VCU at Northern Iowa: Hungry?

The most interesting nonconference schedule in VCU basketball history rolls on. Next stop: Cedar Falls, IA and a brunch date with Northern Iowa. This ends the affiliation with ESPNs Bracketbusters, a concept that was very good to VCU but was more like an omelet. Great at first, but the more ingredients you add to it the worse it gets, and you eventually realize you're just eating sloppy eggs.

This is another in the tougher-than-it-looks category of basketball games put together by the staff. The slate this year is low on sex appeal but high on sexy. Rest assured, this team is being better prepared than last year's December feast. It's also the final true road game of the nonconference season. (The Rams have a neutral game against Virginia Tech in the Richmond Coliseum–no, I cannot write that without smirking–and a trip to Barclays to face Boston College.)

Speaking strictly to the ledger, UNI beat LaSalle at home (65-50) and lost to George Mason in Fairfax (76-70). They took Iowa State to overtime before losing. The Panthers sit at 4-5 and have had a different leading scorer in each of the four wins. 

UNI is a good shooting team that isn't shooting well. They only make 29.6% of their threes but it's a vital part of their attack. Six of their top seven rotation players can knock down arc bombs, and the comforts of home are unsettling. They don't rebound particularly well, especially on the offensive end. VCU has an advantage there.

I look at UNI and see Belmont, only with a better home court advantage. The Panthers play a disciplined system predicated on hard cutting, screens, and plenty of off-the-ball movement. They play to their personality, are better collectively than individually, and Ben Jacobson sits at the smart coaches lunch table.

Blah. Blah. Blah. This is one of those "check up from the neck up" kind of games. This may sound dramatic, but I mean it: everything having nothing to do with actual playing basketball is against the Rams on Saturday.

VCU flies two hours to a very cold place, just after exams, for an early-tip game in a hostile environment against a patterned, disciplined, well-coached team. That's not exactly Barclays-in-March stimuli. Havoc must travel, and that spirit Shaka Smart talks about needs to be in full force.

Here's why I like our chances. I don't know everyone's schedule–in fact I don't know anybody's schedule–but assuming exams finished Wednesday or Thursday, the guys get to focus on playing basketball, which is fun. They are young, so they like fun. And fun translates to spirit. And spirit translates to havoc.

It's what we do.

I absolutely believe that once the team hits the floor, allows UNI to shoot 8-10 from the field to start the game–you know, because we have to–and settles into its rhythm all will be well. Juvonte Reddic put up a 15/11 double-double in the home game against UNI two seasons ago, and he is more aggressive. Rob Brandenberg had 13 points on 5-7 shooting. I love that efficiency, and Rob is due one of those games.

The big key is making 6-8 Seth Tuttle (13.1ppg, 7.3rpg) work to the point that he has Hawkeye and Trapper covering for him.  Tuttle can pass out of the high post, so it is essential to crowd him and make it like he never exists. Deon Mitchell (13.9ppg, 3.5apg) has the ball in his hands a lot, and is a solid midrange player.

Shaka Smart called Chip Rank (9.7ppg) crafty, which to me means "we must take advantage of him." Rank is a strong 6-6 senior who knows how to use his body. Nate Buss (11.0ppg, 5.1rpg) comes off the bench to provide a spark. Rank and Buss are UNIs two best three point shooters. Matt Bohannon (8.3ppg) and Wes Wapshun (6.7ppg) are the other two starters and both see significant playing time. Jeremy Morgan (5.6ppg) is a 6-5 freshman who sees about 20 minutes per game.

Keep an eye on how Jacobson uses his bench. Those seven players above all play 20 or more minutes. Nobody else plays between 10-20 minutes, but five players log between six and 10 minutes. That's an odd distribution. If havoc is working well, Jacobson will face the dilemma of playing tired but skilled players, or untested  backups used to spot minutes. Worth eyeballing.

The Rams have never lost a return Bracketbusters game (6-0, including 3-0 on the road) and now isn't the time to start. This is another game to keep your eye on HOW  VCU is playing early on. From a manpower perspective, the Rams have the advantage. But they have to show up to eat the omelet.