USC-VCU: The last of the First Four

March, 16, 2011
3/16/11
9:20
AM PT
Here are five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding USC's game against Virginia Commonwealth in the final First Four game of the NCAA Tournament:

1. VCU and USC have never played each other. Has either team played a similar opponent?

It's an interesting little sub-story to today's game. The two teams, USC and VCU, have each compared each other to opponents from their own conference.

The Trojans compare the Rams to Washington, the Pac-10 tourney champions. The Rams compare the Trojans to Drexel and Old Dominion.

“A little bit of Drexel,” VCU second-leading scorer Bradford Burgess said when asked who he thought USC resembled. “They’re a big team, a physical team. And we’re going to have our work cut out for us. They have a very talented big man that Jamie’s going to be matched up against.

"They have some quick guards that we’ll have to keep in front and not allow dribble penetration. It’s just going to be just a team effort that we’re going to have to use to win the game."

VCU's combined records against those two CAA schools? 4-3. The Rams lost to ODU by five last week in the CAA title game.

"Actually, we've played a lot of teams that have some similarities with USC," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "We really have a lot of respect for USC's physical front court and their ability to rebound on the offensive end. And then their guards are extremely good at getting in the lane, making plays, and they can get hot from outside.

"So, from our league, Drexel is similar to that. Old Dominion has some similarities to their physicality inside. Wichita State is a team we played in the bracket-buster who has a very imposing front line and guards that can play."

For what it's worth, the Rams beat Wichita State by one, 68-67, last month. Smart also said that he noticed further similarities between USC and UCLA, who the Rams beat in November.

2. Who will control the tempo?

In a contest between two teams of completely contrasting styles, the team who comes out and controls the tempo will win, according to both head coaches.

It's USC's slow, steady and grind-it-out style versus VCU's quick-quick-quick style. And the Rams will throw a wrench into the mix by full-court pressing the Trojans at every opportunity as well.

Essentially, if the game's going fast, it's VCU's to win, and if it's slow, it's USC's. Most likely, of course.

“My prevailing thing is tempo," Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill said Tuesday. "Whoever is able to play at their tempo probably has the best chance to win the game."

3. Will one team have a fan advantage?

Dayton, Ohio, is not the easiest place in the United States in the world to get to, and it's even harder in the middle of the week and with three days' notice, to boot.

So there won't be very many Trojan fans here for tonight's game, right?

“I would think, but there’s gonna be more here than you think," O'Neill said Tuesday when asked if the amount of USC fans in University of Dayton Arena will be low. "There will be quite a few fans here. But, yeah, nobody knows they’re coming here in advance. It’s impossible to know."

Some fans have definitely made the trek, as evidenced by USC hats and Trojan T-shirts making their way through the lobby of the team hotel here, a mile or so away from the arena.

Said O'Neill of flights to Dayton: "They’re very expensive, and to buy them on no notice is doubly expensive."

4. Can Nikola Vucevic finally explode on a big stage?

Vucevic has played well in big games this season, so it's not as if he's the type of player who folds under pressure. But if he has any hope of being selected in June's NBA draft, he needs to put together a big game in the NCAA Tournament sooner rather than later, especially after he was largely invisible in two Pac-10 tourney games against Cal and Arizona last week.

VCU has a promising forward of its own in Jamie Skeen, who averages 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. But he sounds impressed by Vucevic's skills.

"First, I heard he's an NBA prospect, so that excites me already," Skeen said Tuesday when asked about guarding Vucevic. "I love playing against people who are going to be in the NBA. I like matching up against them.

"But what I have to do is limit his touches and make sure he doesn't get deep post position. That's for sure, because he can finish with either hand. I just want him to catch the ball on deep post or maybe even at the 3-point line, that would be great. And pretty much that's it."

It sounds like VCU watched a lot of tape of Arizona, because that's exactly what the Wildcats did against Vucevic in the Pac-10 semifinals.

Said Smart of Vucevic: "He's a phenomenal player. I'd never seen him play until this year. But he's terrific. And they do a great job of getting him the ball over and over and over again. And the thing that's so dangerous about him is it doesn't matter if he catches it on the block or five, six feet off the block -- he's very, very effective scoring the ball and he's a pretty good passer as well if you double."

If Vucevic goes for 20+ points and 10+ rebounds, expect a USC victory. Speaking of that...

5. Who will win?

The Trojans will eke out the win on the strength of one thing and one thing only: establishing Vucevic inside. It will be Jio Fontan's game-long duty to stay out of foul trouble -- he's by far the team's most effective post feeder -- and get the ball inside to Vucevic possession after possession after possession.

If USC's able to do that, anywhere inside of 15 feet, really, it should win. The Trojans are not truly built to beat a full-court press, but they're not a team that's overly susceptible to it either, with three capable dribbling guards in Fontan, Maurice Jones and Donte Smith.

USC by 10 or so in the high 60's, and they move on to Chicago for a Friday night battle with sixth-seeded Georgetown.

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