Game Preview: VCU at George Mason [INSIDER]

Melvin Johnson led all players the last time these two teams met with 22 points.
Melvin Johnson led all players the last time these two teams met with 22 points.

VCU heads to Fairfax this evening for a road tilt in EagleBank Arena, hoping to avoid an upset against former CAA rival George Mason. The Rams won their previous meeting between the two earlier this season, a 71-47 Siegel Center rout, holding the Patriots to just 32.1% shooting from the field. That one wasn’t a particularly beautiful offensive effort from VCU themselves, one of just four conference games in which the black and gold scored fewer than 75 points. The Rams have been cruising however their last three contests, averaging 85 points per game, a trend Ram fans want to see continue tonight as we hit the final stretch of A-10 conference play.

VCU (20-7, 12-2)
GEORGE MASON (9-18, 3-11)

A QUICK LOOK AT GEORGE MASON

New Patriots head coach Dave Paulsen is in the tail end of his first season of a massive rebuild project in Fairfax. The former Bucknell coach is off to his worst start since doing the same with the Bison, a program he took from 7-23 his first season to the dominate Patriot League program before leaving for GMU and the Atlantic 10. Paulsen has pushed his youth out of the nest early, forcing the likes of freshmen Otis Livingston, Jaire Grayer and DeAndre Abram to learn to fly early in what has resulted in a record you might expect from a youthful unit learning alongside experienced underachievers. While the results haven’t always been pretty, Mason has been a competitive and dangerous team at times. They own wins over both Davidson and Richmond and were within six points of VCU early in the second half of the first meeting between these two teams. On the court Mason is led by guards Marquise Moore (11.8 ppg) and Livingston (11.6), the former having just returned from injury after missing four of Mason’s last five contests. Three Patriots are averaging nine points on this year’s team including one of the country’s best rebounders in 6’11 senior Shevon Thompson. With Thompson patrolling the paint the Patriots have been one of the conferences best rebounding teams, ranking third in the A-10 in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage but haven’t shown any consistency in any other statistical category. The Pats rank 10th in the conference in offensive efficiency and just 13th on the defensive end. According to Will Wade they continue to run much of the same stuff they did when the Rams routed them earlier this season, so it might be fair to expect a very similar looking unit to the one VCU saw on January 2.

A QUICK LOOK AT VCU

The Rams have won their last three contests in dominate fashion, outscoring SLU, Rhode Island and Richmond by an average margin of 20.7 points per contest. VCU has played a patient brand of team basketball that has resulted in high percentage shots and the most efficient offense on Broad Street the Atlantic 10 has seen since the Rams joined the conference for the 2012-13 season. The Rams have stars but have seen those stars shine their brightest when playing with the mindset of a role player. VCU hasn’t forced shots lately and with that lead the A-10 with a conference effective field goal percentage of 55.3%, up almost 10% from last year’s team that featured Treveon Graham. Let that soak in. The Rams, without their second leading scorer of all time, have improved their effective field goal percentage by roughly 10%. Nice job, Will Wade and staff. VCU has three key players — Melvin Johnson, JeQuan Lewis and Korey Billbury — shooting over 40% from three on the season, one of which, point guard Lewis, has hit 51% of his three-pointers in A-10 play. Combine that with the recent dominant play of bigs Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman and you have a team that is tough to guard. Defensively the Rams have been pretty good as well, ranking second in the conference in defensive efficiency, thanks largely in part to some halfcourt havoc that leads the conference in both turnover and steals percentage and is also one of the best in the country at both stats.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Scoring Offense: VCU 78.3, GMU 66
Scoring Defense: VCU 67, GMU 71.8
Effective Field Goal% Offense: VCU 52.1%, GMU 45%
Effective Field Goal% Defense: GMU 48.7%, VCU 49.4%
3-Point Field Goal%: VCU 38.4%, GMU 28.6%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: VCU 35.5%, GMU 35.7%
Rebounds per game: GMU 41.3, VCU 36.9
Turnover Percentage Defense: VCU 23.6%, GMU 10.8%
Turnover Percentage Offense: VCU 16.9%, GMU 18.4%

VCU WINS IF

If VCU plays within the system, plays patient basketball and makes the extra pass, they should be able to extend their winning streak to four while remaining atop the A-10 conference. Hit high-percentage shots on offense while forcing a Mason team that has struggled to hit the three to do just that and I like the Rams chances.

GEORGE MASON WINS IF

The Patriots are the 10th worst three-point shooting team in the country but may need to catch a little luck from deep just as a poor three-point shooting UMass team did just four games ago agains the Rams (the Minutemen hit their first eight three-point attempts against VCU in the upset win). Without the three falling I think Mason could have a hard time keeping pace with this VCU team. George Mason rebounds incredibly well, leading the conference with a +6.6 rebound margin, but help virtually erase that advantage with a -5.2 turnover margin. The Patriots, who rank dead last in the nation in turnover percentage defense, simply MUST hold on to the ball tonight on offense to keep the margins close enough to pull out the upset win.

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