The VCU Rams men’s basketball team (21-8, 14-4 A-10) will be the 14th and final team to make their Atlantic 10 conference tournament debut when their first game tips off at 8 p.m. Friday at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.
In postseason play for bubble teams, there are “must-win” games and “can’t lose” games. Friday’s quarterfinal matchup for the #3 VCU Rams falls into the latter category.
Friday night’s opponent is one of VCU’s biggest A-10 rivals, the #6 Richmond Spiders (20-12, 11-8 A-10). The Spiders won in a shocker of a second-round matchup on Thursday, defeating #11 Rhode Island 64-59 after trailing for most of the game, often by double-digits. A late 17-4 run, spurred by lockdown Richmond defense and fouling issues by Rhode Island, foiled Rhode Island’s quest to become the first team to play in the A-10 Tournament’s opening round to advance to the quarterfinals under the 14-team format.
The pending matchup between Richmond and VCU gives Virginia’s basketball fans a bonus edition of the Capital City Classic, the rivalry between the two programs that dates to the 1970s. The two programs have met 88 times, with VCU leading the all-time series 57-31.
VCU swept the two regular season meetings between the rival programs in two vastly different ways. In the first meeting at the Robins Center on Jan. 29, VCU won 64-62 after Vince Williams knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer in the final minute. In the Feb. 18 meeting at the Siegel Center, VCU trailed 28-20 with two minutes to go in the first half, but then went on a 57-29 run through the end of the game to secure a blowout 77-57 victory.
In short, VCU has held a significant advantage in the rivalry in recent years. Since current sixth-year seniors Grant Golden and Nick Sherod joined the Richmond Spiders in 2016-17, VCU has held a 9-3 advantage in the rivalry.
On Thursday night, it was the 24-year-old Golden that led the Spiders offense, scoring 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting. But, it was fifth-year senior Jacob Gilyard, the all-time NCAA Division I leader in career steals, who stole the show. Gilyard scored 10 points and swiped six steals while taking over the game on the defensive end. It is Gilyard and Golden, along with forward Tyler Burton, who are likely the three Spiders to watch come tip-off tomorrow night.
The key to Richmond’s comeback victory on Thursday will be the key to VCU’s success in this tournament: stellar defense. As of Thursday night, VCU ranks fourth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom and is widely regarded as one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Despite this distinction, no VCU player was named to the A-10 All-Defensive Team. On Tuesday, Williams was named to the All A-10 First Team, sophomore guard Ace Baldwin to the All A-10 Second Team and freshman guard Jayden Nunn to the A-10 All-Rookie Team.
The trio, along with senior KeShawn Curry and junior Hason Ward, will likely be VCU’s starting five on Friday night. The quintet has started nine games, including six of the last seven, and has a record of 7-2. After needing to mix-and-match starters early in the season due to injuries – namely Baldwin’s Achilles injury, head coach Mike Rhoades appears to have settled on a unit late in the season that he feels confident in.
Despite a regular-season-ending 69-65 road loss to Saint Louis that honestly should have been a 15-point loss, the Rams still bring massive momentum into the A-10 Tournament. Winners of eight of the last nine games, stellar all-around performances by Williams and a late-season offensive renaissance by Curry have made VCU far more explosive than they were at the beginning of the year.
In fact, Williams is coming off arguably his best game as a VCU player, scoring a career-high 26 points in the loss to Saint Louis. Baldwin also contributed a solid statline, adding 12 points, six rebounds and six assists to the VCU effort.
Ultimately, the loss still places VCU on the NCAA Tournament bubble, with the majority of bracketologists putting the Rams either as one of the last teams in or one of the first teams out of the tournament. In short, Friday’s game is a “can’t lose” game because a loss functionally eliminates the Rams from tournament consideration. While the game against Richmond will count as a Quadrant 2 game, VCU should be favored in the contest, outranks Richmond in all crucial metrics and has defeated the Spiders twice. A loss Friday would doom the Rams to a National Invitation Tournament bid, which VCU last appeared in in 2008.
But, history is on VCU’s side. Since the current A-10 Tournament format was adopted in 2015, VCU has only failed to advance to the championship game twice, both times following a quarterfinals loss to Rhode Island.
VCU has also faced Richmond four times in the postseason: once in the CAA tournament (1996) and three times in the A-10 tournament (2014, 2015, 2017). VCU is 4-0 in such games.
Ultimately, VCU wins the game on paper, they win the game when accounting for recent history, and if the Richmond team that played Rhode Island in the first 32 minutes of their Thursday night game shows up, VCU should have no problems advancing to the semifinals.
But it is March, and in an A-10 Tournament that has been devoid of major upsets so far, expect the unexpected. Perhaps no team has the tournament experience to be able to pull off a shocker like the Richmond Spiders; they already have one major tournament comeback under their belts this week.
So, strap in and get ready VCU fans. Life on the bubble is a bumpy ride.
Featured image courtesy of Daniel Frank/A10 Talk