There was no doubt that a lot was on the line in the CAA tournament final between two-seed VCU and top-seed Drexel, and that goes beyond the title that was at stake. A win would wrap up an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, which in turn would remove the need to worry about whether or not their gaudy win total would be enough to sway the selection committee.
VCU was able to take over the game early with their chaotic brand of defense, leading 35-19 at the half, and the gap established in the latter stages of the first half proved to be too much to overcome for Bruiser Flint's Dragons. The Rams were able to withstand a Dragon rally, never relinquishing a lead that dwindled to as small as one point in a 59-56 victory in Richmond.
Shaka Smart's team shot 4-for-15 from three and was out-rebounded 41-24, but Drexel was unable to take full advantage of those issues. The Dragons turned the ball over 18 times for the game with 12 coming in the first half, and VCU was able to convert those turnovers into 16 points. Drexel fought their way back into the game in the second half by taking better care of the basketball, which in turn meant more scoring opportunities for guards Chris Fouch and Damion Lee (26 points combined in the second half).
"Sixteen points off turnovers in the first half, and they had two in the second. Bottom line," said Flint when asked what the difference was. "We wanted them to run half-court offense and we made them run half-court offense in the second half."
VCU was able to take Drexel out of their comfort zone, especially when it came to dealing with big men Samme Givens and Darryl McCoy. The Rams didn't allow Drexel's big men to set up on the block offensively, and on the other end they were able to make those bigs defend action on the perimeter. VCU's big men limited Givens, McCoy and Dartaye Ruffin to seven points...combined. That's a development that few would have expected of the likes of D.J. Haley and Juvonte Reddic back in December.
"I'm excited about the future with those [big men] and they're development's been good. Again they have a long way to go," said Smart of his frontcourt. "But you don't win a conference championship without big guys stepping up and playing high-level basketball."
Senior Bradford Burgess was quiet with six points on 2-for-9 shooting, but his leadership has been something VCU has been able to rely on all season. Also point guard Darius Theus stepped up in a big way, finishing with 16 points, five assists and five steals, leaving his fingerprints on the game at both ends of the floor. Treveon Graham scored 13 points off the bench and Troy Daniels knocked down four key free throws in the final minute to hold off the Dragons.
VCU was in a similar position to Drexel last year, having dropped the CAA final and having to watch other teams throughout the country in hopes of having enough on their resume to get into the Big Dance. The Rams' story is well-documented at this point, but will Drexel receive a similar opportunity? With an RPI (as of Sunday) of 63 and a strength of schedule of 259, those numbers don't look to be in the Dragons' favor.
But they did win 19 straight games going into the title game, and it's tough to argue against an outright conference title and 27 wins. It will definitely be an interesting case to keep track of in the days leading up to Selection Sunday, with the question being whether or not the selection committee believes that the combination of on-court product and resume is good enough to warrant giving Drexel a spot in the tournament.
Three Notable Performances
1. G Nate Wolters (South Dakota State)
31 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the Jackrabbits' 63-47 win over Southern Utah.
2. F Elias Harris (Gonzaga)
22 points (10-14 FG), 13 rebounds and two steals in the Bulldogs' 78-74 overtime loss to Saint Mary's.
3. F Jake Cohen (Davidson)
17 points (7-9 FG), seven rebounds, seven blocked shots and four assists in the Wildcats' 93-91 double overtime win over Western Carolina.