VCU heads to the Big Apple this Friday for the first of two weekend games for the Rams as a part of this year’s 2K Classic. Their first matchup comes with a ton of sizzle as Will Wade will look to pick up the biggest win of his head coaching career against the defending National Champion Duke Blue Devils. VCU is off to a 2-0 start but haven’t faced this level of competition yet this season while the Blue Devils are coming off an 11-point loss to the No.2 Kentucky Wild Cats. VCU and Duke have met twice since 2007 with the Rams upsetting Duke in the 2007 NCAA tournament then dropping a 9-point neutral court Battle 4 Atlantis loss in November of 2012 to a Duke team that would eventually make their way to that season’s Elite 8.
No.5 DUKE (2-1)
A QUICK LOOK AT THE BLUE DEVILS
Safe to say Duke was pretty good last year, winning the National Championship with a young but extremely talented roster full of freshmen. This year’s team is basically unrecognizable from last year’s group however as the ACC squad lost their five leading scorers to either the NBA, graduation or transfer. But being one of the nation’s true blue chip programs the Devils simply reloaded with another batch of highly-rated freshmen. This year however it’s been the experienced players leading the team with only freshman Brandon Ingram averaging double-digit scoring in his three games (13.3 ppg) but doing so at just a 39.4% clip from the field. Newcomer Derryck Thornton leads Coach K’s squad in freshman minutes but like Ingram has also looked very much like a freshman, connecting on just 25% of his attempts. Long story short, K will most likely depend on his experience to get past a tough VCU team that is both deep and experienced, and that starts with sophomore Grayson Allen (20 ppg, 6’5 guard) and senior Amile Jefferson (15.3 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 6’9 forward). Those two are joined by versatile junior guard Matt Jones who’s connected on a blistering 57.1% of his attempts this season including 56.3% from deep. Add to that 7′ senior center Marshall Plumlee who recently notched his first double-double of the season against the Kentucky Wildcats. That’s your core group for Duke on Friday night. Statistically it’s hard to figure out the Devils from the small sample size, having averaged 102.5 points in their two wins over outmatched Sienna and Bryant before struggling to just 63 points against a much smaller Kentucky team than the one who proved so deadly last season. For what it’s worth Duke’s final score against the Cats was almost identical to Albany’s 78-65 result. Defensively Duke isn’t off to their best start, giving up at least 74 points in their first three matchups while allowing their opponents an effective field goal percentage of 51.1% (207th nationally through just three games).
A QUICK LOOK AT VCU
VCU has yet to be tested this season with easy wins over Prairie View A&M and Radford, but that all changes Friday night with a step up in weight class against Duke. The Rams have played an 8-10 man rotation for the most part and have gotten double-digit performances from six players altogether. The black and gold are deep with a roster full of unknowns in terms of game-planning outside of Melvin Johnson but one that is so full of guys that can score 15+ points on you on any given night. Johnson has been spectacular, particularly from range where he has connected on 50% of his 18 attempts thus far, which overall has been the Rams strength on offense. VCU’s 42.6% team three-point shooting in two games ranks 37th nationally and has carried the Rams’ offense to a top-100 effective field goal percentage and adjusted efficiency rating. That number rises even more once Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman get going in the paint, something that hasn’t been a given so far this season, particularly from Alie-Cox who is a very un-Mo 4-12 this season, good for a 33% clip — Alie-Cox’s previous season-low was 51.3% shooting. That’s certainly a trend that I don’t expect to hold which is another ingredient that makes the Rams dangerous. Defensively the Rams rank No.6 nationally in turnover percentage defense and are tops in steals percentage. The Rams have blocked 14.5% of opposing teams shots which is the highest mark since Larry Sanders’ sophomore season in 2008 came close at 14.3%. Once again, an incredibly small sample size against out-matched opponents but with a proven duo of shot-blockers in Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman, don’t be surprised if that number stays where it’s at or even improves. The Rams have done a solid job in the press but through two games appear to be a more versatile defense than the Shaka Smart teams who relied almost entirely on the press. Will Wade has shown a number of zone looks and has used them with some frequency and may have another trick or two up his sleeve as well for Duke. Junior point guard JeQuan Lewis has been a bit of a breakout star early for VCU, averaging 7.5 assists through two games to go with 10.5 points and 3 steals per contest. That assist number in particular would be an incredible sign for VCU if it’s something the Tennessee native can maintain (the last Ram to average at least 6 assists per game was Eric Maynor who did it twice at 6.4 as a sophomore and 6.2 as a senior).
Scoring Offense: Duke 89.3, VCU 83.5
Scoring Defense: VCU 62, Duke 74.3
Effective Field Goal% Offense: Duke 53.4%, VCU 52.7
Effective Field Goal% Defense: VCU 44%, Duke 51.1%
3-Point Field Goal%: VCU 42.6%, Duke 37.5%
3-Point Field Goal% VCU 34.4%, Duke 44.2%
Rebounds per game: Duke 42, VCU 41
Turnover Percentage Defense: VCU 28.5%, Duke 20.5%
Turnover Percentage Offense: Duke 14.6%, VCU 19.7%
VCU WINS IF
I keep hearing people say VCU has to play the “perfect game” to beat Duke but I think that’s a bunch of BS. For starters this isn’t your daddy’s VCU team, this is a Rams team that has some top-100 talent of their own (four players were top-100s out of high school) and is a squad that will play mostly seniors and juniors, two of those juniors being Jordan Burgess and Mo Alie-Cox, both of which were forced to sit out a season after high school due to eligibility issues meaning they are both four years removed from high school. This Duke team is good and full of talent but they still have a ton to figure out after losing so much from last year’s team. They’ve also struggled somewhat defensively heading into a matchup against a Rams team averaging 83.5 points per contest. I think to win this one a hot-handed Melvin would go a long way once again but he’ll need Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox doing what I know they can do in the paint as well. Those two have shown flashes this year (Tillman’s season-opening double-double for example) but so far have yet to combine for a big night despite two previously out-matched opponents in Prairie View A&M and Radford. Defensively VCU can’t allow Duke the success Radford found inside the arc late in Monday’s blowout win — Radford connected on 64.3% of their twos in the second half and added another eight points at the charity stripe. I think shutting down Amile Jefferson is the key there (good luck, kid can play). Basically the Rams just need to make Duke work for this one while hoping to find a little more offensive consistency, particularly in the paint.
DUKE WINS IF
For starters the Blue Devils have to do a better job of guarding the three. Coach K’s crew currently ranks 300th nationally in defending the deep ball and will now face a Rams team that’s probably the best three-point shooting team they will have faced. You can give up decent shooting to a heavily out-matched Bryant team but a similar evening against VCU will see you sliding a good ways down the rankings the next Monday. Offensively Duke did not shine in their big matchup against Kentucky either, going 40.7% from the field and there was no Karl-Anthony Towns or or Willie Cauley-Stein on Kentucky’s D that night. The Blue Devils connected on just five threes that evening and shot just 60% from the free throw line. They’ll need an all-around offensive improvement against VCU but that may be easier said than done. VCU however has been prone to foul trouble racking up 20.5 fouls per contest and we all know how good Duke is at getting the whistle to do it’s thing: 29 fouls on Sienna turned into 26 points, 23 fouls on Bryant turned into 22 Duke points, 21 fouls on Kentucky turned into just 14 Duke points. Those numbers scare me. If the Rams can’t defend the front porch without fouling it’s going to be a long and annoying night for the black and gold and their fans.
Kenpom: 80-71 Duke win with a 21% chance of a VCU victory.
Game tips at 7:30PM at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY.