Just because the first round of the NCAA Tournament will be winding down doesn’t mean the chaos of March will be any less. In fact, by the time that the 8-9 matchup between UCF and VCU tips off on Friday night, the madness will be in full force.
Both the Knights (23-8) and Rams (25-7) enter the NCAA Tournament looking to erase the sting of early-round losses in their respective conference tournaments. UCF has lost two in a row — the regular-season finale against Temple and the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament against Memphis — despite a late-season surge that saw the Knights win seven of eight before taking on the Owls. VCU, meanwhile, secured the Atlantic 10’s regular-season crown but lost to Rhode Island in the quarterfinals and had to wait to learn its fate longer than many in Richmond anticipated.
Back in the Big Dance for the first time in 14 years, UCF has earned its highest seed and is still in search of its first NCAA Tournament win as a Division I program. The Knights sniffed the tournament in 1994, '96, 2004 and '05, but was never seeded better than 14th and lost in all four tries.
VCU’s drought was much shorter — all of one year — after appearing in the NCAA Tournament seven consecutive years (longest such streak by a Virginia school) from 2011-17. In the six appearances since its memorable Final Four run in 2011, when the Rams won five games before losing to Butler, VCU has won only three games and has failed to make it out of the Round of 32.
The winner of this 8-9 matchup will, barring UMBC-esque drama (then again, it's called "madness" for a reason...), face No. 1 overall seed Duke — who should easily dispatch of North Dakota State — in the Round of 32 on Sunday.
First Round: No. 9 UCF Knights (23-8) vs. No. 8 VCU Rams (25-7)
Time: Approximately 9:40 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Colonial Life Arena (Columbia, S.C.)
Keys for UCF
UCF’s 2018-19 campaign was one for the record books, as the program set a new record for regular-season wins (23) in addition to its two victories against AP Top 25-ranked opposition. The Knights led the AAC in field goal percentage (46.3) and combined their scoring prowess with an ability to create contact and get to the foul line, where they rank among the top 25 in free throw attempts and enter this game with nearly 500 made from the charity stripe (484, tied for 62nd).
The Knights certainly make headlines with 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall, whose 2.48 blocks per game led the AAC and rank 11th in the nation. Fall had help, though, especially in Aubrey Dawkins and Michigan transfer B.J. Taylor. The pair averages 31.2 points per game, with Taylor (1.98) also in the top 5 in the AAC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Keys for VCU
For VCU, the story is defense, defense and more defense. The Rams aren't exactly prolific in terms of putting up points (71.4 per game) but are absolutely stifling on the other side of the ball. VCU allows opponents to shoot just 38.4 percent from the field — the sixth-lowest mark in Division I — and from 3-point range, that mark shrinks to a meager 27.6 percent, third lowest in the country. Combine that with an aggressively pressuring defense that forces nearly 16.3 turnovers per game, and it's clear why the Rams were the A-10’s regular season champions.
Redshirt junior Marcus Evans is the heart and soul of this VCU team and, as he goes, so go the Rams. Evans is coming off a knee injury in the Rams’ loss to Rhode Island in the A-10 quarterfinals, but with the game not tipping off until late Friday night he will have as much time as possible to heal up and get back to playing strength by the time his Rams take the court in Columbia. Evans has tallied 13.8 points per game and dishes out 3.2 assists per game, while also adding nearly two steals per game and converting from the line at a 77.2 percent clip. Marcus Santos-Silva will likely be asked to match up with Fall, but Santos-Silva’s rebounding numbers (7.4 per game, including 3.1 offensive) suggest that it won’t be as tall of a task as it appears.
Can UCF finally find its way into the NCAA Tournament win column, or will the Rams channel their previous Big Dance success and advance to square off with mighty Duke? The Knights have rewritten all sorts of program records, but their imminent matchup with the stingy defense of VCU poses a serious challenge to the storybook season being written in Orlando.
Prediction: VCU 70, UCF 59
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.