In addition to earning bragging rights over the rest of the league and the right to cut down the nets at the Richmond Coliseum, VCU won something else by holding off Drexel in the CAA title game.
Six nights of stress-free sleep.falling to VCU 59-56 on Monday night, the second-seeded Rams escaped the week's worth of anxiety they endured last year. VCU was one of the last — and most controversial — at-large selections last season before embarking on a historic run to the Final Four.
Another deep run from this year's Rams certainly isn't out of the question the way they've reeled off 17 wins in 18 games to close this season, but even an early exit shouldn't diminish what this group has accomplished. They've reached the NCAA tournament for the second straight season despite getting off to a dismal start after losing four starters off last year's team.
VCU's opening month of the season included underwhelming losses to Georgia Tech and Seton Hall as it adjusted to its new personnel, but the Rams began to dig out of that hole in December. As Darius Theus solidified the point guard position, Bradford Burgess grew more comfortable in his go-to scorer role and the entire rotation perfected Shaka Smart's trademark "havoc" defense, VCU pushed its way into a three-way battle with George Mason and Drexel for the CAA title.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Shaka Smart: We're getting better ]
The end result of VCU's metamorphosis was on display the past two nights in Richmond as the Rams jumped out to huge first-half leads against George Mason and Drexel and then made enough plays down the stretch to close those victories out.
Twelve first-half Drexel turnovers against VCU's relentless pressure propelled the Rams to a 11-point halftime cushion, but the Dragons were more efficient and less careless with the ball in the second half. They fought all the way back to get a game-tying three-point attempt on their final possession, only to see Frantz Massenat's shot just before the buzzer miss the mark.
The loss leaves Drexel in the same position VCU was in last season at this time when it eked out a controversial at-large bid before going on its historic run.
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Drexel (27-6, 16-2) has to hope its No. 71 RPI and meager non-league strength of schedule doesn't outweigh its outright CAA regular season title and 19-game win streak prior to Monday night. The Dragons suffered a bad loss to Norfolk State in November and its best non-league wins came against Princeton or Fairfield, hardly the type of resume-building victories teams typically need to make the field as an at-large.
The problem with going off Drexel's computer profile, however, is the Dragons have looked plenty formidable enough to be an at-large team for two months now. The "no marquee wins" argument against including Drexel is perfectly rational and reasonable, but perhaps this is one time the selection committee should ignore it.
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