The battle for
state commonwealth supremacy returns, as the Virginia Cavaliers and Virginia Commonwealth Rams face off again after taking three years off. The two teams split a series in 2013 and 2014, with both teams winning on the road. The Wahoos hope that trend continues, since this game is in Richmond at the Siegal Center. In 2014, when the Hoos won in Richmond, Shaka Smart was still the head coach and VCU was a top-tier mid-major team. Shaka is in Texas now, and his replacement, Will Wade, is at LSU. Now in charge is Mike Rhoades, formerly of Rice College. The last time these two teams faced, VCU was ranked #30 on KenPom. Right now, they are 90.
The expectation in Richmond is that little will change with the new coach. At least, not in terms of style. VCU’s calling card for the past decade has been pressure and speed. They call it “Havoc.” They full-court-press almost the entire game. They trap. For three years from 2012-2014 under Shaka Smart, they led the nation in turnover rate. But it isn’t just about forcing turnovers — it is about speeding up the game and making the opposition uncomfortable. There is a defender constantly in your grill. That makes a lot of players uncomfortable. It is also difficult to generate that same pressure in practice.
Similar to the other day against Austin Peay, the Hoos face a team with a lot new faces. VCU lost 5 of their top 8 scorers and 3 of their top 4 rebounders. Perhaps more problematic is that, for a team that thrives on turnovers and steals, they return just 45 out of last season’s 263 steals. All the new faces may mean a lack of cohesion in the press, and may mean easy buckets for the Hoos. In the opener, VCU forced just 15 turnovers in 77 possessions, but Grambling wasn’t able to take advantage with easy buckets. In their second game, against North Florida, VCU forced 16 turnovers in 76 possessions. North Florida (the Ospreys!) did end up with a number of easy buckets -- VCU still won, but it was just a 10 point game. North Florida and Gambling are both among the lower rated teams in the nation.
The main returnee is big man Justin Tillman, who averaged 12 and 9 last season. He’s the biggest threat among the returning player and already had a double-double against Grambling in the opener. At 6’8” 220 (he’s more like 7 feet with the afro), he’s a beast on the boards and can really finish inside. Longwood transfer Khris Lane spells his own first name wrong, but has been starting up front with Tillman. Lane is bigger than Tillman, but is more of a perimeter player. He’s 36% from downtown in his career. Both are good shot blockers.
Those two guys will likely be the back-end of the full court press. The Rams’ press is a diamond press. There’s 1 guy on the inbounder. Then the other 4 guys are in a diamond. That way, there’s two guys up front, and 2 in the back. And there’s 2 on the left and 2 on the right. Anytime the offense picks up the dribble, VCU will try to trap. That’s especially true when it’s not a normal ball-handler. If the Hoos get the ball up court to Jack Salt, for example, that’ll be a quick trap. The Hoos do not want to get the ball up court to Jack Salt.
The other key returning player is point guard Jonathan Williams. He’s a good PG who can generate offense for others, but isn’t really much of a scoring threat on his own. He’s also not nearly the defender that some of VCU’s previous PGs were.
The two perimeter players to watch are De’Riante Jenkins and Malik Crowfield. Jenkins shot 45% from 3 last year (15/33) and is also dangerous in transition. And though Crowfield isn’t quite as good a shooter, he’s very dangerous with the ball in his hands. He can create a shot for himself or others off the dribble. Neither have really proven their worth in the press, but both have the long arms and quick feet that generally prove to be useful in that role. Another key perimeter player is Maine transfer Isaac Vann. He is very active and athletic. He was 41% from 3 as a freshman for Maine, but he’s just 2-9 so far this year.
Jenkins is the lead man in the press. He has quick hands and will generate some steals. He has 4 steals in 2 games. Crowfield has 3 steals. Those are the two most active defenders for the Rams right now.
The Rams offense is going to be reliant on Tillman, who isn’t really a volume scorer. He’s a guy who gets points in transition, and on the offensive glass. Though he has developed a 3 point shot, and he’s 2-4 on the season. He isn’t the type of post player who you can dump the ball in and let him generate buckets. Lane can also shoot from the outside, and is a 36% career 3 point shooter.
The Hoos generally have two to three ball handlers on the court. Kyle Guy saw time at PG the other night against Austin Peay. Was that possibly in preparation for the press? With Ty Jerome still seemingly less than 100%, look for Nigel Johnson to get a lot of run. And let’s not forget that Devon Hall was initially recruited as a PG — he can handle the rock. In the past, the Hoos have broken the press by using 3 guys in the backcourt. That way there’s one more offensive player than defensive player. This extra player is in the middle. The ball comes in to him, and then he turns. If the defenders collapse to him, he has an open man to pass to. If they don’t, he dribbles up court. Once the ball is in the front court, the VCU defense is a more traditional man-to-man. But it is still a high-pressure defense.
This game may not be the right matchup for Jack Salt, because of VCU’s athleticism and the speed at which they play. He’ll start, but he may not see big minutes. On the other hand, this game is perfect for DeAndre Hunter. His length and athleticism play very well against VCU. He could be tremendous in transition, both offensively and defensively. This could be his coming out party, much like Monday night was Jay Huff’s coming out party.
The easiest way to prevent VCU from running their press is to stop them from scoring. VCU is shooting the ball very well early on, but they haven’t faced a defense like the Pack-Line. They’re not going to get the same looks that they did against Grambling. The Rams are averaging just 14 seconds per offensive possession. If they intend to shoot the ball that quickly against Virginia, they’re going to be in trouble.
They’ve also been rebounding the ball very well on the offensive glass, which has been a problem for the Hoos early on this year. UNC-G rebounded 41% of their own misses. The defensive glass for the Hoos right now is basically Isaiah Wilkins. This is especially true with Salt not expected to get much time. That means other guys, like Hunter and Devon Hall, are going to need to crash the boards hard.