Can Vanderbilt avoid a third first-round upset in three years? Not according to Joey Brackets.
You can make a case that losing to 13-18 Georgia Tech is the Spiders' biggest mistake, but thanks to my background as a native of the Ocean State, we're going to go with a home loss to 19-13 Rhode Island. The Rams weren't even good enough to make their standard trip to the NIT this year, yet still tripped up Richmond in Virginia to post their first A-10 win of the season. Under the jump, we'll look at how Head Coach Jim Baron outmatched the Spiders despite having none of his sons on the team this year.
Richmond (27-7 (13-3 A-10), Unranked)
The Rams may look exactly like North Carolina (we even stole their mascot!), but they aren't exactly stalwarts on the court. The team hasn't made it to a NCAA Tournament since 2001, but has seen action in the NIT in five of the 10 years since, and have become a fringe candidate in bubble reports over the past few years under Baron's watch. This year, they posted their only Top 50 win of the season against Richmond, as Rhode Island heated up from the field to pull the upset.
Nikola Malesevic, an unheralded but steady player, torched UR from the wing, scoring 24 points (6-8 from 3pt) and pulling down 12 rebounds in the win. Both were career highs for the sophomore. Richmond pulled to within one point late in the game, but Rhode Island's composure in the stretch kept them at bay. The Rams burned down the clock and scored on a pair of big plays - a layup and three-pointer - that torched the Spiders' opportunity to claim the win.
Key to destruction: Composure in the final minute. Richmond was good over the final two minutes, but Rhode Island was great. The Spiders got the offensive rebounds that they needed to keep possessions alive and keep the game close, but the Rams allowed them no room to pull into the lead. Up by one with 1:40 left, URI started with a possession that used every second of the shot clock and ended with a layup that extended their lead. When they got the ball back with a two point lead and with 54 seconds on the clock, they burned 33 seconds of game time before hitting a dagger three that effectively ended the game.
This is an area where Vanderbilt has stumbled in the past, but it could be a major part of Thursday's game. Richmond showed a lot of heart and effort against Rhode Island, but the Rams won because of their ability to handle the pressure. If Vandy can do the same, they'll keep a potential Cinderella from dancing into the third round.
Keys to the Game:
- Contain Justin Harper's rebounding. URI won despite Harper's 25-point performance, but it's the work they did keeping him off the glass that aided the Rams' victory. Richmond is 10-0 in games where the senior pulls down nine or more rebounds, but he's averaged just over five rebounds in the team's seven losses this year. Harper's ability to clean up misses (most of his work comes on the defensive end) limits opponents' second chances, but URI was able to neutralize the big man and secure 14 offensive boards of their own, contributing to the win. Richmond has been outrebounded in all seven of their losses this year.
- Hit your threes. Rhode Island put up a Vandy-esque 27 three point attempts in the win, hitting 12 of them (44.4%). In fact, the whole team was hot, shooting 48.2% in general for the game. Malesevic and Akeem Richmond were the most prolific shooters, hitting 10-19 attempts to fuel the Rams. John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor can fill this role for the Commodores, only with better shooters and more athletic play on the wings.
- Defend the perimeter. Richmond, despite having four heralded long-range shooters (Harper, Kevin Anderson, Darien Brothers, and Dan Geriot), went just 6-19 from behind the arc against URI. Vanderbilt has the perimeter defense to limit the Spiders in a similar fashion, but it will mean abandoning the zone defense for stretches to ensure that open looks are limited from 21 feet out. Fortunately, Richmond's guards aren't as athletic as many of the players that Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins have matched up with in the SEC, and man-to-man play should be effective.