Nations: VCU is worthy of attention

The hype machine kicked into overdrive on Sunday, when top-seeded Virginia dumped traditional powerhouse Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament championship game.

To say the Cavs were overdue might be understating it a bit. Virginia last won the crown in 1976, a cool 200 years after the Declaration of Independence. It’s been 38 years since, only 172 years less than that original gap between Founding Father MVP George Washington and the 1976 ACC tournament MVP, Virginia’s own Wally Walker.

Winning the ACC title is the latest jewel what has been a season to treasure for Virginia basketball fans. Coach Tony Bennett’s squad locked up a No. 1 seed in the tournament, giving Cavs fans real hope of seeing their team cut down the nets as national champions.

It’s a pretty big deal. I get that.

It does seem that another state school, one with a better track record in the NCAA tournament no less, has been somewhat shoved to the side in this rush to embrace the newly-minted Virginia juggernaut.

Of course, I’m referring to VCU (you didn’t forget about the Rams, did you?). Unlike their in-state rivals from Charlottesville, the Rams aren’t riding a huge victory into March Madness. Saint Joseph’s, looking to lock up its own bid to the NCAA tournament, nipped the Rams 65-61 in Sunday’s Atlantic 10 tournament championship game.

That close loss probably cost VCU a few spots in the final seeding, but the Rams still enter NCAA play on Friday as an always-dangerous No. 5 seed. Based on the NCAA tournament success VCU has had in recent years under coach Shaka Smart, the notion of the Rams as “mid-major upstart” should long have faded by now. The Rams have won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the past three seasons, including that electrifying run to the Final Four back in 2011 when the then 11th-seeded Rams scored five straight upsets — Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and finally No. 1 seed Kansas — to reach the cusp of the championship game.

A fifth seed has a much more manageable route to the Final Four than a No. 11, of course, but there’s never anything easy about the NCAA tournament … unless it’s a No. 1 seed taking on a No. 16, usually. The Rams will have to cut down the Lumberjacks from Stephen F. Austin in Friday’s second-round matchup in San Diego, and that might be no easy feat. The Southland Conference champion, Stephen F. Austin is riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 28 games. The Lumberjacks are 31-2 overall and no doubt itching to write their own names into tournament lore.

Good luck with that. VCU had won its previous six games before losing that close one to Saint Joseph’s in the A-10 championship, and the Rams seem to have largely shaken off the rough patch they endured back in February. Playing Smart’s trademark “Havoc” style of full-court pressure and a dizzying transition game, the Rams have handled most any challenge they’ve come up against this season.

Led by junior guard Treveon Graham, a first-team all-Atlantic 10 pick who is averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, the Rams have a variety of weapons well-suited for bedeviling opponents. Senior forward Juvonte Reddic earned second-team all-conference honors after averaging 12.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Junior guard Briante Weber won the A-10’s Defensive Player of the Year honor for the second straight season after leading the country in total steals (111) and steals per game (3.6) during the regular season. Sophomore guard Melvin Johnson picked up the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award after averaging 10.5 points and hitting a team-high 62 3-pointers during the regular season.

A win against the Lumberjacks would put VCU into Sunday’s third-round game against the winner of No. 4 UCLA and No. 13 Tulsa. From there, who knows?

Expect a team from Virginia to make some serious noise in this year’s NCAA tournament. It just might not be the Cavaliers.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>