A10 Game 1: VCU (12-3) vs. George Mason (7-7)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens had no idea he was writing about the 2013-14 Atlantic 10 men's basketball season. And yet here we are, ironically with Puerto Rico serving as VCUs winter of despair. That's all behind us now, and you can focus on 12-3 and the start of the second season.
It's going to be six weeks of flyweight sumo wrestling, an onslaught of high ball screens and box outs, a trudging march to March. We used to throw rocks at each other in the CAA, but this season is shaping up to more like a hammer fight. Sledge, claw, or ballpeen. Take your pick. We're going to need the heavy ones and the nimble ones.
Nine A10 teams are in Ken Pomeroy's top 100 rankings. Holy moley.
Massachusetts (12-1): the best point guard/center combination in the conference, and ranked.
St. Louis (14-2): they just keep doing St. Louis things and have lost only twice, once each to two of the five undefeated teams in the nation.
George Washington (12-2): they defend, but with transfer Maurice Creek they can shoot, too.
Dayton (12-3): tons of versatile talent, and VCU has to go there.
Richmond (10-5): A stud senior guard and a shooter can take you places.
That's five right there. Of the others, LaSalle has started slow but the Explorers were the last team to win in That Animal and went to last year's Sweet 16. St. Joseph's is always chock full of talent. Rhode Island played St. Louis to the buzzer last night. Even Fordham has a kid Jon Severe that is money.
And that brings us to our old friends from Fairfax, the first partner on the dance card.
You know Sherrod Wright (13.9ppg), the heartbreaker. Pay no attention to his poor shooting percentages (39% overall and 22% from three). The kid is a pure scorer. Ditto Bryon Allen (14.1ppg), who I think is Mason's most important player. Allen is a tough, aggressive combo guard who likes to take–and make–big shots. He's the kind of guy that can change games via sheer will.
VCU must pressure both to a different result. For Wright, it's making everything he does a chore. He likes to post up, so it's getting a body on him there, but it's also making his perimeter catches tough and staying in front of him.
For Allen, it's a matter of harrassing him to distraction. Allen is a physical player but doesn't really like pressure. I don't think VCU will physically wear him out, but the Rams giving Allen the mother-in-law treatment will pay dividends.
Patrick Holloway (9.1ppg) is a major league shooter with a quick release. He's the kind of guy that can drop four threes in 10 minutes. Holloway is a confident player, but the downside of that is that he is also a bit of a frontrunner.
Marko Gujanicic (9.1ppg, 4.9rpg) goes 6-8 but is your typical Euro–he prefers the three-point line to the paint. He can knock it down with time, so the Rams will have to avoid window shopping and attack him. Johnny Williams is also 6-8 but stronger. He can shoot out to 15 feet.
The Patriots have two freshmen that will see measurable time. Marquise Moore is quick and shifty, but he is a freshman point guard, which is blood in the water to this VCU team. Jalen Jenkins is a good-looking 6-7 big man who plays with a high motor. Here's what you need to know: Jenkins plays 16 minutes per game and is the team's leading rebounder.
Finally, we have two holdovers I just don't understand. Corey Edwards has always seemed to possess a ton of talent, but his playing time has decreased. Ditto Erik Copes, who last we saw was a shot-blocking machine (seven in one half against Drexel) but this year kind of runs around the court aimlessly.
We can overanalyze this game to death, but it's pretty simple: style of play. VCU leads the country in turnover percentage, assuming command of the ball on 28.1% of opponents' possessions. George Mason turns it over on 21.6% of its possessions, good for 308th nationally. So there's that.
However it also matters in halfcourt situations. VCU has to blow up the offensive sets of the Patriots, force tough shots. On offense it's a matter of making simple plays. VCU has to hit singles and doubles and wear out Mason with crisp passing and hard screens to free up shooters.
We don't need early shot clock swings for the fences. The Patriots will never be termed a scrappy or gritty team. They can be worn down and mentally broken. Or, style of play.
The Cheesy Finish
VCU harbors Great Expectations for this season. The Rams need to turn That Animal into Bleak House, making Hard Times For These Times for Mason.
Okay, let's stop that nonsense. This is a game good teams win, and VCU is certainly in line to make that occur.