RICHMOND —- Much to George Mason’s surprise in Sunday’s CAA tournament semifinals, Virginia Commonwealth didn’t play anything like it had 24 hours earlier.
Perhaps even more surprising to the Patriots was their premature ticket back to Fairfax.
VCU transformed from a grinding, paint-pounding team to a sizzling perimeter shooting outfit in just a day, stunning top-seeded Mason 79-63 at the Richmond Coliseum.
Jamie Skeen scored 21 points for the fourth-seeded Rams (23-10), who will meet either Old Dominion or Hofstra in Monday’s title game.
As for Mason (26-6), it earned a week-long wait until Selection Sunday to learn its fate after seeing its 16-game winning streak end with its largest margin of defeat of the season.
“Coach mentioned earlier we are a bubble team, but hopefully,” senior guard Cam Long said of Mason’s NCAA tournament hopes. “I really hope so because I really don’t want to go out like this in my last year. I know none of us want to go out like this.”
Such concerns aren’t particularly warranted in such a weak season across the board. If anything, Mason might have squeezed a midpack power conference team out of the bloated field of 68, and even that is on contingent on Old Dominion (another likely NCAA invitee) not winning two more games in Richmond.
The greater concern for the Patriots, which suffered its first loss since Jan. 8, might be how easily they were dissected on both ends of the floor.
Mason’s offense was discombobulated throughout the first half, collecting one assist against 10 turnovers while looking disoriented in the face of the feisty Rams and the partisan hometown crowd. The Patriots earned a brief 20-18 lead after Long (20 points) converted a 3-point play, but VCU replied with a 21-3 run to stifle Mason.
“That’s the first time in a very long time that we were not the offensive team we’ve been all season long,” Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “Maybe our guys got in a hurry because we fell behind quickly and it was obvious VCU was shooting the ball well. We shot it quicker. We shot it without sharing and we shot it being in a hurry rather than taking our time and finding the open man.”
The problems were equally apparent at the defensive end for the Patriots, who seemed startled by the Rams’ penchant to drive and then dish to the perimeter. It was a remarkable turnaround from a day earlier for VCU, when it slogged through a quarterfinal defeat of Drexel with a perpetual march to the free throw line.
The Rams were 9-for-18 from 3-point territory in the first half, shredding a Mason defense that ultimately yielded its largest point total since Jan. 5 after preparing for a rugged, physical game.
“That’s an entirely different look for what they did yesterday,” Larranaga said.
It was the fifth time in the last eight years the Rams ousted Mason from the CAA tournament.
While VCU and its chameleon-like ways sent the Patriots home, they will wait a week before learning where they will play in the postseason. Most signs point to the program’s second NCAA tournament at-large berth and first since Mason’s magical Final Four run in 2006.
The Patriots entered Sunday with an RPI of 23, but perhaps more importantly it is 2-1 against the top 50 nationally and 8-4 against the top 100. It is 12-6 away from Fairfax, owns a respectable nonconference schedule strength (84th) and its two worst losses came against ACC also-ran N.C. State (No. 106) and plucky Southern Conference contender Wofford (No. 121) on neutral floors.
In such a shaky season at the bottom of the at-large field, the Patriots are probably safe. While Larranaga would like to believe so, he knows he cannot be certain for another seven days.
“The bubble is like a hot air balloon now,” Larranaga said. “I look at the RPI and I hear on TV —- I’m not talking about the members of the selection committee; I don’t know how big their bubble is —- but on TV their bubble goes down to like 86 in the RPI. So if those teams are on the bubble and our RPI is in the 20s, I think we’re sitting in pretty good shape. But it’s not the TV analysts that select the field.”
—- Patrick Stevens