AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Before VCU walloped Akron late Thursday night, it already knew who its opponent in the third round of the NCAA Tournament would be – the Michigan Wolverines.
In the NCAA Tournament, every game is supposed to be fair and played on a neutral court to truly see who the better of the two teams are. Unfortunately for VCU, they were sent to Auburn Hills, a location merely 50 miles away from Ann Arbor, Mich. – home of the Wolverines. And, to make it worse, Michigan is 6-1 all-time at The Palace.
“I’ll be lying if I said it wouldn’t be [an advantage], but yeah, it’s good to have our fan base behind us while we’re playing here,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said.
“It will be a road game, we love that,” Shaka Smart said. “Michigan’s got a phenomenal coach in John Beilein, they got some terrific players. [It’s a] great opportunity for the Rams.”
But, to Beilein, he doesn’t see it as a clear-cut advantage.
“I think they’re 8-3 on the road,” Beilein said. “The way they play, it doesn’t make a difference where they are. They’re very good at it.”
Michigan, a team ranked 10th in the latest AP Poll, has been among the best teams in the country all season long, even reaching No. 1 in the AP Poll back in January. Five of their six losses this season have come against teams ranked in the top-25.
The Wolverines are going to be the toughest matchup the Rams have faced since playing Duke in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend.
What is going to be the biggest challenge for VCU against Michigan is the thing the Rams do best – force turnovers. Michigan averages 9.2 turnovers per game, which is the lowest in the country.
“People don’t want to turn the ball over in games, because they know valuing possessions is a huge philosophy that we have,” Beilein said. “[Trey Burke’s] got to keep his head up tomorrow because people will come at him from different angles. Thank goodness we have a ball handling team that’s pretty good at several positions.”
“They’ve got several guards that are very savvy, very poised with the basketball, and they’re guys that don’t make a lot of mistakes and are hard to speed up,” Smart said.
Two players to keep an eye on in the game are Burke and Hardaway Jr. The pair averages over 34 minutes per game and they have been an integral part of Michigan’s success this season.
Burke averages 18.8 points, 3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game, while Hardaway Jr. adds in 15 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. VCU’s guards are going to have their hands full trying to contain the two potential NBA draft picks.
“We’ve played against some terrific guards over the course of this year, but Trey Burke is as good or better than any of them,” Smart said. “I haven’t seen a guard better than him. [He’s] a lot of people’s pick for National Player of the Year.”
As with most of VCU’s games, the success of the press is going to be vital to the team’s success come Saturday afternoon. Giving up easy baskets against a team of Michigan’s caliber is something that can be dangerous.
On the contrary, Michigan only has a day to essentially learn to defend VCU’s style of pressing, something teams have not had success with in the past – 2011 NCAA Tournament run anybody?
“[They’re] a really talented team that plays a very different style than most teams we see,” Beilein said. “Making that adjustment in one day is difficult.”
Whoever emerges the winner when the final buzzer sounds will have a few days off before heading to Arlington, Texas to play in the Sweet 16.
Fans with hopes of another Final Four run, here’s a glimmer of hope.
That year, VCU played a Big Ten team (Purdue) in the third round before heading to San Antonio to play in the Sweet 16 against an ACC team – UNC is a possible matchup this year.
It’s either a sign of things to come, or a cruel coincidence.