SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When Georgetown last faced Virginia Commonwealth , in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament, the Hoyas were intent on avoiding a three-tournament streak of opening-weekend losses to double-digit seeds.
VCU’s sole concern, after being forced to win a play-in game for the privilege of facing the sixth-seeded Hoyas, was debunking the skeptics who carped that they didn’t belong in the NCAA tournament in the first place.
Coach Shaka Smart’s Rams achieved that and more, bolting to an 11-point halftime lead and then coming out dancing for warmups before the start of the second half of game in which they romped to a 74-56 rout by outshooting, outmuscling and outshining the favored Hoyas. From there, VCU reveled in unbridled confidence and joy all the way to the Final Four.
That March Madness run taught Smart an invaluable lesson, he recalled this weekend at Coliseo Roberto Clemente, where second-round victories by the Hoyas and Rams set up a rematch in Sunday’s fifth-place game at the Puerto Rico Tip-off Classic.
“If you’ve got a team that’s aggressive, confident and loose,” Smart said, recounting his essential takeaway, “you’ve got a great chance to win.”
Nearly three years have passed since that NCAA tournament meeting, and the roles have reversed, as least in the view of most college basketball prognosticators.
Georgetown still boasts an NCAA championship and the respect that conveys. But the reigning Big East regular season cochampion opened the current season unranked and is now mired at the bottom of the league standings at 2-2.
VCU (4-1) is ranked a school-record No. 10 in the nation — the highest-ranked team in the tournament and the favorite on Sunday.
“Right now they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Coach John Thompson III said Saturday. “Everyone talks about that pressure, and you have to handle their press for 40 minutes — half court and full court.”
However, both teams were humbled in first-round upsets on Thursday.
Georgetown was toppled by Northeastern, 63-56, turning in a lackadaisical performance that Thompson called “horrible.” The Hoyas rebounded impressively the next day against Kansas State, scoring a season-high 90 points, paring their turnovers from 15 to seven and holding the Wildcats to 36 percent shooting.
VCU opened with a loss to Florida State — not nearly as embarrassing, but a loss nonetheless. Like Georgetown, the Rams rebounded the next day, defending and shooting far better against Long Beach State.
The Sunday showdown offers a stark contrast in styles, tempo and tactics.
When it’s working the best, Georgetown’s deliberate offense flows through its big men. And the Hoyas have plenty of them, including 6-foot-10, 350-center Joshua Smith, an unselfish distributor and formidable scoring threat in his limited minutes on court.
VCU is in constant attack mode on both offense and defense. The Rams aren’t nearly as big as Georgetown, but their smaller stature was hardly a handicap in their 2011 NCAA tournament matchup. The Rams torched the Hoyas from the perimeter, hitting 12 three-pointers to Georgetown’s five on a night when starters Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark were 0 of 16 from beyond the arc. The Hoyas also turned over the ball 17 times, compared with the Rams’ six.
Each team returns two players from that game: Nate Lubick and Markel Starks for Georgetown, Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg for VCU. But on balance, this season’s Hoyas and Rams are filled with new faces, and playing under different hand-check rules that coaches and players alike are still figuring out.
Former Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, now an analyst for ESPN, believes the key matchup Sunday will be between the point guards, Starks and VCU’s ball-stripping Briante Weber.
“It’s going to put tremendous pressure on Starks to make good decisions, get open, make plays and make shots,” Greenberg said.
Other potential difference-makers, Greenberg noted: Can Georgetown limit its turnovers? How many minutes can the Hoyas get from Smith, who has averaged 15.5 minutes per outing in the tournament? And which team can make its long-range shots?
“Because their defensive press gets so much attention, a lot of times their offensive pressure gets overlooked,” Thompson said of VCU. “But to have any success against them at all, you have to be very good at both ends of the court.”