BracketBusters: VCU Kicks off 2012 Event, Looking to Maintain Run into March

Erik SchultzCorrespondent IFebruary 17, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 02:  Darius Theus #10 of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams reacts after a play against the Butler Bulldogs during the National Semifinal game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at Reliant Stadium on April 2, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The most shocking of last year’s Final Four participants is very quietly building a serious head of steam at just the right time of year. 

Virginia Commonwealth—who a year ago went from questionable NCAA at-large selection to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed—gets ready to take on Northern Iowa in their BracketBusters matchup this weekend. 

VCU will be kicking off this year’s two-day event; a very appropriate honor—intentional or not—given what the Rams pulled off last year.

In fact, VCU also opened last year’s event, beating Wichita State in Koch Arena in a very tight contest.  That win was arguably the biggest factor in the committee giving the Rams the invitation to the Big Dance.

This season, VCU is once again making their push for an NCAA tournament bid.  After a 3-3 start to the season and then an 2-2 start in conference play, VCU has played outstanding basketball over the past several weeks to put themselves in position to challenge for the CAA regular-season title.

The Rams recently put together an 11-game winning streak to stake their claim in a very competitive title race.

VCU went into the week tied with Drexel and George Mason atop the conference standings.  After an impressive win at Old Dominion last weekend, the Rams lost a heart-breaker at GMU.  Sherrod Wright buried a last-second three to give the Patriots a big win.

For VCU, the loss dropped them out of the three-way tie, but certainly not out of the title chase as the two teams meet again in Richmond on Feb. 25.

At 22-6, VCU currently has a better overall record than they did at this point last year when they were 20-8 going into their BracketBusters game.

However, given the fact the CAA as a whole is not quite as strong this year as they were a year ago, VCU still has an uphill battle for earning a potential second bid for the league should they not win the conference tournament.

VCU’s best wins outside the CAA are against South Florida—who has been a pleasant surprise at 9-4 in the Big East—and at Akron.  Neither of those teams is currently in the RPI Top 50.  Nor is Northern Iowa, though a win over them (with an RPI of 64) would provide a bit of a rating boost to VCU, who currently sits at 81 in the RPI.

While another win in this year’s BracketBusters would certainly help VCU, the bigger focus is on maintaining the significant momentum they have developed in recent weeks.  The Rams are not only looking to head into March playing their best basketball, but also look to avoid a slide like they had late last year. 

Last year, VCU lost five of their final seven regular season games, seeming to completely destroy their NCAA tournament hopes.  The struggles down the stretch put the Rams in double-digits in losses and dropped them to fourth place in the CAA at 12-6.    

The fact that the selection committee was able to see past those two glaring facts was extremely good fortune for Shaka Smart’s team.  In all likelihood, Smart does not want his team to have to rely on any similar good fortune again this year.

Ideally, VCU will not have to.  Smart wants the team to be focused on getting in the surefire way: winning the CAA tournament in two weeks.   To be in the best position possible to accomplish that, his team needs to maintain the momentum developed through the recent weeks. 

Smart has a pretty good understanding of the power of momentum.  After beating Drexel and George Mason in the CAA tournament a year ago, VCU went on to win five-straight NCAA tournament games.

A return to the NCAAs in 2012 may require VCU to beat those very same two teams in a couple weeks.  Both are also playing extremely well right now, so winning the CAA tournament will be no easy feat. 

Finishing the regular season strong, including a win this weekend, would be a great way to keep the momentum going heading into March.