O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive ClashPosted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2014
Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.
Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday
This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.
If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.
So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.
Four More to Watch
- George Washington (19-4) at Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) – 7:00 PM ET, NBCSN, Wednesday. The Game of Week loses some allure if VCU can’t first take care of business tonight against George Washington. Last month, the Colonials used a career effort from Patricio Garino (25 points) to defeat the Rams by 10 in front of a raucous home crowd, at times turning the ball over but never allowing Smart’s team to find an offensive groove. They were also premiering slick new uniforms that evening, which could only have helped. It should be a much different vibe this time around. Following a tough loss to Saint Joseph’s on Saturday, VCU will be out for blood in front of a home crowd that’s helped overwhelm opponents all season long: the Rams are 12-0 in Verizon Wireless Arena, walloping the competition by an average of nearly 17 points per game.
- Ohio (17-6) at Toledo (20-3) – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if it wasn’t for the Duke-Syracuse slugfest, Ohio’s 95-90 win over Toledo would have been the Game of the Day in college hoops back on February 1st. That one featured huge momentum swings and clutch shots, an up-and-down affair that the Bobcats eventually claimed in overtime. Tonight’s rematch in Toledo is worth keeping an eye on for that reason alone—if both teams can rival that level of intensity, it should make for another fun basketball game. The Rockets have not lost at home this season, so another hot shooting night from behind the arc (11-for-25 3PT in their first meeting) will likely be necessary for Ohio to leave victorious.
- Harvard (18-4) at Columbia (14-9) – 7:00 PM ET, Friday. This was supposed to the Crimson’s great Ivy test, a chance for Columbia to deliver Tommy Amaker’s club its first conference loss. But then Harvard was decidedly trounced by Yale over the weekend…at home. Now a loss to the Lions, which the metrics say is a real possibility, would more than just tarnish the Crimson’s league record—it would completely re-open competition for the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. One should expect Harvard to be better on Friday considering everything at stake, but it will need to shoot a higher percentage than it did in the recent losses to Yale and Florida Atlantic. That might be easier said than done against Columbia’s grinding defense.
- Green Bay (19-5) at Cleveland State (17-9) – 4:00 PM ET, Saturday. Saturday’s match-up between the Horizon League’s two best teams could decide its eventual champion. Green Bay comes in struggling—last weekend’s forgettable home loss to Milwaukee was its second defeat in four contests—while Cleveland State is playing its best basketball of the season. The Vikings are winners of six straight and have slowly inched their way into the KenPom top-75. It will be interesting to see whether they continue their red-hot outside shooting against the Phoenix, which held CSU to an uncharacteristic 3-for-21 from behind the arc back on January 2nd. In that game, Green Bay center Alec Brown was a vital component in the team’s 11-point victory, recording 17 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 36 minutes of action. In the two recent losses? Brown didn’t play in one of them, a blowout loss at Valparaiso, and scored just five points in 31 minutes in last weekend’s defeat. The 7’1’’ NBA prospect will need to play like one on Saturday if the Phoenix are to leave Cleveland victorious and remain atop the conference standings.
Stephen F. Austin (22-2) at Sam Houston State (17-6) – 4:45 PM ET, Saturday. The Lumberjacks are deep and balanced and have not lost a basketball contest since before Thanksgiving. In fact, they have only been tested a handful of times during their current 19-game winning streak, with just five games having been decided by fewer than 10 points. Part of the domination can be attributed to the schedule—SFA hasn’t played a current KenPom top-150 squad since it lost to Texas on November 15th—while another portion of the success has been the result of dominant, swarming defense: Brian Underwood’s crew ranks second in the country in turnover percentage, behind only VCU. But the Lumberjacks have shown weakness, never more evident than in their narrow win over Incarnate Word a couple weeks ago. In that one, the visiting Cardinals did two things especially well in a two point loss: they hit outside shots (7-for-15 3PT) and they got to the foul line (25 free-throw attempts). And guess which offensive categories Sam Houston State excels in above all others? Three-point percentage and free-throw rate. The Bearkats shoot better than 38% from deep and get the free throw line at a higher rate (per field goal attempt) than every other team in the country aside from Manhattan. Although they were throttled by the Lumberjacks in January, SHSU has won four in a row and will play at home on Saturday, where they haven’t lost all season. If SFA falls in Southland play in 2013-2014, there is a good chance it happens in Houston this weekend.
Stars Aligned: Great Individual Match-Ups
- BYU’s Eric Mika and Nate Austin and Saint Mary’s Brad Waldow – 8:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Waldow scored 25 points against BYU on February 1st and probably would have scored more if he hadn’t chucked his mouthpiece midway through the second half and received a technical (and fourth personal) foul. He was forced to sit, and the Gaels’ grim fate was sealed. Saint Mary’s desperately needs to win on Saturday night to preserve any at-large hopes, however slim, so the match-up down low between Waldow and Mika/Austin, both of whom are solid offensive rebounders and capable shot-blockers, will be worth watching. A big night from Waldow could mean a big night for the Gaels.
- Ohio’s Maurice N’dour and Buffalo’s Javon McCrea – 2:30 PM ET, Saturday. These two big men have combined for 15 double-doubles this season, 11 from McCrea alone, making Saturday’s battle in the paint a match-up of likely all-MAC selections. N’dour has been a revelation for Ohio in his first year of D-1 basketball, blossoming into the team’s most important player and star at over 15 points and nearly seven rebounds a game. McCrea is a conference legend at this point, a four year stalwart who has broken or is on the cusp of breaking innumerable school and league records. It will be interesting to see how these two fare against each other on Saturday afternoon.
- New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Boise State’s Derrick Marks – 9:15 PM ET, CBSSN, Wednesday. It would be awfully fun if both players take this game over offensively, something they have each been known to do in the past. Williams and Marks scored 18 and 19, respectively, in Mew Mexico’s nine-point win over the Broncos last month—not shabby by any stretch—but I’m talking about a high-scoring, bucket-trading, mono-a-mono affair between two score-first point guards. It is certainly within the realm of possibility: both guys have had 35-plus point nights in their illustrious careers.