Game preview: No. 24 VCU at St. Louis

The Atlantic 10’s two hottest teams meet in a battle for the top spot, as A-10 No.1 VCU (21-5, 9-2) takes on No.2 St. Louis (19-5, 8-2) Tuesday night in SLU’s Chaifetz arena. The Rams take their five-game win streak on the road and attempt to end the St. Louis’ seven-gamer. The Billikens haven’t lost since a January 19th home overtime upset against Rhode Island. SLU’s last seven wins have come by an average of 15.57 points, including a 21+ average margin of victory at home with a 17-point beatdown over the nationally-ranked Butler Bulldogs. VCU has won their last five by an average of 14.8 points but just 6.5 points per game on the road. Tuesday’s game will pit the A-10’s No.1 offense (VCU) against the the conference’s stingiest defense, as the Billikens give up a league-leading 57.8 points per game.

A quick look at St. Louis:  The Billikens have performed admirably despite playing with heavy hearts after losing former head coach, Rick Majerus, to heart failure this past December. 25-year veteran coach Jim Crews has led SLU all season, and has the A-10’s preseason No.2 in at-large contention and on the verge of a national ranking. Like VCU, St. Louis returns the majority of a team that nearly reached the Sweet 16 last season, including preseason first-teamer Kwamain Mitchell. Mitchell is just the fifth-leading scorer on a very deep team that includes no players averaging over 30 minutes per contest. The Billikens aren’t known for their offense (9th in the A-10 at 68.5 ppg), yet are second to just VCU in scoring margin at +10.8 on the season. Junior forward Dwayne Evans leads SLU in both points (11.7) and rebounds (6.9). He’s joined by Australian Cody Ellis (6’8, 245 lbs) as the team’s only double-digit scorers at 11.5 points per contest. SLU’s guard trio of juniors Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. with senior Mitchell are a talented bunch that accounts for 28.5 points of the Billikens offense. VCU’s guards will have their work cutout for them in imposing their trademark havoc defense, as SLU’s 11.5 turnovers per games is the second-most mistake-free offense in the A-10.

A quick look at VCU: You should know these guys by now. The Rams are led by Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic, both of whom are making a serious push for A-10 first team honors, and quite possibly are each other’s biggest competition for A-10 player of the year at this point in the season. Reddic has been a double-double machine, Graham, a sophomore sensation posting a team-leading 15.8 points per game in just 27.1 minutes a night. VCU has gotten big nights from a number of guards lately as well. Freshmen Melvin Johnson has come alive and is averaging 14.5 points in 21.5 minutes per game in his last two contests, while starters Rob Brandenberg and Troy Daniels each have a 21+ point game over the Rams last three contest. On the other end of the floor, guards Briante Weber and Darius Theus rank No.1 and 2 in the nation in steals percentage. The Rams are deep, talented on both ends of the floor, and when clicking, are one of the deadliest teams in the country–14th in the nation in scoring while tops in forcing turnovers on defense.

Tale of the Tape…
Scoring Offense: VCU 78.1, St. Louis 68.5
Scoring Defense: St. Louis 57.8, VCU 62.9
Field Goal%: St. Louis 45.3%, VCU 45.1%
Field Goal% Defense: St. Louis 41.9%, VCU 43.3%
3-Point Field Goal%: St. Louis 36.5%, VCU 34.5%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: VCU 32.2%, St. Louis 34.8%
Rebounding Margin: VCU +1.1, St. Louis +0.9
Turnover Margin: VCU +8.31, St. Louis +3.96

VCU wins if: Havoc makes the trip. VCU forced an average of 22 turnovers in their two wins against top-50 RPI teams (Memphis and Belmont), and just 12 per game in their four losses to top-50 squads (Wichita State, Duke, Missouri and La Salle). The Rams averaged 76.5 points in those wins versus 58.7 in those losses. But what comes first? Can havoc exist without the made shots to set up the press, or does a lock down D equal easier buckets…or both? No idea, so hopefully both happen and it will remain a mystery after a HUGE road win. The Rams are the No.1 team in road scoring in the nation at 79.3 ppg.

St. Louis wins if: The Billikens hold on to the ball. SLU is good at defending (22nd nationally in defensive efficiency) AND holding on to the ball (48th nationally in turnover percentage)…uh oh. They should also have 10,000 SLU fans helping their cause, so the pressure is really on VCU to prove they can win on the road against a top-50 team. It goes without saying that SLU would prefer to keep this game a lower scoring affair. The Billikens have given up 70+ points just four times this season, three were losses, the fourth was against Fordham in a game SLU scored a season high 90 points. SLU has scored over 80 just twice this season. The Rams have done just as many in their last two games and have 12 on the season. I don’t know if VCU has has a “TEMPO” flash card, but it would most certainly benefit VCU to dictate the pace in this one. has the Rams losing 65-66 in this one, and gives VCU a 46% chance of pulling off the road win.

Game tips up at 9pm on Tuesday, February 19th in St. Louis, Missouri.

Watch: Official watch party at Baja Bean Company in the Fan. Game airs on CBS Sports Network.
Listen: 107.3FM
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation

A two-time graduate of VCU (School of the Arts '07, Center for Sport Leadership '10), Mat is a co-founder of VCU Ram Nation and a longtime fan as the ...