USC Basketball Game Preview: Virginia Commonwealth Rams


11  Virginia Commonwealth Rams (23-11) vs.  11  USC  Trojans (19-14)

Head Coach: Shaka Smart (Year 2: 50-20)

Conference: Colonial Athletic Association


Location: Dayton, Ohio

Time: 6:10 PM (PDT)

TV: truTV

Radio: 710 AM

Matchup: The NCAA tournament expanded to 68-teams for the 2011 tournament, with the final four at-large teams participating in play-in games for the right to play in the round of 64. The USC-VCU game is part of this inaugural “First Four” in Dayton, Ohio.

USC returns to the NCAA tournament after a self-imposed postseason ban last year. This is the fourth time in a row the Men of Troy have gone dancing when they have been eligible. The Trojans appeared doomed in January as they hovered around .500, but they surged to the finish and won 6 of their final 8. They snuck into the bracket and earned an at-large bid after finishing fourth in the Pac-10. In their last contest, USC fell to No. 15 Arizona, but head coach Kevin O’Neill watched from his Los Angeles penthouse after he was suspended by athletic director Pat Haden for an altercation with an Arizona booster. Forward Nikola Vucevic admitted they missed their coach’s intensity, and he will be back for the NCAA tournament.

Virginia Commonwealth, out of the Colonial Athletic Association, received an at-large bid as well. On Selection Sunday, VCU was one of two teams that many felt did not deserve a bid. The Rams finished 23-11, but placed fourth in their conference behind Old Dominion, George Mason, and Hofstra. Shaka Smart’s squad stumbled down the stretch as they went 5-6. However, the did record a noteworthy win over George Mason to reach the CAA finals before losing to Old Dominion. Early in the season, the Rams fell at home to Tennessee and went 3-5 against the RPI top 50.

Offensively, USC needs Nikola Vucevic to return to form. The junior struggled in the Pac-10 tournament and that hindered the Trojan attack greatly. The big men fuel USC and are the most consistent aspect of the offense; their success is paramount if USC plans to make a run. Cal and Arizona both held down Vucevic by double-teaming him immediately. In order to counter this, he needs to either quickly find the open man or go up aggressively with the rock. Alex Stepheson is also an important piece. The senior has been crucial to the stretch run. Stepheson and Maurice Jones have developed a great relationship and it is a lethal combination when Jones cuts in to the middle and finds an open Stepheson near the hoop. Since the play inside is usually a given, the difference between a win and a loss will be because of guard play. The formula for USC relies on aggression and precision shooting. Against Cal in the Pac-10 tournament, USC thrived by knocking down their open threes. The Trojans aren’t potent offensively, but they rely somewhat on the three to score in spurts. Donte Smith is their best from beyond the arc, and he is a streaky shooter. After nailing 4 of 6 against Cal, he made just 1 of 6 from beyond the arc the next day against Arizona. If he is on fire and pounding his chest after made shots, opponents are in trouble. Jio Fontan also needs to penetrate. When Jio gets inside, teams either have to bring a big over to help or foul him and put him on the line. Finally, the X-factor is Maurice Jones. The freshman guard, who has come off the bench over the last 8 games, has proven to be a pest for opposing teams. Inside the paint he has great vision to find open big men for easy layups or he can put on a nifty move to lay it inside. One other thing to note: the emergence of Marcus Simmons in the Pac-10 tournament. The senior guard nailed threes during the tournament, sunk jump shots, and even got to the foul line by attacking the basket. Before the tournament, his offensive game left much to be desired, but he has really picked it up as his collegiate career nears the end. Can he keep it up? That would be a huge plus.

The Rams rank 99th in points per game with 71.5 per game and they rank 180th in shooting percentage at 43.5%. VCU has a balanced attack. Guard Bradford Burgess is lethal from the floor, and the onus will likely fall on Marcus Simmons to guard him. The 6’5″ Burgess averages 14 points per game while shooting 48.8% from the floor and 40% from beyond the arc. To limit his scoring, Simmons will have to harass the junior and contest every shot heavily. The other major threat is senior forward Jamie Skeen. The 6’9″ forward is much like Derrick Williams in that he is a threat inside but can also stroke the three ball. Skeen shoots 52.9% from the floor and 37.9% beyond the arc. Guarding him will be a problem because he can hang out on the perimeter. USC used Stepheson on Derrick Williams and then let Vucevic take him inside, but that forced guards to help out Vucevic with his man and left the opponent with opportunities to spot up from three. The strategy will have to change because they can’t allow VCU to have good looks from beyond the arc. Of note, guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell also average double figures. Finally, the Rams like to put three guards on the floor at the same time. USC has used a small lineup at times, but they thrive when Vucevic and Stepheson are dominated. Those guys may not be quick enough to match up with the little guards though, so we will see how O’Neill counters the speed and athleticism.

Kevin O’Neill will be tested strategically in this contest. He has likened them to Washington, and the Rams will try to ramp up the pace. As such, O’Neill will need to find the right balance between Maurice Jones and Marcus Simmons. Simmons is perhaps the best man-to-man defender in the country, and his presence on the court is a stable force for the USC defense. Against Arizona, the senior guard found himself in foul trouble, and the Wildcats built their lead each time he had to go to the bench. However, he isn’t the best ball handler in the country. Against a team that will ratchet up the pressure, Maurice Jones is the ideal guard. The shifty freshman is incredibly quick and can dink and dunk through the smallest windows in traffic. His ball handling will be a stable presence. Striking the right balance with the lineup will be difficult, but O’Neill has proven he knows the pulse of this team extremely well over the last 8 games.