Dubbed the “First Four”, Wednesday’s matchup is the final of four games over two days at UD Arena as part of the NCAA’s re-formatted expansion of the traditional 64-team field. The winner of this matchup moves on to face Georgetown, seeded sixth in the Southwest, Friday in Chicago at the United Center.
Virginia Commonwealth secured an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after a strong showing in the CAA this season. The Rams entered the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed, defeated Drexel (62-60) in the quarterfinals, then took down top-seeded George Mason (79-63) in the semis before losing to Old Dominion (70-65) in the final game. VCU had a rather ambitious non- conference schedule that included five teams that made this tournament and a few other tough matchups, resulting in wins over Wofford and UCLA as well as defeats to Tennessee, Richmond and UAB. This will be the Rams’ fourth NCAA appearance since 2004 and their 11th overall. They are 5-9 in the event all- time. The 2011 tournament will be the club’s first as an at-large team since the 1983-84 season. VCU’s last go-round was in 2009 when it lost to UCLA in the first round. The Rams had lost four straight CAA games heading into the conference tourney, their first such occurrence since the 1999-2000 campaign.
USC also received an at-large bid to this tournament after logging a 19-14 record this season, which included a 10-8 mark in Pac-10 play. The Trojans got by Cal, 70-56, in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament before falling to top seed and regular-season champion Arizona, 67-62, in the semis. USC finished strong overall, though, winning six of its last eight games, including regular-season triumphs over Arizona and eventual Pac-10 tourney champ Washington. The Trojans’ non-conference schedule also yielded impressive victories against teams from this year’s field, Texas and Tennessee, as well as a two-point loss at Kansas. USC is appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in the last 11 seasons and making its 16th appearance overall. Over that time, the Trojans have managed a 12-16 record and last participated in 2009 when they dismissed Boston College in the first round before falling to eventual runner-up Michigan State in the second.
This game marks the first-ever meeting between USC and VCU on the hardwood.
The Rams are led by senior Jamie Skeen, who ranks among the CAA’s top 10 in scoring (15.3 ppg, seventh), rebounding (7.5 rpg, seventh), field goal percentage (.527, fourth) and blocks (1.2 bpg, 10th). Junior Bradford Burgess averages 14.0 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting a healthy 48.8 percent from the field and 40.1 percent on 55 made three-pointers. Senior Brandon Rozzell adds 11.3 ppg and paces the club with 61 treys on 38.6 percent shooting, while fellow senior Joey Rodriguez chips in 10.6 ppg and 60 triples on a 33.9 percent accuracy. Rodriguez also averages 3.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and tops the conference with 4.8 assists per game. Overall, VCU’s offense ranked third in the CAA at 71.5 ppg, fourth in free-throw percentage (.719) but just eighth in field goal percentage (.435). The three-point game is a big part of the Rams’ success, and although their total of 278 topped the league, 35.9 percent accuracy from beyond stood just sixth in conference. Helping the Rams’ cause are the league’s best turnover margin (plus-3.32) and their 8.5 steals per game. VCU wound up third with 14.2 assists per game. A 10th-place finish in rebounding margin (minus-3.7) leaves something to be desired, as does a defense that ranked seventh in the CAA at 67.4 ppg against.
The Trojans look to a number of sources for their scoring with six players averaging at least 9.9 ppg, though the offense ranked eighth in the Pac-10 at 66.8 ppg. It was USC’s defense that made its mark on the 2010-11 season, easily placing at the top of the conference in holding teams to 62.8 ppg — a total that ranked 48th in the country. The effort lifted the team’s scoring margin to fifth in the league (plus-4.1) while the Trojans ended second in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense (.412). USC itself shot 44.5 percent from the floor, placing sixth in conference, but also 65.3 percent on free throws which had them ranked ninth. USC was also ninth in assists with just 12.0 per game. Junior Nikola Vucevic leads the scoring attack with a solid 17.3 ppg, also good for third place in the league. Vucevic also tops all Pac-10 competitors in rebounding with 10.2 per contest while shooting better than 50.0 percent (.504) from the field. Jio Fontan chips in 10.4 ppg and Alex Stepheson adds 10.0 ppg and a stout 9.2 rpg. Both Donte Smith and Maurice Jones add reliable depth by posting identical 9.9 ppg averages. Smith dropped the conference’s fifth-most three-pointers with 73 on 36.1 percent shooting.
Both teams have proven worthy of an 11 seed in this tournament, but only one can move on to face Georgetown in the second round. The Trojans certainly took on tougher competition overall and have a defense that can stand up against the best offenses, giving them the edge in what figures to be an entertaining matchup.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 69, Virginia Commonwealth 66