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Virginia vs. VCU Preview: Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins's statuses uncertain

The Packline meets Havoc in Richmond

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The #6 Virginia Cavaliers head to Richmond to take on the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, as Rivalry Week/Redemption Week continues for the Hoos.  Last season, VCU stole a game from Virginia at JPJ. Now, UVA has a chance to return the favor with a road win of its own.

First of all, a word on the statuses of Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins, both of whom were injured against Maryland and did not return. That word is: uncertain.  Both will be game-time decisions against VCU.

While neither injury appears to be serious (i.e. season-threatening), both players went down hard and likely won't be 100% after just 3 days rest.  Coach Bennett and the team's training staff will probably also consider the 12-day exam layoff that follows the VCU game, an ideal period to heal up before the end of the out-of-conference schedule and the start of ACC play.

Obviously, the unclear status of 40% of the starting lineup is significant.  Anderson has been outstanding all season and his athleticism would be particularly useful against VCU.  UVA has a significant interior advantage and having Atkins available to exploit it would also be an important factor.  If Atkins was sidelined, UVA could also have depth issues, especially if the game is called remotely like this week's foul-fest against Maryland.

VCU is coming off a somewhat shaky start at 5-2 but against a tough schedule.  They have decent neutral court wins against KenPom #98 Tennessee and #45 Oregon, and a road victory at #96 Illinois State.  However, they were also crushed by Villanova by 24 points and lost at Old Dominion. (Before we discredit VCU over that last loss, ODU is markedly better than the squad that beat UVA two years ago; they're ranked 88th in KenPom and are far from a pushover at home).

Most Hoos are familiar with the idea of VCU's style of play, which is essentially the opposite of the one we are used to watching.  Virginia slows the game down, doesn't attempt to force turnovers, and prefers a half-court style.  The Rams, on the other hand, will run up and down the court and press on every possession, with their primary goal of forcing opponents to cough the ball up.

VCU is 17th in the nation in TO% (they finished first the past 3 seasons), but that comes with trade-offs.  They are 271st in eFG% allowed and foul a ton as well (309th in FTA/FGA) - both are also drop-offs from last season.

In last year's matchup at JPJ, Virginia turned the ball over on 28% of its possessions, while making 45% of its 2s and 13% of 3s.  The game was only close because of its excellent defense and 33 FT attempts, of which UVA converted only 19.  This year, the team will have to stick to the well-known offensive formula for beating Havoc.

1) Don't turn the ball over - This is obvious.  UVA will not finish the game tomorrow with 0 turnovers - that's VCU's game, and they are going to get some.  But if UVA keeps its TO% closer to 20% than 30%, they'll be in good shape. London Perrantes, who settled down with a 7 AST - 0 TO effort against Maryland will be key; he lost the ball 4 times in last year's matchup (it was his second game), as did Malcolm Brogdon, who also has since improved his ball-handling.

2) Make VCU pay for its gambles - There's a reason that all teams in the nation don't press - there's a significant trade-off.  UVA is good enough to take advantage, and has significantly improved its ability to score off the break.  But there's a tricky balance here between benefiting from the higher percentage transition points that we want and also keeping the game in a slow-tempo, half court style that benefits us as well.

Malcolm Brogdon will again be key.  He scored the game's first 2 baskets against Maryland by just dribbling from baseline to baseline in transition, and could hurt the Rams the same way.  However, he's also turnover-prone in those situations, which would just play into what VCU is trying to do.

The good news about the half-court game: It will be impossible for the Rams to matchup with UVA on the interior.  Their starting lineup features two 6' 6"  players...and nobody taller. Mike Tobey should be able to do whatever he wants.

It is difficult to take care of the ball against VCU.  But if UVA can do so, it has the weapons to exploit the Havoc defense like Villanova did a few weeks back (77 points in 61 possessions, while turning the ball over just 15% of the time).

3) Get to the line and make free-throws - Last year, UVA attempted plenty of free-throws, but converted them at a 58% rate. Getting to the line isn't a strength of this Wahoo team, but they'll have a higher chance of doing so against VCU. Once there, the Hoos must turn FT attempts into points. The team has shot 72% from the FT line this season, compared to 67% last year. (Thank goodness there's no Joe Harris to bring us down!)

Remember Treveon Graham?  (I was going to post video of his game-winner from last season, but decided to spare everyone).  He is the man on offense for VCU, using 29% of the team's possessions and doing so efficiently.  Graham has converted 48% of his 2s and 40% of his 3s, with 38% of his shots come from behind the arc.  Melvin Johnson is the other shooter to watch, making 39% of his three-point shots.  Virginia must step out on these guys and force them to try to score over Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill, which VCU will probably struggle to do - 13% of their shots this season have been blocked (289th in the nation).

Briante Weber is VCU's primary distributor, with a 36.5% assist rate, though he won't shoot often. He's also second in the nation in steal %.

This will be a fun game. Two in-state teams, with a "redemption factor" thrown in, playing in front of what promises to be a rabid crowd at the Siegel Center.  (Students have been camping out in what they're calling "Shakaville." I'll roll my eyes at the name, while applauding their enthusiasm.)  That's before considering the wild clash of styles; UVA averages 60 possessions per game (348th in the nation), while VCU plays at a 71 possession per game clip (33rd).

KenPom, who predicts a 63-61 game, gives UVA a 61% chance of leaving Richmond with a win.  Predictions are tough to make without knowing Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins's status, but I think the Hoos take it either way. This is an experienced, mature team that knows how to handle the stresses that an away game at VCU can bring. Additionally, Shaka Smart's 2014 team just hasn't been as good as his squads of the past few years.