NCAA Tourney: VCU Preview

UCLA is in unfamiliar territory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament -- in more ways than one, being in Philadelphia for the first weekend and being the popular first-round upset pick. Virginia Commonwealth is good and it will take one of UCLA's best road efforts of the season to win...

UCLA begins its (hopefully long) 2009 NCAA Tournament run by playing the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

UCLA is the #6 seed in the East Region while the Rams are the #11 seed. VCU has been the trendy pick for the first round upset by national pundits based on the play of senior guard Eric Maynor (6'3" 175 lbs.) and what the Rams did two years ago when they knocked out Duke in the first round. Upon closer inspection, however, there are some distinct features to VCU's style of play which may help the Bruins. As is per usual, the question remains: which UCLA team will show up for this game?

Maynor is the do-everything guard who almost single-handedly shot Duke out of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. He leads VCU in scoring at 22.4 PPG and he hands out over 6 APG. He shoots 47% from the field and has the ability and the desire to hit shots when the game is on the line. He is liable to play out of control, though, as evidenced by his 99 turnovers this season. Playing out of control is definitely in Maynor's nature, but it's also a byproduct of the wide open style that Coach Anthony Grant likes to play. But more on that later. The key to shutting Maynor down, or at least slowing him down, is keeping him out of the lane. So much of VCU's offense is predicated on Maynor's ability to get in the paint and either shoot or dish out to an open spot-up shooter. Darren Collison has now entered the time when being a senior and having three years worth of Final Four experience have got to count for something. If Collison is on Maynor, and that's a big if, he has got to keep the Ram point guard on the perimeter. Coach Ben Howland may opt to use Jrue Holiday on Maynor as Holiday has the size to bother Maynor, while Collison doesn't. In last year's national semifinal game against Memphis, Howland stayed with Collison on Derrick Rose for the majority of the game and Howland has said if he had to do it over again, he'd deal with that situation differently. Maynor may not be Rose, but he's not far off. Expect to see Collison, Holiday and Malcolm Lee all guarding Maynor at one time or another.

The shooting guard is sophomore Joey Rodriguez (5'10" 170 lbs.), a straight spot-up shooter. He averages 9.4 PPG and shoots over 41% from behind the arc, but he isn't ultra quick. While he is a hustler, he is athletically challenged. He and Maynor combine to play over 32MPG each, so he's on the court a lot. In fact, he's on the court so much that he and Maynor have combined for over 160 of the team's 400+ turnovers on the year. Causing Rodriguez to have a poor game is pretty simple; make him put the ball on the floor. If he sets his feet Rodriguez can be a game-changer with his outside shooting ability. If he's forced to put the ball on the floor Rodriguez is mediocre on the offensive end at best.

Outside of Maynor, the one player that UCLA truly needs to plan for is sophomore Larry Sanders (6'10" 220 lbs.). Sanders has really come on in the last third of the year and is a shot blocking machine. He averages almost 3 BPG. He is long and springy and certainly alters shots that aren't blocked. He's the second leading scorer on the Rams at 11.3 PPG and he also collects 8.5 RPG. He will potentially be a handful for Alfred Aboya and Drew Gordon. However, Sanders has his own issues to deal with. He is terribly prone to foul trouble and is a classic shot blocker in that he doesn't do well when opposing players drive into his body. Most of his blocks come from the weak side or from opponents trying to shy away from him when bringing the ball into the paint. He's also not a very good passer so he'll probably be bothered if Howland chooses to double him in the post.

The starting ‘3' is freshman Bradford Burgess (6'5" 207 lbs.). Burgess has a very mature head on his shoulders and plays the role that Grant has given him to a tee. He is crucial to the success of VCU's full-court press. Now for the good news; even though Burgess averages 7.4 PPG, he doesn't shoot much at all, although he has range out to the three-point line. In many ways, especially because he doesn't figure much in VCU's offense, Burgess is the perfect defensive assignment for Josh Shipp. Being on Burgess will allow Shipp to help a bit more on other Ram players, especially Maynor.

The final starter is junior Kirill Pishchalnikov (6'8" 248 lbs.), a Russian workhorse who does a lot of the little things, like boxing out, that successful teams need. Physically he is much thicker than Nikola Dragovic and even James Keefe, however, he does little on the offensive end. His rebounding fundamentals are excellent and because this is an area of concern with Dragovic, Howland may decide to play Keefe more than he has in recent weeks.

Off the bench the Rams bring sophomore guard Brandon Rozell (6'2" 180 lbs.), who averages 6.8 PPG, and juniors T.J. Gwynn and Ed Nixon, both of whom are 6'4" and 200 lbs. Gwynn plays more of a forward position while Nixon is a wing. Rozzell is the key here. He shoots no matter the time or the situation. He isn't afraid to jack up shots. In UCLA's favor, Rozzell is shooting less than 30% from behind the arc.

VCU's Grant, who has been mentioned for numerous "bigger" coaching jobs over the past two off seasons (he actually accepted the Florida job when it appeared that Billy Donovan was off to the NBA), prefers to speed up teams on defense while remaining patient on offense. The Rams utilize a man-to-man full-court press to try to tire out other teams and force turnovers. This also causes precious seconds to tick off the shot clock. Offensively the Rams employ a variation of the flex offense with a lot of baseline screens for shooters. When that fails the Rams tend to rely on Maynor's improvising, generally meaning his getting into the lane and then either getting to the rack or kicking it out to one of the open three-point shooters. The key on offense for the Bruins is to be smart and focused with the ball so that they can beat VCU's press. If they do that, especially if Collison can do it himself (VCU doesn't double much in the press), then UCLA can get some easy points. On defense the Bruins would probably be better served by not helping on Maynor too much because he then won't have passing options and VCU's post players aren't adept at finishing Maynor's lay-offs. That means UCLA would be better off if, when Maynor does get into the lane, the Bruin posts were the defensive help. They actually have been better defensively this way all season anyway.

VCU may be playing with fire in this one if they want to speed up the tempo. Generally UCLA has been more successful this season when they've been able to play in transition. Also, for all the talk of Maynor and Sanders and their respective abilities, neither are particularly strong. That could be key for Collison and Aboya as they seek to shut down VCU's two best players.

When the brackets were first posted last weekend and I saw that VCU was UCLA's first round opponent, my first thought was "crap". But after doing some research and viewing some of VCU's earlier games this season I have concluded that this is a match-up that should favor the Bruins. UCLA has three players who've been to three Final Fours. They have a coach in Howland who has been excellent at preparing for an opponent when given at least four days of preparation. The Bruins are much deeper than VCU and are better than the Rams on at least three positions on the floor. Arguably the Bruins are better at each position.

The real key then, is which Bruin team will show up. The Bruin players were disappointed in their #6 seed. Howland brought up his own disappointment several times in various interviews the past few days. Will the Bruins feel sorry for themselves and the fact that they had to travel further than any of the other 64 teams to get to their game location? Or will the Bruins play angry, feeling like they were disrespected? True, VCU will have fans at the Wachovia Center, but if the Bruins decide to play with effort and focus, they should win going away. The Bruins have had a tendency to play up and down in games, and be a different team when they play a decent opponent away from Pauley Pavilion, and this will probably be no different. The Bruins should win, but it should be closer than it really needs to be based on these factors and the match-ups.

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