The escalation of VCUs inaugural A10 season continues its ascent. We've reached late February, and we're battling for first place in this new land of milk and honey. It's been a cornucopia of festive hoops already, and it's only going to get better.
St. Louis has won seven straight games--six by double figures--including an 18-point beat down of Butler in Chaifetz (SHAY-fetz) Arena. The Billikens are 19-5 overall and 8-2 in A-10 play, a half-game behind VCU. Like the Rams, St. Louis began the season 3-3 and has been on a big time run.
These are the two top teams in the conference, playing the best basketball.
St.. Louis features a balanced scoring attack, with six players averaging at least 7.2 ppg. In A-10 games, SLU features five players who average 9.0 ppg or more. SLU does not have a player in the top 10 in scoring despite being ranked third in the league in scoring offense.
The Billikens also lead the A-10 in scoring defense, giving up just 57.7ppg. Richmond made just 10 field goals against them.
Former VCU player and current commentator Rodney Ashby described St. Louis as a football team on the basketball court, and he meant that as a compliment. The Billikens play physical from every position.
Ken Pomeroy has St. Louis eeking out a 66-65 victory, giving the Billikens a 54% chance of winning by any margin.
- In their midweek win over Charlotte, SLU hit 11 three-pointers, equaling its most in regulation this season. They went to the foul line 31 times. However the Billikens turned the ball over 20 times.
- Against Butler, the Billikens forced the Bulldogs into 23 turnovers, the most by Butler since the 2002-03 season.
- Dwayne Evans is averaging 16ppg in their seven-game winning streak.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five Things I'm Watching
1. Shot Challenging. Both teams can play rock fight defense in the halfcourt. Nothing comes easy. The old coaching saw goes that in order to make a good percentage of your shots, first you have to get the shots you want. I'm looking for the team that's getting the cleaner looks in halfcourt sets.
2. Live Ball Versus Dead Ball Turnovers. There's pace, but then there's easy baskets. Because the Rams are going to have to work in the halfcourt it will be important to crank up havoc and get layups. Dead ball turnovers are welcomed because that's a chance for VCU to score at the cost of St. Louis not scoring. But live ball turnovers give you that, plus easy offense, plus the mental boost of opponent frustration.
3. The Glass. This is the same item as the GW game, only different. Second chance points matter. St. Louis isn't a world-beater on the glass. In fact, they are 295th nationally in terms of offensive rebounding (27.7%). VCU has been beaten on the boards in the past three games; however, there is an opportunity for an advantage here.
4. Rob Brandenberg At The Elbow. Dwayne Evans is an outstanding defender and the Bills in general protect the lane. Brandenberg, and really Darius Theus too, needs to turn that corner and jet to a rim run. That will open up that biting layup (we must convert at the rim), or a kick out to the three point line.
- 4a. Three Point Efficiency. To me, a 7-18 (CHA) or an 8-17 (GW) performance from the arc will be more effective and preferred than a 12-34 mark. Efficient offense is key.
5. Smiles, Everyone. Smiles! VCU is going to have to play with an edge. You know it when you see it, but we also have to look like we're having fun doing it. That will get between the ears of the St. Louis players. (Detail on what that means specifically is below.) I'm looking for a volcano--a subdued, simmering edge just below the surface.
We Don't Work for Free
Dwayne Evans (12.6ppg, 7.6rpg) leads the team in scoring and rebounding and is a 6-5 rock. Evans is physical, crashes the glass, and lowers the boom. He has recorded double-doubles in two of their last three games. He is also one of the A10s best wing defenders.
Cody Ellis (12.1ppg, 3.1rpg) is a 6-8 four man who has knocked down 47 threes on the year and is a pure shooter and solid all-around player. Ellis has drawn an amazing 31 charges. Unfair editorial comment: I smell a flopper.
Jordair Jett (11.2ppg, 3.1rpg, 2.9apg) is a deceptively-quick and hard-nosed point guard who attacks off the dribble. Jett comes off the bench but leads the team in assists and steals. He is their best on-ball defender, one of those "high IQ" players.
Kwamain Mitchell (9.4ppg, 2.9apg) shares ballhandling duties, using quickness to break down his man. Mitchell, who missed 11 games earlier this season with an ankle injury, shoots 40% from three. He hit seven threes and scored 29 points against Rhode Island.
Grandy Glaze (6.1ppg, 3.7rpg) is a 6-6 power bar. He brings energy and does all the dirty work. Since being inserted in the starting lineup seven games ago, Glaze leads the team in rebounding.
Rob Loe (9.0ppg, 4.1rpg) is slow-footed and tires easily at 6-10, but will bang as much as possible. On offense, Loe is a set-shooter and can knock down the three (12-32, 32.5% in A10 games).
Mike McCall Jr. (6.4ppg, 2.6rpg) is one of the best three-point shooters in the conference (34-80, 42.5%). He likes to score in transition.
Jake Barnett (3.3ppg, 2.5rpg) is the guard version of Glaze--hard-nosed and will do the dirty work to let stars be stars. Barnett can knock down an open three (21-59 on the year). He had a career-high 13 points against Charlotte.
Cory Remekun (3.4ppg,2.8rpg) is a rugged, physical backup post player. Remekun shoots 62% from the field and leads the team in blocked shots.
It's Thanksgiving and we're sitting at the adult table now. We fix our own plate. The way I see it, this is nothing but opportunity. There will be more than 10,000 blue-clad Bills fans eager to show some midwestern "hospitality." It's a battle for first place in late February.
You know what? Fear no evil. A loss to me is like dropping your fork on the floor. Yeah it stinks and there's some cleaning up to do. But there are more forks in the drawer and there is more food to eat.
Make no mistake. This game is going to be hand-to-hand combat. VCU is going to have to do everything with a purpose. That means taking away St. Louis's offensive flow both in the halfcourt and in transition. On offense, VCU must screen hard and cut harder to create open looks against a bruising defense.
That means having a toughness that scares St. Louis because the Rams enjoy it. VCU must force its style of play and smile a lot. (You know what I mean.) That kind of precision execution will put doubt in the minds of St. Louis.
So as much as this game will be physical, it may be more mental. Could this be a tell?
Cody Ellis, referring to a Charlotte run that cut a huge lead to five on Wednesday night, said: "We weren’t rotating the way we should. They got a couple of easy baskets and we started getting frustrated with each other, which is something we haven’t really done all year. We regrouped really well and finished the game pretty decently."
Pretty decently won't cut it. Not in a late February battle for first place.
Enjoy the game--it will be a doozie.