The Rams will officially tip of the 2014-15 regular season tonight, not at the Stu or in front of a hostile road crowd, instead at the home of the US Navel Academy in a neutral court season opener in Annapolis, Maryland. Both teams are coming off NCAA tournament appearances, the Rams having been upset in the round of 64 while Tennessee advanced from First 4 to Sweet 16 team before losing by just two points to the University of Michigan. The Rams return much of their production while Tennessee’s roster, not to mention their coaching staff, is full of new faces.
No.15 VCU (0-0)
A QUICK LOOK AT TENNESSEE
The Vols became the second First 4 team in as many seasons to reach the Sweet 16 before falling by just two points to the Michigan Wolverines. Friday’s team however looks completely different from that squad who entered last year’s tournament as a No.11 seed. Gone are head coach Cuonzo Martin (off to Cal Berkeley) as well as top two scorers Jordan McRae (18.7 ppg) and Jarnell Stokes (15.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg), not to mention No.4 scorer Jeronne Maymon (9.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and No.5, Antonio Barton (7.5 ppg). Long story short: we’re talking about a completely different Tennessee squad here. To add to that, new head coach, Donnie Tyndall, is currently being investigated by the NCAA due to some “creative maneuvers” during his time as head coach at Southern Miss. There’s certainly a lot of uncertainty in Knoxville heading into this season. The Vols were picked to finish 13th out of 14 SEC schools but are 2-0 in exhibition games under Tyndall this year: an 80-62 W over Pikeville followed by a 77-49 win over Lenoir-Rhyne, both games were relatively close at the half. Tennessee has shown a tendency to employ a zone press under Tyndall, so the Rams young point guards filling in for Briante Weber will need to play above their experience level for the black and gold to get the win.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Josh Richardson
Richardson returns as the Vols leading scorer and has been a steady presence in the Vols two preseason contests, averaging 14.5 points over that span. The 6’6 senior guard has a decent stroke from range but does most of his damage by attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line where he typically knocks the free ones down with ease.
A QUICK LOOK AT VCU
Ram fans were thrilled by the dominant performance VCU displayed in their exhibition win over Cal U (PA) this past Friday (49-point win). Even without starting point guard Weber, the black and gold racked up a total of 22 assists while shooting 54.9% on the game. VCU’s freshmen class has looked spectacular, most recently with Justin Tillman’s eye-popping double-double against Cal U where he brought Ram fans to their feet with a number of highlight worthy dunks. Melvin Johnson has been on fire from range in all of VCU’s games including a scrimmage win over the University of Florida, while sophomores Jordan Burgess, Mo Alie-Cox (both redshirts) and JeQuan Lewis have look much improved from what were already strong freshmen seasons. In short: VCU is ranked No.15 in the preseason and very much looks the part of a nationally ranked team.
PLAYER TO WATCH: JeQuan Lewis
Two obvious reasons for this one: 1) VCU will be without Briante Weber who will serve his final bit of punishment from an incident this summer so Lewis along with freshman Jonathan Williams will handle the majority of the point guard duties for the Rams, and 2) He’s from Dickson, Tennessee, so a shot at the home state SEC team could provide a very satisfying victory opportunity for Lewis.
TALE OF THE TAPE (exhibition results)
Scoring Offense: VCU 92, Tennessee 79
Scoring Defense: VCU 43, Tennessee 56
Field Goal% Offense: VCU 55%, Tennessee 52%
Field Goal% Defense: VCU 29%, Tennessee 40%
3-Point Field Goal%: VCU 43%, Tennessee 27%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: VCU 17%, Tennessee 30%
Rebounds per game: VCU 48, Tennessee 41
Avg. Turnovers Forced Defense: VCU 20, Tennessee 17
Avg. Turnovers Offense: VCU 13, Tennessee 14
VCU WINS IF
VCU’s youth movement will need to play a mature opening night in order to knock off the Vols in Annapolis, the Rams will open their season without three of last year’s starters: Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenberg and Briante Weber who will finish a three-game suspension (sat out in VCU’s scrimmage against Florida as well as the Rams’ home exhibition opener). That’s a ton of production and experience to play without. The good news is the Rams have done this before and have looked dangerous twice: the first in a scrimmage win over preseason No.7 Florida in Gainesville, the second in an exhibition rout of Cal U (PA). JeQuan Lewis and Jonathan Williams will need to be especially poised against the Vols zone press looks that forced 22 Lenoir-Rhyne turnovers in their last exhibition win. VCU SHOULD have a crowd in advantage in this one to help. Annapolis is just over two hours from Richmond, not to mention just minutes from a NOVA area full of alumni.
TENNESSEE WINS IF
Teams who have limited turnovers have had success in the past against VCU. The Rams struggled to hit shots last season (47.9% effective field goal percentage, 244th nationally) but were able to overcome those struggles due to large turnover margins that produced a ton of extra opportunities for Coach Smart’s squad. So with that said, the Vols must hold on to the ball against a VCU press that’s breaking in a number of new parts. The other key in the past has been in attacking the basket. VCU’s 2-point defense ranked 289th nationally last season, a number somewhat skewed by easy buckets given up as a result of a broken press. The main difference this season however comes with an increased role for redshirt soph, Mo Alie-Cox, who’s 10.3% blocks percentage led the Atlantic 10 last season. More Mo could be the safety valve the Rams press desperately needed but it will be up to Tennessee to test that tonight.
Watch: CBS Sports Network, Official watch parties at Baja Bean Co. in the Fan as well as Buffalo Wild Wings locations at Virginia Center and downtown on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom.
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation