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After the Indiana Hoosiersâ€™ solid showing against the New Mexico State Aggies of the Western Athletic Conference, this teamâ€™s maiden NCAA tournament voyage can already be qualified as a moderate success. Indianaâ€™s 79-66 win over NMSU was the inaugural NCAA tournament win of the Tom Crean era and doubled as the programâ€™s first NCAA tournament win since Kelvin Sampsonâ€™s first IU team beat Gonzaga 70-57 in the first round.
That team lost in the second round to a UCLA team that had played in the National Title Game the year before and went to the Final Four that season as well. Interestingly enough, this yearâ€™s team will face an opponent that went to last yearâ€™s Final Four and is again playing extraordinarily well â€“ not just for a team from a mid-major conference, but by any standard.
The Opponent: VCU Rams
Virginia Commonwealth head basketball coach, Shaka Smart, burst onto the national scene last year as the dynamic, young coach of an upstart VCU team that made a shocking run from an opening round play-in game to the Final Four. After a lackluster regular season, the Rams knocked off a series of heavyweights including Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before bowing out to Butler in the Final Four. VCU made its mark by shooting the ball effectively, limiting their own turnovers and forcing opponents to turn the ball over.
As remarkable as last yearâ€™s run was though, this yearâ€™s team has already done something that last yearâ€™s squad was unable to do. With an upset victory in the opening round, the Rams added a 29th win to their season tally â€“ one more than last season and good for a new single-season school record.
VCUâ€™s formula for success this year features a few departures from the one they employed during last yearâ€™s magical run. First of all, they lost two of last seasonâ€™s most significant offensive contributors to graduation. Point guard Joey Rodriguez served as a catalyst on both ends of the court as a tenacious on-ball defender and one of the more underrated assist men in the country. Jaime Skeen was a perfect compliment to Rodriguez and was the Ramsâ€™ primary offensive threat, averaging nearly 16 points per game and shooting 52% and 42% from the floor and behind the arc respectively.
Skeen and Rodriguezâ€™s absences have shown on the offensive end of the court this year, as VCU finished the regular season averaging only 68 points per game to the 72 per game they scored last season. The Ramsâ€™ shooting percentage has dropped across the board as well, from .435/.715/.370 (FG%/FT%/3PT%) to .410/.689/.335 on the season.
Despite the offensive drop-off, they actually had more regular season success this year. This development is likely due, at least in part, to a less demanding schedule this season (according to kenpom.com, their strength of schedule fell more than 70 spots â€“ 67th to 140th â€“ from last season to this one), but also has something to do with the maturation of what Coach Smart calls his â€œHAVOCâ€ defense. HAVOC relies on relentless ball pressure and VCU has six players who play right into that, averaging at least a steal per game, including Darius Theus and Briante Weber who each average right around two steals per game (with Weber getting his in only 18 minutes of playing time). The Rams average 11 steals per game â€“ up from 8 a year ago â€“ and no team in the country forces turnovers on a higher percentage of possessions than they do.
They press â€“ aggressively â€“ non-stop, guard the three-point line effectively, forcing opponents to bear down and make good decisions with the basketball in order to beat them. Seeing as theyâ€™ve lost exactly once since January 12th, itâ€™s safe to say theyâ€™ve done a pretty good job. The Hoosiers will have their hands full.
IU Keys to Victory
The first obstacle for Indiana will be the quick turnaround they face in preparing for VCUâ€™s full court pressure. HAVOC is hard enough to prepare for when given ample time to draw up a game plan, but with only a day between games the Hoosiersâ€™ challenge may end up being even more significant. Simply put, IU hasnâ€™t faced a team as pressure-oriented as the Rams this season because that team doesnâ€™t exist.
For fans wondering what it looks like when a team is unprepared for the VCU defensive attack, they need look no further than last yearâ€™s run to the Final Four, in which they held big name teams unfamiliar with their style of play to an average of 62 points per game. For Indiana to be successful, the coaching staff will need to do some serious heavy lifting to prepare their players for the pressure theyâ€™ll face on Saturday.
As expected with such a significant level of pressure, the Hoosier guards will need to have strong performances. Jordan Hulls scored 22 points against New Mexico State and was effective with his dribble when pressured, but he lacks an explosive first step, which VCU could try and capitalize on. Iâ€™ll be keeping a particularly sharp eye on Victor Oladipo, who scored only six points against NMSU on 3-7 shooting with two turnovers and several mishandlings of the ball. When he brings his â€˜Aâ€™-game, Indiana is nearly impossible to stop but heâ€™s been hit-or-miss recently, averaging only 6.75 points and shooting 27% from the floor in that span. If Oladipo continues to struggle, so too may the Hoosiers.
Finally, Cody Zeller will need to make the most of his opportunities inside. As I touched on earlier, the Rams are one of the best perimeter-defending teams in the country and are great at limiting their opponentsâ€™ chances from beyond the arc. VCU is equally scrappy inside the paint, despite a lack of size, constantly slapping at the ball and trying to force turnovers. Against Wichita Stateâ€™s Garrett Stutz, the Ramsâ€™ defense was ridiculously active, forcing him into 2-11 shooting and making him uncomfortable throughout the game The fact that IU has struggled at times to feed Zeller in the post adds a degree of difficulty against VCUâ€™s vice grip defense around the arc.
Indiana does have some advantages going for them. They are the more athletic team, have better interior size and have better shooters. If the Hoosiers remain unselfish and continue to make the extra pass, they should find shots against the gambling Ram press and they have the shooters to knock those shots down. On the defensive end, Indiana will need to focus on forcing VCU to execute offensively in the halfcourt. If the Hoosiers limit VCUâ€™s fast break chances and defend well in the halfcourt, the Rams will need to shoot more accurately than they normally do to have a chance.
Long story short, IU will need to focus on keeping their offense clean. They canâ€™t afford lazy passes, indecisive possessions or letting their guard down. The proverbial ball is in Indianaâ€™s court â€“ theyâ€™re the more talented, more complete team, but many of the teams VCU beat during last yearâ€™s run were more talented and more complete. Whether or not IU suffers a similar fate will be fascinating to watch.