Illinois in a terrible showing (an 18-point loss), then dropped a home contest the following game to what I believe will prove to be a bad Georgia Tech team (who kenpom favors in just one of their 18 ACC games this season).
I think there’s reason to hope Illinois could be a pretty decent team and with their potential success, should hopefully have a limited negative effect on the Rams in the eyes of a selection committee. Bad games happen (like 18-point losses) but are often much easier to forgive on neutral courts to solid teams. The Georgia Tech loss could however haunt VCU late into the season, especially letting that one get away on the Rams’ home court, but at the same time there’s a difference in losing to a bottom-feeding ACC foe than dropping one to a Northeast Conference opponent, etc.
Non-Conference Grade: B
You are what your record says you are and heading into A-10 play, the Rams are 10-3 after playing a solid non-conference schedule — 36th toughest nationally according to RPI rankings — that included a 3-3 record against the kenpom top-100 and 5-3 against top-150. VCU is a good team. They won in their rival’s gym, beat an MTSU team that no one will want to play in March and took down two solid programs in LSU and St. John’s. The Princeton and UNC Asheville wins could have been sneaky good Ws before injuries/personnel changes took a little off the shine of both. In short, this VCU team has for the most part done what other successful VCU NCAA tournament teams did. Good news for VCU is despite a 10-3 start, people expect/expected more. That’s where the Rams program is and could be an indicator that VCU’s best ball this season is still to come.