VCU will get their first road test of the season when traveling to Lynchburg to take on the Flames of Liberty University tonight. The two will finish off a home-and-home series that started in Richmond last season, a 28-point Rams win that the Rams had essentially wrapped up within the first 20 minutes, taking a 45-16 lead into the half. It will be the second consecutive Big South team on VCU’s schedule, the Rams having wrapped up a 15-point win over preseason Big South No.3 UNC Asheville and now staring down the conference’s preseason No.2.
A QUICK LOOK AT LIBERTY
Coming off a 13-19 season and a 10-8 Big South finish, the Flames return a good chunk of their production from last year’s team and with that have high expectations just two seasons after going 2-16 in conference. They will however have to deal with the loss of two key pieces. Evan Maxwell is one such piece, the 6’10 245 transfer having left the Flames to join Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks — which should let you know how big of a loss that was. Ritchie McKay’s group also lost senior role player Anthony Fields, but return leading scorer John Dawson (13.4 ppg last season), the Flames only returning double-digit scorer. The Flames shot the ball well last season but saw their offensive efficiency stunted by an inability to both rebound and hold on to the ball, two categories Liberty ranked among the worst in the nation in. Defensively they struggled all season, giving up a 53% effective field goal percentage, good for 306th nationally out of 351 teams. The Flames have played just one game this season, defeating DIII Cairn 81-53. As expected, John Dawson starred for the Flames in that one, scoring 15 points in just 25 minutes of play. While it’s hard to learn much about the Flames from that small sample, one thing worth noting is Liberty shot more threes than twos, getting up 29 shots from distance to just 28 inside the arc. That matches a pattern set by last season’s team, a group that ranked 5th nationally in percentage of points off three-pointers. Expect to see the Flames get up a ton of shots from distance tonight against a VCU squad that has the shot-blocking Mo Alie-Cox patrolling the paint.
A QUICK LOOK AT VCU
The Rams had a solid showing in their first regular season contest of the 2016-17 season, downing the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville 80-65. VCU dominated inside, connecting on 67.6% of their two-point attempts and outrebounding UNCA by 10. That will likely be VCU’s strength this season while the Rams figure out who’ll replace the three-point production of the graduated Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury. Outside of JeQuan Lewis and freshman Malik Crowfield, VCU has struggled to hit from deep in their two contests this year, shooting 31.6% from three against UNCA following an exhibition loss to DII Queens where they connected on just 30.8% of their longballs. Adding Doug Brooks back to the mix should help with that, as well as with VCU’s ability to defend the perimeter. VCU ranked 24th nationally in defensive efficiency last season and in theory, losing Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury shouldn’t hurt that number all that much (no offense, fellas). VCU appeared to steady the ship on offense this past Friday, turning the ball over “just” 14 times as compared to 25 TOs against Queens.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Scoring Offense: LIB 81, VCU 80
Scoring Defense: LIB 53, VCU 65
Field Goal% Offense: VCU 55.4%, LIB 52.6%
Field Goal% Defense: LIB 36.5%, VCU 47.2%
3-Point Field Goal%: LIB 41.4%, VCU 31.6%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: LIB 28%, VCU 33.5%
Rebounds per game: LIB 40, VCU 35
Turnovers/game Defense: LIB 15, VCU 13
Turnover/game Offense: VCU 14, LIB 14
(Note* These stats reflect just one game of action for each, with VCU having played a DI team and Liberty a DIII opponent)
VCU WINS IF
VCU needs to limit Liberty’s ability to beat them from deep while dominating inside to match last year’s result. The Rams outrebounded Liberty by 14 last season and held them to just seven makes from distance (although 38.9% 3-point shooting). VCU torched the Flames from three last season, connecting on 10 of the Ram’s 19 threes. I don’t expect a repeat performance there, meaning VCU will have to be even better than they were last year down low. If VCU’s guards have a good game tonight I love our chances. If they don’t Liberty could put a scare into the Rams.
LIBERTY WINS IF
It’s all about the three-point shot for the Flames tonight. With a defense that struggled to defend inside the arc last season, I don’t expect McKay to have his team trade 2s for 2s with VCU tonight. The Flames play a very small lineup and will depend on a group effort in combination with 6’5 255-lb center Myo Baxter-Bell to slow Mo Alie-Cox and Co. in the paint tonight. If they can string together some stops while connecting from deep, things could get interesting. Let’s hope they can’t.
Kenpom: 76-64 VCU win with an 86% chance of a Rams victory.
Game tips at 8PM at the Vines Center in Lynchburg, VA.
Watch: MASN, Official game day headquarters are Buffalo Wild Wings locations at Virginia Center and downtown on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom.
Listen: Fox Sports 910 AM & 98.5 FM
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation