Building VCU's game plan
Let's get one very obvious thing out of the way: I am not a college basketball coach. Therefore, I am not qualified to offer prescriptive advice to real, actual college basketball coaches. But it is fun to pretend to be a college basketball coach, to build analysis around potential game plans and strategy. In that spirit, and in advance of the Saturday's Final Four showdowns, let's engage in a little bit of role-playing.
If you were VCU coach Shaka Smart, how would you prepare your team for Butler?
Offensive game plan: Watch footage of all five NCAA tournament wins. Rinse. Repeat. OK, so it's not quite that simple. Still, at this point, Smart might as well ignore any footage or game plan or obscure piece of data -- basically, anything and everything -- from any point before March. His team, mediocre from November to February, has morphed into an otherworldly offensive force of nature.
For the record, VCU has been making perimeter shots by the bunches. Anyone who has watched this team shred Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas doesn't need much hard info to back that up, but the data is there. According to Synergy, the Rams have scored 307 of their 368 tournament points in the half-court offense, while 138 of those points have come on jump shots and 127 of those jump shot points have come from spot-up opportunities. Basically, point guard Joey Rodriguez is driving the lane; finding Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell on the perimeter; and the rest has been a matter of ball meets hand, ball meets nylon. Thing is, because VCU is much less efficient on the interior -- Synergy ranks the Rams as "average" and "below average" on close-range shots and post-ups, respectively -- they have to make 3-pointers.
That's what they've been doing so far, and that makes Smart's offensive game plan awfully straightforward: "Guys, just keep doing what you've been doing." See? Coaching is easy!
Defensive game plan: All the deserved talk about Virginia Commonwealth's offensive heat wave has obscured that the Rams are playing their best defense of the season in the NCAA tournament by, like, a lot. The Rams were a downright bad defensive team for most of the year -- they ranked 147th in adjusted defensive efficiency entering the tournament -- before turning into a swarming defensive unit in March. The Rams have held their five NCAA tournament opponents (by the way, that VCU has played five games to get to the Final Four never gets any less remarkable) to 302 points in 406 possessions. Also remarkable: VCU's tourney defense, which has rightfully earned a reputation for its pressuring style, is actually much better in the half court than against teams running in transition. The Rams have held opponents to just .704 points per possession in the half court during the tournament, and they're better while playing man-to-man (.702 ppp) than when they switch to a 2-3 zone (.722 ppp).
What does that mean for the matchup with Butler? It means VCU should stick to man defense, for one. The last thing Smart wants to see is Butler forward Matt Howard extending the defense from the perimeter. It also means VCU doesn't necessarily have to force Butler into an up-tempo game to come away with a win. That likewise makes Smart's game plan simple: "Let's press, let's pressure and let's make Butler play out of their comfort zone. But when things settle down in the half court, let's just keep doing what we've been doing."
There's no reason for VCU to change much about its style now. The Rams got to the Final Four with surprising defense, otherworldly outside shooting and that famous nobody-believes-in-us-but-us attitude. If VCU's sixth NCAA tournament game mirrors the five that came before it (still remarkable), the Rams should like their chances.
The Butler player(s) VCU is most worried about: Shelvin Mack and Howard are the obvious choices here. After all, they're Butler's two best offensive players, and their individual styles (Howard's versatile spot-up shooting, Mack's intuitive reads on ball screens) have a way of stretching the floor and breaking down defenses. But Smart might be most concerned about what Ronald Nored, Butler's designated defensive stopper, can do to bother Rodriguez. Rodriguez's play has made VCU go, and if Nored can bottle him up -- or at the very least slow him down, which would be the first time anyone has done as much in the tournament -- the Rams' offense could go from great to average faster than Rodriguez splits a midcourt double-team.
VCU will win if: the Rams continue to make shots; Rodriguez creates penetration and finds open shooters; Skeen gives VCU some interior scoring to go along with all the 3s; Howard and Mack have inefficient scoring nights; VCU forces Butler to play out of its comfort zone; and the Rams build a lead big enough that Butler's last-second savvy doesn't have a chance to affect the outcome.
VCU will lose if: Butler effectively closes out on shooters; Nored contains Rodriguez; the Bulldogs effectively turn the game into a half-court grind fest; VCU's zone switches are shredded by Howard's spot-up shooting; and the Rams give Brad Stevens and company any extra chances to win the game in the final moments. If we know anything about Butler, it's that the Bulldogs are tournament-tested, opportunistic and unafraid. If VCU is the most confident team in the tournament, Butler is the most self-assured when the late-game pressure is at is most, um, pressurized. In other words, if I'm Shaka Smart, I'm preaching the age-old wisdom of "better safe than sorry." Let's avoid a final-possession thriller, shall we?
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.