AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — For two seasons, Virginia Commonwealth has thrived as an underdog. Little did anyone know, the Rams might just be better suited to play the role of favorite now that they’ve become a mainstay in the NCAA tournament.
They sure looked comfortable in the part Thursday night.
The fifth-seeded Rams throttled No. 12 seed Akron, 88-42, in a South Region round-of-64 game at The Palace of Auburn Hills that turned into a rout quickly. VCU advances to face No. 4 seed Michigan on Saturday.
To get there, Coach Shaka Smart had to get past one of his closest friends — Akron’s Keith Dambrot. But aside from the hugs they shared before the game and after it was over, Smart showed little mercy.
The Zips were missing their starting point guard and dealing with a wave of injuries, including two players that had to spend Wednesday night in a local hospital because of the flu.
And from the start, VCU jumped all over them.
The Rams’ signature full-court press forced two 10-second violations before the contest was six minutes old on a night when the Zips committed 22 turnovers. VCU’s offense was even better. The Rams shot 61.1 percent from the field before halftime and midway through the first half, they were on pace to score 120 points.
“They exploited our weakness better than anybody in the country,” Dambrot said. “They never let up, and never let us get off the mat really.”
Their lead ballooned as high as 48 points in the second half, a stark contrast to when these teams met last season and VCU needed a last-second lay-in to beat Akron in overtime. The Zips’ six previous losses this season came by a combined 49 points, just three more than their final deficit Thursday night. It also represented the largest margin of victory in a game between a No. 5 seed and No. 12 seed in NCAA tournament history.
Senior Troy Daniels led the Rams with 23 points and junior Jevonte Reddic added 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting. VCU finished the game shooting 53.8 percent from the field and had 10 players score at least two points.
“When we’re making shots, it’s easier to get in the press,” junior Rob Brandenberg said. “We were just in the zone.”
Dambrot hoped to keep the pace slow this time around, knowing well the Zips’ advantage was inside with 7-foot center Zeke Marshall (11 points) and power forward Demetrious Treadwell (15 points). But VCU still beat Akron in the rebounding battle and didn’t shy away from feeding Reddic in the post.
Smart, meanwhile, gave Akron no choice but to try and keep up. He stomped his feet on the floor, waved his arms in the air and never sat down as he implored his team to attack even with a sizable lead.
“We’re not just gonna fall back and play zone,” Smart said. “It’s not what we do.”
So as halftime approached and the Palace of Auburn Hills stands emptied, much of the talk was about VCU’s next game, against the hometown Wolverines. Michigan Coach John Beilein and assistant Jeff Meyer were courtside throughout the first half, watching the Rams’ clinic intently after defeating No. 13 seed South Dakota State earlier in the evening.
Even security guards in the hallway wondered if the Rams might just be on the verge of another run through the NCAA tournament, even though they’ll have to fend with a crowd that will undoubtedly be full of maize and blue.
It seems VCU might return to the familiar role of underdog Saturday, not that the one it assumed Thursday night didn’t suit them just as well.
“They have the leaders and best,” Smart said as he walked down the hallway after his postgame news conference. “We got the Rams.”