Virginia Commonwealth Rams 26-8, 12-4
Hailing from the Atlantic-10 for the second year in a row, the Rams are entering their 13th NCAA Tournament. This is their fourth straight year dancing, but it’s been since the first year of the streak that they won multiple games. After a run to the Final Four in 2011 the Rams have been ousted in the Round of 32 each of the last two seasons. Unfortunately, they potentially suffered a significant loss in the semifinals of the A-10 postseason tournament. Sophomore guard Melvin Johnson, the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, went down with a knee injury against George Washington and when he returned to the bench it was in a full leg brace. His status for the tournament is in doubt, although no official word has come across yet. If he’s gone, that’s 10.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists the Rams will have to try to replace. They fell in the A-10 tournament championship without him to Saint Joseph’s. As we’ve come to expect from the Rams under Shaka Smart, they’re relentless defensively. His “havoc” defense as it’s often referred to leads the nation with 11.5 steals forced a contest. They gave up 65 points a night against the 45th strongest schedule. They went 5-4 against the RPI top 50, with their best wins coming against Virginia and Saint Louis. The only truly bad loss on their resume is at Northern Iowa back on December 14. Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic are once again the leaders of the Rams, averaging a combined 27.7 points, 15.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals. However, Briante Weber is almost as vital of a cog, leading the team in assists (3.7) and steals (3.5), which leads the nation. To beat the Rams you have to be able to attack them on the glass and handle their pressure defense.[poll id="6"]
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks 30-2, 18-0
The Lumberjacks are the kind of team that is either going to get overrated or underrated, there’s not going to be any in between with them. Their win streak demands respect, as it dates back to November 26 and is now at 28 games, which is second only to undefeated Wichita State’s. However, when it comes to projecting how they’ll fare in the NCAA Tournament, you have to put a cap on how much respect you give them because their strength of schedule was ranked 330th and only one of their 30 wins came against a team with a RPI in the top 100 (Towson). They dropped their lone opportunity for a statement win against Texas on the road, 72-62. Their other loss was to the 17-15 East Tennessee State Buccaneers. Still, they’re not your typical Southland Conference representative that is just happy to be there. They firmly believe they can win a game, which would be a first for the program in just their second tournament appearance ever. The Lumberjacks play a methodical, efficient brand of basketball, averaging 76 points a night on 46 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent from deep. They’re extremely patient and unselfish, accumulating 16.5 assists on average. Jacob Parker was the Player of the Year in the Southland, but his teammates Desmon Haymon, Deshaunt Walker and Thomas Walkup are equally important. They’re far from a one-man show. It’s going to be interesting to see whether they can maintain the same efficiency offensively against their most difficult opponent of the year and if they can adequately defend while staying out of foul trouble. They commit 21.1 fouls a game, which will be a much more pressing issue against improved competition.