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Game Preview: VCU at Cincinnati

VCU looks to pick up a big road win Saturday as the Rams head to Fifth Third Arena to take on the Bearcats of Cincinnati. VCU won their only true road game of the season, a four-point victory at Illinois State, but will step up in weight class as they take on a top-50 Cinci squad coming off an overtime home win over No.19 San Diego State.

VCU (7-3)
Cincinnati (7-2)

A QUICK LOOK AT CINCINNATI

Cincinnati jumped out to a 5-0 record to start the season against a very winnable schedule (no team ranked higher than No.139 by kenpom) but fell to their first top-100 opponent, a 12-point neutral court loss to Ol’ Miss (No.91). Cinci followed that with a win over an outmatched Stony Brook squad then fell at Nebraska (No.83) in a 2OT road rock fight (56-55). They picked up their biggest win of the season Wednesday night by taking out San Diego State in overtime. The Bearcats have buttered their bread this season with a lockdown defense that ranks 27th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. They’ve been one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country, are solid at turning teams over (21% of opponents possessions) and are able to defend without fouling. Where they have struggled is on the other side of the ball, ranking 220th nationally in a 47.1% effective field goal percentage. The deep ball has been an issue for the Bearcats and they haven’t been much better inside the arc either. Only one Cincinnati player is averaging double-digit scoring this season, 6’3 sophomore guard, Troy Caupain at 10.1 ppg. Junior big, Octavius Ellis, checks in at 9.1 ppg and is a very good shot-blocker at 6’10, 230, blocking and impressive 10.5% of opponents attempts this season. He’s Cinci’s leading rebounder at 9.1 rebounds per game but has a nice freshman understudy in Gary Clark (6’7 230) who checks in at 7.8 rebounds per contest and is third in scoring for the Bearcats as well (8.9 ppg).

A QUICK LOOK AT VCU

The Rams are coming off a blowout win against a solid Belmont squad, holding the Bruins to just 51 points, the fewest points VCU has given up to an opponent so far this season. The Rams have had a hard time defending in the halfcourt but were able to lock down on the Bruins, holding them to 27.6% from deep in the win. VCU played a deep bench in that blowout, getting double-digit minutes from 11 players and saw their bench explode for 56 of VCU’s 78 points. VCU’s freshmen class all looked spectacular in the win, with Justin Tillman leading the charge with a career-high 16 points in just 17 minutes of action. Tillman was 7-8 from the field and the beneficiary of some great passing from freshman Jonathan Williams who led all players with seven assists. JeQuan Lewis found Tillman for a number of highlight-worthy dunks as well and finished with 13 points and five steals, his best performance since sustaining a concussion at Tennessee to open the season. Mike Gilmore flashed some freshman brilliance against the Bruins, grabbing a team-high eight rebounds to go with eight points in 18 minutes of play. Long story short: a lot of guys played real well and a lot of young guys in particular. And that’s the key for VCU, is getting the young guys to where they need to be as quickly as possible because quite frankly the talent level that made it’s way to VCU in the 2014 class is unlike anything that has hit broad street before. I thought the Rams have looked improved on the defensive end, even against Northern Iowa despite giving up 73 points in regulation. But what I love the most is what I’m seeing from our backcourt. Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman can make scoring look easy when they are flying in for easy dunks, but the vision our point guards are displaying in finding those guys on the move is something I feel like I haven’t seen at VCU in some time.

Scoring Offense: VCU 76.9, Cincinnati 62.3
Scoring Defense: Cincinnati 53.8, VCU 70
Effective Field Goal% Offense: VCU 50.5%, Cincinnati 47.1%
Effective Field Goal% Defense: Cincinnati 42.2%, 54.3%
3-Point Field Goal%: VCU 34.8%, Cincinnati 30.5%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: Cincinnati 29.8%, VCU 39.5%
Rebounds per game: Cincinnati 37, VCU 36.2
Turnover Percentage Defense: VCU 25%, Cincinnati 21%
Turnover Percentage Offense: VCU 16.1%, Cincinnati 21.1%

VCU WINS IF

The obvious answer is if they turnover a Cincinnati team that has had a tough time holding on to the ball this season. But I’m also interested to see how much success this Rams team can have on offense against the Bearcats. Cinci has some very impressive defensive numbers, but their schedule quite frankly has been loaded with some of the worst offensive teams you could ask to face to start a season. VCU’s adjusted offensive efficiency ranking of 21st nationally will be by far the best the Bearcats have faced this season. Only Ol’ Miss cracks the top-100 in that stat at No.57 while the Bearcats have faced five teams who rank 200 or below, with Nebraska at No.196 and San Diego State at 194. VCU ranks top-60 in both adjusted offensive (21) and defensive efficiency (57) and are statistically the most balanced team the Bearcats will have seen all season. VCU must communicate on defense, eliminating easy scoring opportunities for a Bearcat team that hasn’t seen many of those this season. On offense a couple of hot hands from deep would work wonders while stretching the defense to create some easier scoring opportunities for Mo and Justin. The pick and roll has worked great these last couple of games but can VCU run it effectively against a team with this size and one that we think can defend much better?

CINCINNATI WINS IF

If the Bearcats can play the type of defense they’ve played all season while cutting down on the turnovers they could pick up their second consecutive high profile win. UVA held VCU to 38.3% shooting and turned the ball over 16 times (a solid number for playing VCU) and were able to leave the Siegel Center with a 17-point road win. Granted, UVA also shot lights out, but if the Bearcats can find success in the paint like the Wahoos they could have pull of an equally impressive win.

PREDICTIONS

Kenpom: 65-63 Rams loss with a 42% chance of a VCU victory.
Vegas: Cincinnati a 1.5-point favorite

Game tips at 12PM at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati, OH.

Watch: ESPNU, 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.
Listen: 107.3FM
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation

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VCU School of the Arts (BFA ’07) and Center for Sport Leadership (M.Ed. ’10) alumnus, Mat has followed VCU basketball since the Sunbelt days when he’d attend games with his father. Worked as a graduate assistant in the VCU Sports Information Department for the ’09-’10 season, but has covered VCU basketball for VCURamNation.com since 2007.