Many people come to the Bahamas for rest and relaxation. For college basketball teams participating in the Battle 4 Atlantis, however, those concepts are temporarily off the table when facing VCU.
Using unrelenting pressure defense, brought by waves of fresh troops off the bench, the Rams have made some of the sport’s most illustrious programs look inept over the last decade.
On Thursday night in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals, the ability of VCU (3-2) to discombobulate foes will be put to the test when it challenges defending national champion Baylor (5-0). If any team can handle the rabid defense of the Rams, it might be the long, quick, versatile Bears.
Even after losing its top three scorers to the NBA, No. 6 Baylor appears reloaded and ready to challenge for another NCAA title.
The Bears advanced on Wednesday night with a stress-free 75-63 win over Arizona State behind LJ Cryer (15 points) and Matt Mayer (14 points).
“I know our guys were excited to play. We’ve been here a couple of days,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “You sit around until the last game, don’t have a long time to warm up, so you’ve got a lot of built-in energy. We just needed to get up and down a few times to get it out.”
Cryer, who is averaging 17.8 points per game and hitting 54 percent of his 3-point attempts, is the team’s top scorer. Adding firepower are Kendall Brown (14 points per game) and Mayer (11.2 points per game).
James Akinjo, a transfer from Arizona, is the Bears’ playmaker. He will have a lot to contend with on Thursday night as VCU pressures constantly and with fresh players shuttling in and out of the lineup.
“They look really tough, gritty,” Mayer said. “We’re definitely going to have to battle it out for that one. It’s not going to be easy. They press like 90 percent of the time, so it could be a high-turnover, messy game.”
The messier the better for VCU, which thrives on chaos. In a 67-55 win over Syracuse on Wednesday, the Rams forced 16 turnovers and limited the Orange to 29 percent shooting from the floor.
It was a positive departure from the last time the Rams played, a 56-54 loss to Chattanooga, VCU’s second home defeat to a small-conference school in the young season.
“This is the proudest I’ve ever been,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said after the win over Syracuse. “Some things haven’t gone our way that us or our fans or Ram Nation thinks it should be going, but our guys didn’t sway.”
VCU rebounded behind Levi Stockard III, who scored 15 points and dealt four assists. The Rams also got clutch 3-point shooting from KeShawn Curry, Jayden Nunn and Marcus Tsohonis, who made a combined 7 of 10 shots from beyond the arc.
It was a welcome change for a team that entered hitting 26 percent of its 3-point tries.
“We saw the ball go in. It took until game five,” Rhoades said. “We talked about being calm in chaos. You might be shocked at how open you are.”