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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. VCU

The road team has won in each of the last three matchups. The Hoos hope to change that Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at VCU Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

After going to an an improbable Final Four in 2011, the VCU Rams began talking about being the premier college basketball program in the Commonwealth, and the Virginia-VCU series became a bit of a marquee matchup for the two programs. They’ve played three times since then. In 2013, VCU won at JPJ. Virginia has won the last two matchups, both at the Siegel Center in Richmond, including last year’s 76-67 win. Right now, the programs are going in different directions, In 2016, VCU ranked 31st in KenPom’s rankings. Last year, they ranked 144th. And we all know where the Virginia Cavaliers are nationally.

VCU is coming off a road win over their former coach Shaka Smart and Texas. That was a huge win, considering Texas sits at 36 in KenPom’s rankings, and VCU is at 101. Just one player on VCU played for Smart, and that is big man Michael Gilmore, who left VCU for Miami and then Florida-Gulf Coast. He’s back as a graduate transfer.

Despite the coaching changes, VCU’s game has not changed. They like to run. Last year, they were the 51st fastest team. This year, they rank just 171st, but the raw pace is roughly the same. The Rams run a 1-2-2 press. They want to trap in the backcourt. Here’s what it looks like after a made basket. In this case, it was actually a made free throw, which makes it a bit easier to set up the press.

They pressure the inbounder and guard the wings. St John’s has a guy flash to the middle to get the ball inbounds. Now the pressure defense begins. This guy is not a ball-handler. The next pass is a tough one. VCU wants to force turnovers in order to create easy buckets on offense.

VCU ranks in the top 20 in forcing turnovers, top 30 in steals and 13th in overall defensive efficiency. Teams are shooting just 24% from behind the arc, ranking third in the nation. That’s the key to this game. If Virginia can’t make outside shots, they probably can’t win.

It may just be that VCU has simply played teams that can’t shoot. Here’s all their games, along with their opposition’s three point shooting numbers.

VCU Opponents’ Three-Point Shooting

Opponent Season 3 Pt Shooting vs VCU
Opponent Season 3 Pt Shooting vs VCU
Gardner-Webb 36.7% (79th) 5/16 (31%)
Hampton 29.2% (301th) 3/17 (18%)
Bowling Green 29.1% (303nd) 6/18 (33%)
Temple 29.9% (286th) 4/28 (14%)
St. John's 38.2% (55th) 6/22 (27%)
Hofstra 35.9% (104th) 6/21 (29%)
Old Dominion 34.7% (149st) 4/18 (22%)
Iona 30.5% (260th) 4/19 (21%)
Texas 28.9% (307th) 4/17 (24%)
Virginia 40.2% (25th)

Yes, with one exception (Bowling Green) every team has shot worse against VCU than against anybody else. But a lot of these teams are just poor shooting teams.

Virginia is a much better shooting team than any of the other teams on this list. They have three high-volume shooters making well over 40% of their shots. It’s much tougher to defend a team with so many shooters.

The leading scorer for the Rams is junior Marcus Evans, a transfer from Rice (where he played for current VCU coach Mike Rhoades). Evans also leads the team with over two steals per game. He’s 6’2” 190, and very quick. He has a strong mid-range game, but isn’t much of an outside shooter. He’s at 26%, but takes far too many shots from outside (46 of his 94 FGA).

In fact, as a team, the Rams take far too many shots from outside. They’re 54th nationally in percentage of shots taken from behind the arc (44%), but they’re 297th in 3-point shooting. That is why they are 250th in offensive efficiency. The one shooter to watch is De’Riante Jenkins. He shot over 42% last year and he’s over 40% for his career. Jenkins began the season 3/16, and missed a game early as he was recovering from an achilles injury he suffered over the summer. Since the opening four games (one of which he missed), he’s 17/39 (44%).

Assuming Virginia runs with three guards, as they’ve been doing most of the season, Kihei Clark will be on Evans. His defensive quickness may frustrate Evans into taking even more ill-advised outside shots. That would likely leave Kyle Guy on Jenkins. At 6’5” 195, Jenkins has a great deal of size on Guy. Jenkins mostly hangs around the perimeter and isn’t comfortable playing off the dribble. This negates that size advantage.

VCU has just one player (Gilmore) over 6’8” and just two players over 215 lbs. The only real “big” is 6’7” 250 Marcos Santos-Silva. He’s got a little bit of a post game, but isn’t really a scorer. Here’s an example of what he can do.

He uses his strength to establish great position, which gives him an easy scoring opportunity. Good luck getting that kind of position against Jack Salt. It’s possible, however, that Salt won’t get much run in this one. He did play 24 minutes in last year’s matchup, but VCU was bigger last year. And Tony has more options this year. He could elect to go small with Braxton Key. A lineup of Kihei Clark, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, DeAndre Hunter and Key would include five strong ball-handlers, which would really help negate the press.

Negating the press is how you beat VCU. In last year’s game, Virginia turned the ball over just 5 times, while forcing 12 turnovers of their own. Led by Kyle Guy’s 29 points, Virginia’s offense took it to VCU’s defense.

On the other end, Virginia’s defense wasn’t as good as they’d like it to be. VCU scored 1.06 points per possession, which is way higher than average for Virginia. They were led by 19 points off the bench from Issac Vann. That included 3-of-4 from behind the arc, an aberration for a guy who is under 30% for his career.

This year’s VCU team is struggling offensively. Yes, their defense is much improved over last year’s, but Virginia’s offense is much better than it was last year. Combine that with the change in venue from Richmond to Charlottesville, and this one seems like it could be an easy Virginia win.