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NCAA 2015

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How they got here: Rams dial long distance to reach Houston

by | CBSSports.com

After a loss to James Madison on Feb. 26, the Final Four was the furthest thing from the collective minds of Virginia Commonwealth.

The Rams were just concerned about making the NCAA tournament. They had essentially fallen off the bubble after losing four straight Colonial games, finishing fourth in the conference.

Just one month later, head coach Shaka Smart is the hottest name in the business and VCU is two wins from a national championship.

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VCU has been arguably the most consistently impressive team in the NCAA tournament, going from one of the First Four participants to the Final Four. The Rams beat teams from five of the six BCS conferences, with four of the wins coming by double digits. In the Elite Eight, VCU pulled the biggest regional final upset since 2006, knocking off top-seeded Kansas.

VCU is the new George Mason -- but can the Rams take it a step farther?

Why they'll win it: If VCU continues to shoot 3-pointers the way it has so far, the Rams have a legitimate shot at a national title. The Rams have made 12 3-pointers in three of their tournament wins, creating separation between themselves and their opponent with quick strikes from behind the arc. Moreover, the Rams have done a great job forcing turnovers and getting transition baskets. They have athletes up and down the roster, and use that to their advantage.

Why they won't: The Rams don't have a lot of size and could have a rough outing if the perimeter shooting goes awry. VCU ranks near the bottom of the country in defensive rebounding percentage, and has been dominated on the glass in recent games. Talented opposing big men can take advantage of the Rams' interior. If VCU isn't hitting 3-pointers or getting transition baskets, the Rams could struggle in the halfcourt.

Players to watch: VCU needed a Herculean effort from Jamie Skeen in order to beat Kansas on Sunday, and Skeen responded. The Wake Forest transfer had 26 points and 10 rebounds, played 38 of the 40 minutes and did not commit a single foul. Skeen's inside-outside skills make him a difficult player to defend. The player who makes the team go is Joey Rodriguez. The senior point guard takes care of the ball and facilitates the offense, notching 38 assists in the five NCAA tournament games. When he's knocking down shots, VCU is even more dangerous.

Best off the bench: Brandon Rozzell, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on the same day VCU beat Kansas, has been a huge factor. He is 17 for 35 from 3-point range in the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.5 points in his past four games. Rozzell provides a confident shooter and scorer who can stretch a lead or make up a deficit with a few flicks of his wrist.

Soaring/slumping: Even though he had just nine points against Kansas, Bradford Burgess has been rolling. He scored 23 in the blowout over Purdue, and then had six 3-pointers and 26 points against Florida State. It's hard to find anyone on the Rams that is slumping, but the closest might be Rob Brandenberg. Brandeberg had eight points in the tourney opener, but has totaled six points in the past four games.

Notable stat: VCU's season-high for 3-pointers in a game is 12 -- the Rams have done it three times in the NCAA Tournament after not hitting more than 11 in a game during the regular season.

Last time in the Final Four: VCU had not been past the round of 32 before this season.

Last time won a national championship: This is the furthest VCU has ever advanced.

All-time starting five: G: Eric Maynor; G: Calvin Duncan; F: Kendrick Warren; F: Bernard Harris; F: Charles Wilkins

Final thought: VCU is the greatest story in the NCAA tournament, the greatest Cinderella in its history. Shaka Smart has been transformed into an overnight celebrity and the Rams have become one of the most likable teams in the country. Can they keep it going? Against Butler, VCU might struggle to quicken the tempo and force turnovers, and its perimeter players might have trouble against Butler's excellent defensive backcourt. The Rams aren't the favorites on paper, but they seem to thrive in that position. This team can undoubtedly win a title.


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