Game Preview: VCU v Illinois [INSIDER]

Johnny Williams is set to return to the Rams' lineup today after missing VCU's win over Princeton due to illness.
Johnny Williams is set to return to the Rams’ lineup today after missing VCU’s win over Princeton due to illness.

The Rams will look to keep things hot in South Beach today, taking a three-game winning streak that started in the Bahamas into a tricky matchup with an Illinois team coming off their biggest win of the season. A win today would give VCU their third kenpom top-100 win in a row and another potential feather in their cap come Selection Sunday this March.

VCU (6-1)


The Fighting Illini is coming off their biggest win of the season, a defeat of NC State that give Illinois fans some reason to believe after three straight losses. After beating up on cupcakes during their first four games of the season, John Groce’s team hit a rough patch starting with an unexpected home loss to Winthrop followed by two neutral court Ls to West Virginia and Florida State, both top-40 teams, both by double-digits including a brutal 89-57 embarrassment at the hands of the Mountaineers. But a 14-point win over a solid NC State team was more than enough to catch the attention of VCU’s coaching staff and proves just how capable of a team VCU’s opponent is today. Statistically there’s not a ton to grab on to with this Illinois team in terms of standout stats. The Illini’s offense and defense both rank within the top-100 in adjusted efficiency, albeit barely at No.94 on offense and No.92 on D. They’ve been a solid team inside the arc, as perhaps expected against an early-season schedule that has included three sub-200 teams and have averaged just over 80 points per game against that schedule. Defensively they’ve had some struggles however, particularly defending the three-point arc, giving up 37.4% three-point shooting thus far, good for 263rd nationally. Illinois has been extremely turnover prone, turning the ball over 21% of their possessions including 24 against West Virginia, the team they’ve played so far that most resembles VCU and their havoc-wreaking defense. Illinois has several capable scorers and see four players averaging double-digits thus far led by Malcolm Hill’s 18.8 points per contest. Hill, along with Leron Black (11.5 ppg, 8 rpg), Tracy Abrams (11.3 ppg) and Michael Finke (10 ppg, 6 rpg) have done the most damage in the stat sheet early and perhaps as expected have been the team’s most efficient players thus far.


VCU has won their last three with the last two by double-digits over top-100 teams. Point guards JeQuan Lewis and Jonathan Williams have been the early story for the black and gold, combining for 26 points per game and 8.7 assists while senior Jordan Burgess providing what I think has been the x-factor for this season’s team, playing literally every position on the floor including center three times this season despite his 6’5 225 frame. Burgess is having a career year, connecting on 46.7% of this three-point attempts to combine with his work inside the arc for a 63.2% effective field goal percentage. It’s that offensive breakout from Burgess combined with confidence-building performances from the likes of freshmen De’Riante Jenkins, Samir Doughty and Malik Crowfield that have brought some reliable depth to VCU’s 2016-17 group and what makes them a growing threat come March. But March of course is made more interesting with a tournament-worthy resume. VCU will have four more non-conference opportunities against top-100 caliber teams over their next four games. A win over the Illini would give the black and gold three straight victories over kenpom top-100 teams.


Scoring Offense: ILL 80.9, VCU 75.6
Scoring Defense: VCU 64.3, ILL 72.4
Effective Field Goal% Offense: VCU 56.4%, ILL 51.8%
Effective Field Goal% Defense: VCU 47.7%, ILL 51.9%

3-Point Field Goal%: VCU 39.2%, ILL 35.3%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: VCU 31.1%, ILL 37.4%
2-Point Field Goal%: VCU 55.3%, ILL 31.2%

2-Point Field Goal% Defense: VCU 48.2%, ILL 49.6%
Rebounds per game: ILL 37.4, VCU 32.7
Turnover% Offense: VCU 19.4%, ILL 21%
Turnover% Defense: VCU 23.3%, ILL 19.8%


Defense wins champions and it also wins random non-conference games in South Beach. Illinois has shown they can get things going on offense but have yet to show they are capable of consistently doing that against good teams. The Illini averaged 59 points in losses to WVU and Florida State, the two top-100 defenses they’ve faced this season. VCU, the nation’s No.27 defense according to kenpom, can’t afford to be an outlier today and needs to see that the trend continues for the Illini. Lock em down!


For starters, the Illini need an improved defensive effort on what they’ve shown thus far. Illinois was able to outscore NC State but allowed a decent 74 points from the Wolfpack in that one, allowing their ACC opponent to connect on 59.5% of their attempts inside the arc and 37.5% outside of it. That type of effort likely does not beat a VCU team that has proven to be dangerous on both sides of the ball. If Illinois can force VCU to beat them from deep while showing the good version of their offense they’ve flashed against weaker competition, it could be big win No.2 for John Groce and Co. today.

Kenpom: 74-67 VCU win with a 72% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 3PM at American Airlines Arena in Miami, FL.

Watch: CBSSN, 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


A two-time graduate of VCU (School of the Arts '07, Center for Sport Leadership '10), Mat is a co-founder of VCU Ram Nation and a longtime fan as the ...