March 4, 2012; Richmond, VA USA; Virginia Commonwealth Rams head coach Shaka Smart (right) yells to his team from the sidelines against the George Mason Patriots in the first half of their semifinal game of the 2012 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament at the Richmond Coliseum. The Rams won 74-64. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
Thoughts from courtside of a memorable CAA Tournament final in Richmond.
RICHMOND -- The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams are going dancing again. VCU defeated Drexel 59-56 in the 2012 CAA Tournament Championship Game, earning the league's automatic berth in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Monday evening's battle at the Richmond Coliseum saw the conference's top two seeds square off, with the Rams (28-6) edging the Dragons (27-6) for their second consecutive trip to the Big Dance and fourth appearance in the past six seasons.
VCU's recipe for success was once again tenacious defense, but this time it was mixed in with the blossoming play of junior guard Darius Theus. The Rams forced 17 Dragons turnovers in the game and held Drexel to 35.3 percent shooting from the floor. VCU put on a particularly aggressive performance in the first half, when the Rams held Drexel to 26.9 percent shooting and turned the Dragons over 12 times.
The Rams defensive pressure is so intense you would often think Shaka Smart's team has six men on the floor, rather than the customary five. The VCU pressure was indeed the star before halftime, spurring a 23-10 run over the final 10 minutes of the first half to put VCU up 16 points at the break, 35-19.
CAA scribe extraordinaire Michael Litos noted that VCU, the team that already led the nation in steals (10.7 per game), ended the game with 10 more thefts, extending their conference record number to 363 steals on the season. Havoc may no longer properly describe what they do. Mayhem would be a start, but then again Allstate might not be happy with the usage. I digress.
VCU looked in complete control to end the first half, and had disrupted the Drexel offense, particularly the guard handoffs to initiate sets, to the point of utter frustration. Frustration, and most likely exhaustion as well, since three Dragons starters (Frantz Massenat, Chris Fouch and Damion Lee) played all 20 minutes in the first half and would , in fact, end up playing all 40 minutes in the game .
It would not have been a stretch to say Drexel was in serious trouble to open the second half, but Bruiser Flint and his Dragons were not to be outdone. In a game befitting the two gritty clubs competing, Drexel turned up their own defensive intensity in the second half, with Damion Lee exploding for 15 of his 20 points after halftime as Drexel continued to chip away at the VCU lead. The Dragons trailed just 55-53 with 21.6 seconds to play. After two clutch Troy Daniels free throws, Frantz Massenat's three point attempt was just long, sending VCU to the Dance for the tenth time in school history.
For the Rams, Daniels made four huge free throws down the stretch. Treveon Graham added 13 points. VCU big men Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley deserve tremendous credit for holding the Drexel front line of Samme Givens, Daryl McCoy and Dartaye Ruffin to just five field goal attempts and seven total points in the game. But the star of the game was without a doubt Darius Theus.
I didn't forget about Theus. I was simply saving the evening's best for last. The junior guard (according to Smart, the first player he recruited to VCU) had 16 points (on 7-for-12 shooting), five assists, five steals, and four rebounds to lead the Rams. He was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after tallying 11 steals and 15 assists over the the course of three games, and more importantly, efficiently and effectively running the VCU offense. Senior Bradford Burgess, a player who has made the most consecutive starts in NCAA history (144) , was asked about Theus after the game, and had nothing but accolades to bestow upon his teammate:
"Darius is an amazing floor general. He's been under Joey (Rodriguez), he's had guidance from Eric (maynor), he's really paid his dues his first few years. He's been running the show this year," he said.
The fans in Richmond got what they came to see, a VCU win and the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. But they also witnessed a team worthy of a NCAA tournament berth in Drexel. Much like VCU last year, the Dragons must wait a week and sweat out Selection Sunday to see if they will earn a second bid for the CAA. This is a team that has won 19 of their last 20 games. They struggled in non-conference play in part because they were without one of their best players, guard Chris Fouch. Drexel was 2-3 without Fouch, and were 27-3 with him. The Dragons just came a hair shy of winning the CAA tournament, and guard Derrick Thomas never saw the floor, having been suspended by the team prior to the weekend.
Sunday, we will find out if Bruiser Flint's Drexel Dragons join VCU in this year's NCAA Tournament field. Those who witnessed the battle Monday night in the Coliseum will already tell you they say two Dance-worthy participants. Even Mr. Magoo could pass this eye test.
Oh yeah, there's one other person who thinks Drexel is a NCAA tournament team. Perhaps you've heard of him: Shaka Smart.
"To me there's no doubt that they're a NCAA tournament team," he said.
For more on CAA men's basketball and the NCAA tournament, be sure to stay tuned to this SB Nation DC StoryStream. Meanwhile, SB Nation's college basketball hub will have all the news and nuggets you need in preparation for March and the madness it brings.