O26 Game of the Week: Saint Louis-VCU Pt. II, Iona-Manhattan & More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 27th, 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.

Saint Louis (25-2) at Virginia Commonwealth (20-7) – 6:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Yes, this was our Game of the Week just two short weeks ago and yes, the Billikens all-but-clinched the Atlantic 10 crown by winning on their home floor. So why does the second iteration once again headline the week? Well, for one thing, it was a really good basketball game the first time around. Saint Louis held serve in Chaifetz Arena, sure, but not before VCU forced 17 turnovers and battled back from a double-figure deficit to make the final two minutes thrilling — it took a Rob Loe three-pointer with around 30 seconds left to ice it for the home team. And the defenses lived-up to their dominant billing, each limiting the opposing offense to well-under one point per possession on the afternoon. Even if you had tuned in for just five minutes of action, the high level of play and serious potential of both teams would have become quickly evident.

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee)

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (Chris Lee, AP)

And that’s the overarching reason why Saturday’s tilt — this time in Richmond — is the main event in an already-loaded week; Saint Louis-VCU isn’t merely a marquee A-10 match-up, it’s a marquee national match-up. Everything at stake in a high-profile power-conference game is also at stake here: perception, NCAA Tournament profile, late-season momentum, bragging rights, and in the case of the Billikens, a very long winning streak. Jim Crews’ bunch has reeled off 19 straight victories over the course of three full months, last losing way back on December 1 to still-undefeated Wichita State. Shaka Smart’s group, meanwhile — fresh off a painfully-close road loss to UMass last Friday — has not dropped a home game in more than a year, obliterating visiting opponents this season by nearly 17 points per contest. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in Verizon Wireless Arena, and the basketball-watching public will be the beneficiary. KenPom has the home squad pegged as 62 percent favorites, which is to say, it’s more or less a toss-up. Tune in on Saturday — Round II should be great.

Four More to Watch

  1. Iona (19-8) at Manhattan (20-7) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Friday. The Gaels are on an 11-game winning streak and have already clinched, at minimum, a share of the MAAC title. But they will have their work cut out for them on Friday night. Star swingman George Beamon has been on a tear recently for the Jaspers, averaging 24 points per game over his last six and serving as the go-to offensive weapon for a tough, defensive-minded team. In fact, this match-up should be an interesting contrast in styles, or at least in proficiency: Iona is the 11th-most offensively efficient team in the country, while Manhattan ranks within the top 50 on the defensive end. Tim Cluess’ club got the better of the Jaspers in their first meeting a month ago — the Gaels poured in 85 points — but it might be a very different story in Draddy Gymnasium.
  2. Stony Brook (20-8) at Vermont (19-9) – 7:00 PM ET, Thursday. This is for all the marbles in the America East. Stony Brook toppled Vermont when they played back on January 24, but the Seawolves have lost two conference games since then, whereas the Catamounts have rolled through the league. Actually, steamrolled might be the correct word here. Since that defeat on Long Island, Vermont has won eight straight and destroyed their competition by more than 23 points per game in the process. It’s hard to picture Stony Brook leaving Burlington victorious on Thursday night, what with the way the Catamounts are playing, but with the outright league title on the line, anything is possible.
  3. Middle Tennessee State (21-7) at Louisiana Tech (22-6) – 7:30 PM ET, Thursday. Louisiana Tech suffered an ugly loss to East Carolina last week, and now here we are — Middle Tennessee State, one of the newcomers to Conference USA, sits alone atop the league standings. The Bulldogs, though, have a great opportunity to jump right back on top (and really jumble things up) if they can take care of business at home tomorrow night, where they’ve lost only once in the last two seasons. Defense will be the name of the game — each club holds their opponents to an identical 97.9 points per 100 possessions — and both of them should be ready. At around 2.3 years of average experience, they are among the most seasoned teams in the country.
  4. Gonzaga (23-6) at Saint Mary’s (20-9) – 10:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. No, Saint Mary’s is not quite as good as usual. And sure, Gonzaga crushed them by 22 in Spokane. But you know what? This is still a rivalry — a darn good one — and the Gaels will undoubtedly have McKeon Pavilion rocking on Saturday night. If Brad Waldow can be effective against the Bulldogs’ bigs (he finished with just five points in the first meeting) and the rest of the team can knock down shots, Randy Bennett’s crew is more than capable of beating the perennial WCC powerhouse. Gonzaga, meanwhile, badly needs this game in order to boost its at-large profile after suffering a pair of defeats last week. Another loss here — combined with an early exit in the conference tournament — and Mark Few’s club could be in real jeopardy of missing the Dance for the first time in 16 years.

Upset Special

The Aztecs need to watch out in Fresno on Saturday night. (Sean M. Haffey)

The Aztecs need to watch out in Fresno on Saturday night. (Sean M. Haffey)

San Diego State (23-3) at Fresno State (14-14) – 10:05 PM ET, CBSSN, Saturday. Fresno State has been quietly competitive in the Mountain West over the last month-plus, responding to a pair of overtime heartbreakers near the end of January by winning seven of their next eight games. After a 20-point pasting of Boise State last night, and with the Aztecs coming to town on Saturday — don’t be surprised if they make the most of both opportunities. Rodney Terry’s group hung with San Diego State for most of the contest when they met earlier in the year, falling by eight on the road, and have been playing even more offensively-efficient basketball in the subsequent few weeks. The Aztecs, on the other hand, struggled mightily to score in recent losses to Wyoming and New Mexico, and have shown a tendency to be offensively inept when Xavier Thames can’t get things going. Expect Steve Fisher’s guys to score points — Fresno State isn’t exactly a world-beater defensively — but don’t expect the Bulldogs to lie down on either end of the court. This game might be similar to San Diego State’s bout with Utah State a month ago, where the Aggies hit threes and scored points but lost narrowly in overtime. Games that close tend to go either way, so watch out for this one late Saturday night.

Stars Aligned: Great Individual Match-Ups

  • UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams and UC Irvine’s Mamadou Ndiaye – 10:00 PM ET, Thursday. This is a big game in the Big West, and the outcome might rely on what the two biggest men on the floor can do against each other. The 6’7’’, 240-pound Williams is a scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking machine, but he will have his tallest task (literally) of the season against the 7’6’’ Ndiaye. The Anteaters’ towering center logged zero blocks in 16 minutes the first time around, but he’s been more imposing and durable of late; against Long Beach State on February 6, Ndiaye played 29 minutes and swatted a ridiculous 11 shots.
  • Davidson’s De’Mon Brooks and Elon’s Lucas Troutman – 7:00 PM ET, Saturday. The Southern Conference’s two best teams feature the league’s two best frontcourt players. Troutman and Brooks scored 28 points apiece and each recorded a double-double in their first go-round — an improbable, come-from-behind Elon overtime victory — and neither team has suffered a loss since January. Expect more big-time productivity from these two on Saturday night in what should be another good game.
  • Denver’s Brett Olson and North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun – 8:00 PM ET, Saturday. Olson and Braun are two of the most offensively-efficient players in the Summit League — in the country, even — so Saturday’s showdown in Fargo could be decided by who maximizes their chances the most. Olson shot 6-of-8 from the field and scored 19 points in a victory over North Dakota State when they met up in Denver, but Braun and the Bison tend to be extra tough at home. Expect some economical offense and stellar execution this weekend.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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