When they lose: As streaky Rodriguez goes, so go the Rams

by | CBS Sports
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HOUSTON -- For a team that lost its last four Colonial Athletic Conference games and barely reached the NCAA tournament, it’s not hard to find trends in losses suffered by Virginia Commonwealth.

But one constant is simple: VCU loses when it doesn’t make shots.

In their 28 wins this season, the Rams shot 39 percent from 3-point range. Meanwhile, in their losses, they were just 75-for-239 from behind the arc -- that is, 31.4 percent.

Joey Rodriguez cheers with VCU teammates after the underdog Rams' takedown of No. 1 seed Kansas. (Getty Images)  
Joey Rodriguez cheers with VCU teammates after the underdog Rams' takedown of No. 1 seed Kansas. (Getty Images)  
The Rams’ worst month by far was February, when they suffered a stretch of four losses in five games. In that month, they shot 31 percent on 3-pointers. Compare that number to March -- when the Rams are 7-1 -- and you’ll notice VCU is hitting 42.1 percent of its 3-point attempts. The team has knocked down a season-high 12 3-pointers three times in the NCAA tournament after not hitting more than 11 in a game all season.

Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell, two of the Rams' three best shooters, seem like the best indicators of how well it's going for the Rams. Burgess is 13-for-22 on his 3-point attempts over the course of VCU's tourney run. However, in the Rams' four losses toward the end of February -- to Old Dominion, George Mason, Drexel and James Madison -- he shot just 5-for-15 from behind the arc. Rozzell’s splits are similar. In the Big Dance, Rozzell is 17-for-35 from 3-point range. It certainly wasn’t the same in those four losses, when Rozzell was 7-for-25 from deep. As those two go, the team goes.

Despite taking the most outside shots on the team, Joey Rodriguez is not a true reflection of the team in terms of his 3-point shooting. He is 8-for-23 in the NCAA tournament and 5-for-23 in the four aforementioned losses.

However, Rodriguez makes this offense go. His quickness and playmaking ability are necessary ingredients if VCU is to win. When he is not scoring himself or distributing on baskets, the team struggles. In the four losses to end the CAA season, Rodriguez was just 10-for-40 from the field, averaging 7.3 points and 4 assists. On the other hand, he is playing very well in the NCAA tournament, averaging 10.2 points and 7.6 assists in the five games. Teams need to cut off the head in order to slow down VCU’s offense. That head is Rodriguez.

Defensively, VCU needs to force turnovers and get transition points in order to be at its best. The Rams aren’t a run-and-gun team by any stretch, but they do like to get some up-tempo opportunities. They prefer around 66 possessions per game, with the last three games in the NCAA tournament averaging 67 possessions. However, in the four late February losses, they averaged just 62.3 possessions per game. Only three of their 11 losses featured more than their season average of 66.1 possessions.

The Rams’ ability to get turnovers is another major key. On the season, they forced turnovers on 22.3 percent of possessions, good enough to rank No. 52 in the country. In nine of their 11 losses, though, they were below their season average when it came to turnover percentage. In those four losses when VCU seemed to hit rock-bottom, the Rams averaged just 3.3 fast-break points and 10.5 points off turnovers. On the flip side, in the NCAA tournament, VCU is averaging 6.8 fast-break points and 15 points off turnovers. When opponents can take care of the ball and keep the game in a half-court setting, VCU struggles.

VCU isn’t a very good defensive rebounding team, allowing opponents second chances on 36.4 percent of their possessions. The Rams rank No. 321 in that category. Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to correlate all that effectively to VCU losses. The key here is second-chance points –- opponents need to take advantage of multiple opportunities. Kansas had 19 offensive rebounds and only nine second-chance points, Florida State had 21 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points. That’s simply not efficient.

If it seems like VCU has a lot of ways to lose, that wouldn’t be a wrong assertion. Despite the recent run by Shaka Smart’s troops, the Rams still managed to lose 11 games before the NCAA tournament. This certainly isn’t a perfect team -- they caught lightning in a bottle in the opening-round game against USC and have carried it all the way to the Final Four.

They are on the run of a lifetime and are not thinking about the different ways they have lost games in the past. The Rams are forcing turnovers, hitting 3-point shots, getting production from a variety of options and playing at their preferred tempo. Taking advantage of their weaknesses was a lot easier in late February than it is now. Teams playing with this sort of momentum and attitude -- VCU has nothing to lose -- are very difficult to beat.

They essentially played the perfect game against Kansas; no game plan is capable of overcoming that performance.

If VCU does lose, it will simply be a result of the Rams coming back to Earth. It remains to be seen whether that will happen with just two games remaining between VCU and an NCAA title.

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