Originally posted on Just Cover Blog  |  Last updated 3/14/12

Deep down, you knew Garrett Stutz would be this awkward looking

In an obvious troll of college basketball fans, the NCAA matched up two of the more popular mid-major teams – clubs many bracketeers had counted on penciling in as upsets against a bloated major-conference mediocrity. Moreover, they made this the 5/12 game  -  a seed combination that sends the alarms of any veteran of March Madness into a frenzy: at least one 12-seed wins every year. Is this match-up the one?

Last year, VCU narrowly made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team with the push, likely, coming from a one-point road win on Bracket Buster Weekend over Wichita State. Once there, VCU, lead by media hit Shaka Smart, parlayed a berth in the newly-minted “First Four” into a five-game win-streak and a Final Four berth. Along the way, they beat Georgetown and Big Ten Champion Purdue by nearly 20, edged Florida State in overtime, and defeated Kansas, the prohibitive tourney favorite, by 10.

Wichita State ended the season on a roll of their own. After having their at-large hopes dashed by VCU, they went on to a heart-breaking upset in the MVAC tourney, despite being the top seed. Their luck turned in the, NIT, where the Shockers cobbled together five straight wins for a tournament championship. Oddly, this year, it was a victory over Davidson on Bracket Buster weekend that likely helped Wichita State overcome another MVAC tournament disappointment and claim a high seed.

Last years results aside, it’s Wichita State that presents the significantly stronger resume – running a 16-2 record in the MVAC, which, according to KenPom, is the third strongest mid-major in the nation, and substantially stronger than the Colonial, which VCU took second place in, at 15-3 (helped, possibly, by having their one-play be conference champion Drexel).

VCU has taken last years tendencies to the extreme – forcing turnovers at a greater rate than any team in the nation, on 27.4% of defensive possessions. Defensively, they rebound terribly, foul often, and are only adequate at squelching good shooting – it’s the turnovers, specifically the steals (again, first in the nation) that fuel their 27th ranked defense. VCU has a whopping seven players who rank in the nation’s top 400 in steal rate, lead by the nation’s best – Briante Weber, who averages over two steals a game in only 18 minutes of playing time per contest. Darius Theus, their point guard, is the second best thief on the team, and their main facilitator on offense. VCU doesn’t have much size to shut down opposing big men, and are an extremely poor defensive rebounding team as a result – if they can’t take the ball from you before you can shoot, they get in trouble.

Offensively, the Rams main virtue is the converse of their chief defensive skill – they take care of the ball. They’re an extremely poor shooting team despite taking more three-pointers than 280 other clubs in college basketball (they 187th in 3 point %). Troy Daniels and Bradford Burgess launch thirteen threes a game between them, making a respectable 37%, but the rest of the roster takes an additional nine shots per game despite shooting 22.5%. Again – if you can hang onto the ball, not only do you cripple their defense, but you force them into an ineffective three-point barrage.

Wichita State, on the other hand is built around 7’0″, 260 pound senior Garrett Stutz. Stutz is one of the premier rebounders in the country, a good shot-blocker, and an efficient scorer in the post, both from the field and at the line. Stutz is aided by Joe Ragland, statistically, the best shooter in college basketball. Ragland makes 50% of his three-point attempts, a whopping 62% of his two, and 83% of his free-throws. The strengths of the club mirror these two players – Wichita State is the 13th best shooting team in the nation, and the 10th best on the defensive glass – yielding excellent units on both sides of the floor.

The key questions will be whether the Rams can withstand the size of Stutz, and whether the Shockers can hang onto to the basketball. The Shockers largely succeeded at hanging onto the ball (46th in the nation), and were slightly better at avoiding steals (32nd), but, as their #1 ranking suggests, VCU likely brings a sort of pressure to bear to which the Shockers are not accustomed. In their losses, the Rams have gotten abused by aggressive rebounders such as Seton Hall’s Herb Pope and Alabama’s JerMychal Green – Stutz will be a similar challenge, though one that stands nearly four inches taller. Simply, they haven’t seen a player this big, but we know they struggle with smaller rebounders. Stutz has proven to be foul prone – the Rams will need to aggressively attack him with their Bradford Burgess and Jevontae Reddic, both adequate at getting to the line.

In the contest of the underdogs, it’s tempting to pick Shaka Smart, who is getting linked to virtually every major-conference coaching victory, to rekindle last year’s magic, but this seems to be a tough match-up for the Rams, especially giving the size of Stutz, and the overall quality of the Shocker defense. Most likely, if you want to pick some upsets out of this matchup, you’d start better looking at Wichita State Sweet 16 match-ups.

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