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Pace Changers (12/03)

December 3, 2012
VCU, Texas, and Belmont
Unranked and Unappreciated

by John Gasaway


Each week I'm asked by ESPN to rank the top 25 teams in the nation, which is another way of saying that each week I don't rank 322 teams. Lest you think all 322 of those also-rans are created equal, however, I want to spotlight three unranked teams today. These are teams who are currently being overlooked, but ones that I expect to be very good this season.

(So really, today's column comprises a handy way to expand my top 25 into a top 28, as well as placating no fewer than three sets of angry "How could you not rank my team?" fans. How cool is this?)

Fun fact: VCU, Texas, and Belmont combined received one vote in last week's AP poll. So, yes, it's fair to call this trio under-the-radar at the moment.

Virginia Commonwealth
The Rams are 5-3, and 5-3 won't get you ranked. But the losses came to Wichita State, Duke, and Missouri, by a combined 14 points. Indeed there's a good chance that Shaka Smart's team will be even better this season than they were in 2011-12.

The bulk of the lineup returns from a team that took Indiana to the 40th minute in the round of 32, Smart's "Havoc" defense is still creating an incredible number of opponent turnovers, and if you knew that 6-5 sophomore Treveon Graham would develop into a lethal featured scorer this quickly, please take one step forward. An A-10 Player of the Year trophy that gets handed out today would stand a fair chance of going to Graham.

So, yes, I'm here to remind you that VCU is better than their record, but I also realize that people are just kind of waiting for -- and expecting -- Smart's team to record enough wins to be ranked. On the other hand, consider the difference between this attitude and how a team like, say, Memphis is being perceived right now. Both teams went to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis, and both lost games to Duke and to one other major-conference team that's currently ranked. But you probably didn't read any pieces questioning whether Shaka Smart "can coach." Those are the breaks, I guess, when the act you have to follow is named John Calipari.

Warning: I am about to praise the defense of a team that allowed a non-Division-I opponent to score 86 points in a game. Bear with me....

I don't blame people at all for being very interested in if and when Myck Kabongo will play for the Longhorns. Kabongo's a point guard with first-round talent, and goodness knows a team that's given the ball away on 27 percent of its possessions could really use one of those. Still, I do think the amount of discussion focused on an absence in Austin has deflected attention from what's present in that particular campus town even without Kabongo, namely, incredible defense.

We've seen outstanding defense from the Horns before, and with this year's variety looking so categorically similar it may be time to ask exactly what Rick Barnes is drawing up on his defensive whiteboard. So far on the young season Texas has held opponents to 34 percent shooting inside the arc, and is allowing just 1.01 points per effective possession. Meaning even in an imaginary world where UT opponents never committed turnovers, those adversaries would still be right at a point per trip.

Now, about allowing 86 points: Chaminade (yes, Chaminade) might fairly be said to have lit this D up at the Maui Invitational, scoring the aforesaid number of points in a 77-possession game. Of course that contest was played in the Silverswords' home time zone, and, more importantly, Eric Bovaird's team used the best possible strategy against this defense: Do your scoring when the Longhorns are lined up on either side of the lane, watching you shoot free throws. Chaminade got 34 of their points from the line that day, but over the rest of the season UT has fouled at a more normal rate.

But is this defense really that good? We're going to find out. In the next 20 days UT will play Georgetown, UCLA, North Carolina, and Michigan State.

Lastly, note that the controversy surrounding Kabongo -- the NCAA is investigating whether he received improper benefits in the offseason -- could actually be one of those rare instances of much ado about something. Capable point guard play really could help an outstanding defensive team with debilitating turnover issues. Immensely.

A cynic might say this is an easy choice because, year in and year out, the Bruins are always underrated. Well, I'll one-up the cynic. Not only is Belmont underrated year in and year out, it will happen again this season. About the only thing that could possibly prevent that from happening would be a win at Kansas a week from Saturday.

I don't expect that to happen -- you may have heard the Jayhawks are pretty tough in Lawrence -- and so the more likely scenario is that Rick Byrd's team will spend the entirety of the season outside the top 25. But even if the Bruins are fated to record their wins in an Ohio Valley Conference that doesn't get a lot of attention, you should know that this offense is really good.

The Bruins are a perimeter-oriented team, and with 6-3 senior Ian Clark making 57 percent of his threes it's easy to see why Byrd has put his eggs in that particular basket. In fact if Byrd can throw a few more possessions Clark's way, perhaps at the expense of featured scorer Kerron Johnson, Belmont could become even more effective on offense. Clark, Johnson, and company are exceedingly likely to be unranked come March, but you do not want to see these guys in your bracket.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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