Survive and advance.
That is the name of the game once March arrives on the calendar. March Madness has a way of chewing up competitors rather quickly. Half of the 64 teams that make the main bracket are sent packing within the first 48 hours of the tournament.
#10 VCU will take on #7 Oregon in the 32nd and final game of the Round of 64 on Saturday night. The Rams will need to stick to a specific formula to avoid the fate of 31 teams before them to survive and advance to a Monday afternoon meeting with the Iowa-Grand Canyon winner.
Welcome to the Bones Yard
The keys to the game for VCU begins with the Atlantic 10 conference Player of the Year, sophomore guard Bones Hyland. Listed as the 25th best player in the NCAA tournament by ESPN, Hyland leads the Rams in points and made 3-pointers. Hyland can score in many ways and seemingly is never out of range of the bucket. It is imperative that the Rams get Hyland working in this one, as it is likely the Rams will need Hyland’s 19 points per game average to hang with the Pac-12 regular-season champion.
This could also be a swan song run for Hyland. Bones Hyland has been a target of NBA scouts, with some mock drafts listing him as high as a low-end first round pick this summer. NBA champion Kendrick Perkins added his voice to the chorus during the A10 tournament earlier this month:
Nah’Shon Hyland from VCU will have a hell of NBA career when he decides to make that jump!!!
— Kendrick Perkins (@KendrickPerkins) March 7, 2021
Hyland also sent a tweet earlier this week that only further fanned the flames:
3 years ago I was sitting in my room watching March madness when a fire had broke out in my house.. & I lost two of my family members.. Broke my soul into pieces but I’m still standing like a soldier and March madness is here now. And best believe I’m going out wit a bang!!
— Bizzy🌟 (@BizzyBones11) March 18, 2021
Again, much of this is speculation and nothing is confirmed one way or the other. However, with the added rest time this month, Hyland is fully healthy and ready to go for his first NCAA tournament appearance. Look for another made-for-TV performance on Saturday night.
It’s Havoc You Fear
KenPom has VCU ranked as the 11th-most efficient defensive team in the country. That stat quantifies what fans of the A10 have known all season long: it is tough to score on these Rams.
Saturday’s game is a classic example of iron sharpening iron: the Ducks are 16th in offensive efficiency per KenPom. In addition, the Rams rank fifth in blocks and are tied for fifth in steals in the nation.
Leading the defensive charge is VCU big man Hason Ward. Ward has blossomed into an incredible shot blocker this season, averaging 2.35 blocks per game. That mark trails just A10 Defensive Player of the Year Osun Osunniyi for the A10 lead and puts Ward 21st in the country. Since the graduation of Justin Tillman in 2018, VCU has lacked a consistent shot blocker like Ward until this year.
Freshman guard Ace Baldwin often gets high praise for his passing acumen. Lost in this is the fact that he is a monster defensively, swiping 2.12 steals per game. That mark puts Baldwin 24th in the nation and second amongst freshmen, behind St. John’s guard Posh Alexander. Baldwin had a lackluster game against the Bonnies for the A10 title, so look for Baldwin to bounce back and return to his all-rookie form.
The key for Oregon is to use its greatest strength – offense – to bowl over the inexperienced VCU defense. The Ducks have won 11 of 13 entering Saturday but were eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament by eventual champions Oregon State.
Oregon is among the best teams in the nation at shooting the 3, knocking down just under 38% of their shots from behind the arc.
Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi leads the offensive attack for Oregon, averaging 16.7 points per game on 47% shooting. Although he only converts 76% of his free throws, Omoruyi can still be dangerous for the Rams.
Senior guard Chris Duarte is also averaging 16.7 points, in addition to 4.7 boards and 2.3 assists. The senior connects on 52.4% of his shots and 43% of his 3-pointers while leading the Ducks in assists. Duarte was the Pac-12 Player of the Year this season.
In addition, junior forward Eric Williams Jr. leads the Ducks with 6.1 rebounds per game. Remarkably, roughly one-third of Williams’ rebounds are on the offensive end. At 6’6, Williams will likely see a lot of Hason Ward during Saturday’s contest.
NCAA Tournament Experience
Only two Ducks, Will Richardson and L.J. Figueroa, have played in the NCAA tournament before. Only Richardson appeared with Oregon. Corey Douglas and Vince Williams played in VCU’s last NCAA tournament game in 2019, while Levi Stockard has played in five NCAA tournament games with Kansas State.
Both teams made March Madness in 2019. #8 VCU lost to #9 UCF in the first round, while #12 Oregon made a run to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champions Virginia.
As for coaching, VCU head man Mike Rhoades is making his second NCAA tournament appearance, both with VCU. He is 0-1 in March Madness games.
Oregon head coach Dana Altman represents a formidable foe. As one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, Altman has led Oregon to seven tournaments. Altman has never lost in the first-round while at Oregon, including a Final Four run in 2017 and four runs to the Sweet 16 or later. In his career, Altman has been to 15 NCAA tournaments between Oregon, Creighton and Kansas State, holding a lifetime record of 15-14.
VCU’s Seeding and History
#10 VCU is at a historical disadvantage based on seeding. #10 seeds have a record of 56-86, with UConn-Maryland still to play before VCU tips off tonight. That amounts to a 39% win percentage in the history of the 64-team format. Only one #10 seed has ever made the Final Four (Syracuse, 2016).
Historical disadvantages mean little to VCU. VCU made the Final Four in 2011 as a #11 seed, one of four programs to ever do so. That season essentially made VCU a household name and kicked off the most successful decade in the history of the program.
The Rams have made March Madness 18 times in program history. In that time, VCU has compiled a record of 13-17, including the five-win run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. VCU has not won a tournament game since Will Wade led the Rams to a 75-67 win over Oregon State in 2015. Ironically, VCU pulled off a #10-#7 upset in that game.
As for the matchup ahead, VCU and Oregon have faced off once in program history. The Rams defeated the Ducks 77-63 in the 2014 Legends Classic at the Barclays Center.
#10 VCU (19-7) are 5.5-point underdogs to #7 Oregon (20-6). The guys in the desert have set the over/under at around 138 points.
March Madness is impossible to handicap. This is why there has never been, and probably never will be, a perfect NCAA tournament bracket. Despite the trends, a #7-#10 matchup is essentially a pick-em. The key to the game will be Oregon’s offense vs. VCU’s defense. If the score can stay at 65 or below, it will be VCU’s night. If the score starts creeping up, Oregon will rule the day.
Jason’s Prediction: VCU 62, Oregon 55 (Jason’s Record: 4-2)
VCU and Oregon will tip off at around 9:57 p.m. tonight. TNT will have the coverage.
*Image via VCU Athletics*