Battle for the Commonwealth: Previewing VCU vs. Virginia

Posted by Lathan Wells & Tommy Lemoine on December 6th, 2014

Last year, VCU went into John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville and shocked Virginia on a Treveon Graham buzzer-beater. This year, both teams entered the season ranked in the top 15 nationally with the rematch set to take place on VCU’s home turf in Richmond. Some may think that the luster of this game wore off with VCU’s two early-season losses and subsequent plummet from the rankings, but that’s far from the case in Virginia’s capital city (need evidence? see here). The Cavaliers will be the highest-ranked team ever to play at VCU’s Siegel Center.  RTC’s Tommy Lemoine and Lathan Wells preview one of the biggest games in recent Virginia collegiate basketball history here.

Tommy Lemoine: Joe Harris scored almost a third of Virginia’s points against VCU last year, but he’s since graduated. Justin Anderson has done a nice job of filling that void (alongside Malcolm Brogdon), but the reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year appeared to injure his ankle against Maryland on Wednesday. If he is limited – or worse, can’t play – who steps up as an additional offensive creator in his absence?

Last year in Charlottesville, Treveon Graham broke UVA's heart with a last-second shot (AssociatedPress)

Last year in Charlottesville, Treveon Graham broke UVA’s heart with a last-second shot (AssociatedPress)

Lathan Wells: The logical choice is Brogdon himself, who some may forget was a preseason All-ACC selection before Anderson overshadowed him in the team’s early slate. Brogdon is still the player who can make the most plays for this team in crunch time, and he rivals Anderson’s ability to get to the basket off the drive. If he is contained, however, it becomes much dicier for the Cavaliers. Either Mike Tobey or London Perrantes may need a career night if points are at a premium. While Virginia has largely lived up to its billing, VCU has underwhelmed to this point after being lauded as Shaka Smart’s best team yet at VCU. There are numerous issues that need to be cleaned up from the Rams’ 5-2 start, but what do you think is the biggest area that needs to be addressed to knock off the unbeaten Cavaliers?

TL: There are problems on both ends of the court, but against a team like Virginia that limits its own mistakes, the Rams have to be more patient on offense. Too often, their half-court ‘sets’ amount to launching threes (and not all of them the result of dribble-penetration) or isolated attempts to attack the basket. They combined for a staggeringly low four assists in the loss to Villanova and just 10 against Old Dominion. VCU would be wise to shore up its offensive rotations and ramp up its off-the-ball movement against the Cavaliers, whose pack line defense is virtually impenetrable without sharp execution. Speaking of defense, it’s all about forcing turnovers with VCU, but Virginia has done a really nice job taking care of the ball so far this year. Still, the Cavaliers coughed it up 19 times in last season’s match-up – a big reason why they lost. Any cause for concern as they head to Richmond, or is London Perrantes ready to handle the HAVOC?

LW: Over the course of last year, Perrantes matured mightily from beginning to end. He craftily piloted Virginia to its historic season last year with a better than three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and is matching that number this year. Turnovers are likely not going to be an issue with the Cavaliers’ point guard, but it would be nice if he could become a bit more of a threat on the offensive end. He’s only averaging three points and is shooting a brutal 22.7% from the field. More scoring from their point guard would help insulate the Cavaliers from whatever miscues they do have. While we’re on the subject of manufacturing offense, one glaring deficiency of the Rams’ so far has been their half-court offense. They seem to be built around Briante Weber getting to the hoop or one of their long-range shooters chucking one up from deep. Is there anyone else capable of giving this team some kind of surprise offensive boost in this game?

TL: Treveon Graham is often the only player capable of consistently and effectively creating half-court offense near the basket – he scored 34 of VCU’s 67 points against Old Dominion – so the 6’6’’ wing has to be good on Saturday. But as the loss to the Monarch’s demonstrated, he also can’t do it alone. One guy who’s shown significant improvement of late is Jordan Burgess, who logged 10 points and eight rebounds at Illinois State on Tuesday. If he can be as active inside the arc as he was against the Redbirds and during last week’s victory over Oregon (12 points, 7 rebounds), VCU won’t have to rely as heavily on Graham, forced-turnovers and three-point shooting in order to find points. Getting to the obvious question here, you’d be hard-pressed to find a matchup with greater contrasting styles than Virginia and VCU. The Rams want to score in transition; the Cavaliers want to grind on both ends of the court. How will Tony Bennett’s group respond if the tempo picks up on Saturday?

Tony Bennett's Cavaliers look to avenge last year's heartbreaking early-season loss to their in-state rival (GettyImages)

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers look to avenge last year’s heartbreaking early-season loss to their in-state rival (GettyImages)

LW: The Cavaliers often get misstaken for a team that cannot play in transition. Their 45-26 defeat of Rutgers further painted them as a methodical, slow team. But in reality, Virginia sticks to its principles on defense but takes what the other team gives them on the offensive end. They’re averaging nearly 70 points a game, which is not mind-blowing but also doesn’t speak to a team playing out all 35 seconds of the clock. If the Rams are sloppy with the ball, expect the Cavaliers to play faster than some are accustomed to seeing, especially if Anderson is cleared and can get out in transition. They showed last year in their 59-56 defeat at the hands of VCU that it’s easier to slow the Rams down than it is to speed Virginia up. That being the case, Virginia’s ball security is one of its best assets as a team, and we’ve seen VCU struggle at times when their HAVOC defense isn’t generating constant turnovers. If this becomes a half-court game, what does VCU need to improve on on the defensive side of the ball to give them a chance to spring the upset?

TL: When opponents have broken the press, they have often found wide-open perimeter jumpers (VCU allowing 39.7% 3PT) or easy, uncontested looks underneath. Two glaring reasons for the Rams’ defensive woes have been their over-aggressiveness – which quality guards tend to exploit – and their sloppy rotations. It’s as if they can’t turn off HAVOC once opponents cross the time line. Against Virginia’s patient, efficient offensive attack, Shaka Smart’s group needs to be cognizant of where people are on the floor, remain crisp in its rotations and be less eager to gamble.

  • VCU wins if: It forces 10 to 15 turnovers and scores on more than half of them, Graham consistently gets into the teeth of the defense, and the team shoots better than 35 percent from long range.
  • Virginia wins if: They commit 10 or fewer turnovers, Brogdon plays like the All-ACC selection he was in the preseason, and the game stays closer to the 60s than the 80s.
Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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