Four games remain in VCU’s non-conference schedule starting with perhaps the Rams’ toughest challenge of the season this Saturday at Seton Hall. VCU has had a brutal non-conference schedule that has challenged the Rams while also preparing the black and gold for the Atlantic 10 road ahead.
Let’s take a quick look at what that competition looks like and just what we know about this year’s conference opponents.
THE HEAVY FAVORITE
Rhode Island (5-3, 49) – Last year’s A-10 tourney champs were the heavy favorite heading into this season and appear to be adding some distance between themselves and the field. The Keaney blue Rams own two top-50 wins and what is looking like the conferences only at-large worthy resume so far. Rhody defeated top-20 Seton Hall on a neutral court and took out rival Providence in Kingston. Two of URI’s three losses came on the road to top-50 teams, the other was a neutral court L to kenpom No.3 UVA (albeit by 15 points). What’s perhaps most impressive is both key wins were without preseason First Team selection, EC Matthews, who has missed the last six games due to an injury. Rhode Island has just three games remaining in their OOC schedule, all at home, and will be a heavy favorite to enter conference play at 8-3 and as the league’s only top-50 kenpom representative.
St. Bonaventure (6-2, 66) – With a big win over top-50 Maryland and games remaining against top-100s Vermont and Syracuse, the Bonnies look like the only team not named URI or VCU with a shot at a potential at-large worthy non-conference resume. Bona’s two losses came without arguably the A-10’s best player, senior guard Jalen Adams. The Bonnies ranked in the kenpom top-100 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency and look like one of the tougher teams in the conference this season thanks to perhaps the deadliest one-two punch backcourt of Adams and fellow senior Matt Mobley.
Davidson (4-3, 78) – The Cats currently reside in the kenpom top-100 (No.78) and somehow ahead of VCU (No.87), but I’m not entirely sure how. Davidson competed for about one half of basketball with both Nevada and UNC but wound up losing by double-digits to both and were also on the wrong side of a blowout at the hands of Appalachian State. Davidson has no good wins or anything close to one, so it’s hard to get a good read on these guys. I think the Cats will be competitive and perhaps one of the better A-10 teams, but don’t see them as a true challenger to win the league.
Saint Joseph’s (4-4, 107) – The Hawk may never die, as they say at St. Joe’s, but it sure gets injured a lot. Once again injuries have taken a toll of Phil Martelli’s team, this year star up-and-comer Charlie Brown being the victim of a wrist injury that’s kept him out all year. He should return at some point but double-digit scorer, Lamarr Kimble. Kimble re-injured his foot after missing his final seven games last season and will miss all of this year. I may be in the minority here but I think statistically that could actually help SJU, as Kimble was a high-volume inefficient guard for Phil Martelli. A healthy Shavar Newkirk combined with Charlie Brown’s return could make SJU a tricky A-10 team, but I don’t see this group consistent enough, or having a good enough offense to challenge for an A-10 title. VCU plays SJU just one, but it could provide a top-100 road win opportunity for the Rams.
Dayton (4-4, 109) – Anthony Grant’s first Flyer team has no good wins and owns a semi-rough loss to Hofstra, but have shown enough flashes to get your attention. Dayton has let some bad teams hang around but have also competed against some pretty good ones, most notably a near-upset of Mississippi State on the road that ended in the most brutal of fashions for the Flyers. The return of a healthy Xeyrius Williams — the teams’ best player, in my opinion — should make them even more dangerous as they continue to figure things out with a new coach and a lot of new faces playing larger roles. Dayton should be a good A-10 team and a potential top-100 one at that, but I can see them being very up and down this year.
WHO KNOWS WITH THIS GROUP
La Salle (5-5, 152) – The Explorers beat a good Temple team and played a very good Miami team close for most of the game yet just lost a home contest to Drexel and has struggled against both Penn and Holy Cross. The Explorers have two solid individual talents in BJ Johnson and Pookie Powell, but haven’t put things together as a team most of the year. I don’t thin they have any shot at competing for a top-four spot in this year’s A-10, but could play spoiler from time to time.
George Washington (5-4, 153) – Another A-10 team with an odd win over Temple but some sketchy performances elsewhere, I expected GW to be horrible this season but they’ve actually appeared decent at times. VCU will play GW twice including in DC on January 20, a Saturday, a road trip the Rams have enjoyed in the past. I expect them to be a middling to bottom half team this season.
Saint Louis (4-4, 194) – A lot of folks had high expectations for this Billikens team thanks to a highly-rated recruiting class and some recently available transfers. Early on that projection appeared solid thanks to a 3-0 start that included a defeat of Virginia Tech, but blowouts at the hands of Providence and Butler as well as bad losses to Detroit and Western Michigan knocked expectations back to Earth. I think the talent is there but perhaps the coaching is questionable for a team with so many new parts. They could be dangerous but I think at this point it doesn’t appear they’ll be the top-4 contender some thought they were early on (not me).
THE DOWN RIVALS
George Mason (4-5, 189) – The Patriots worst loss came just the other day to former CAA foe, William & Mary. That said, the 6-2 Tribe have shown flashes of being solid, but this game offered even more hints from a Mason team that so far has just squeaked by some pretty bad opponents. GMU opened the season with a 2-point survival of No.284 Lafayette, trailed No.219 Binghamton at the half in a home game, needed overtime to escape No.324 Cal St. Northridge and had to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against a really bad JMU squad (Mason managed to win despite trailing by 4 with under 10 seconds to play). The biggest difference between last season’s pesky group and this year’s team is a dip in offensive rebounding. Mason’s 26.6% offensive rebound percentage thanks to the graduation of rebound machines, Marquise Moore and Jalen Jenkins, is the third lowest rate from a Dave Paulsen-coached team in his 10 years of being a head coach and his worst mark at Mason. This however should come as no surprise from one of the nation’s smallest teams.
Richmond (1-8, 215) – The ol’ #OneRichmond slogan has taken on a brutal new meaning for the Spiders this year after one of the worst starts in school history. Richmond has taken a huge step back following the graduation of A-10 Player of the Year, TJ Cline, and there doesn’t seem to be much letup in site thanks to a schedule that will include three top-100 opponents over their new four games. That comes after an OOC slate that so far has been one of the most challenging in the league, as five of the Spiders losses have come to kenpom top-100 opponents, with two more coming against teams ranked within the top-115. That’s somewhat of the optimistic look at this Richmond team. Easier conference schedule should produce more wins, right? Well the problem with blaming things on the schedule is not only did Richmond lose all but one game so far, they got destroyed in the majority of their losses. The Spiders lost a season-opening home game to a terrible Delaware team by 16 in a game that wasn’t even that close (Richmond trailed by 28 at one point), followed that up with a 33-point home loss to Jacksonville State (who’s actually better than you’d think), lost to Cincinnati by 27, lost to Wake by 29, then most recently lost at ODU by a 19-point margin after actually leading at the half.
UMASS (4-5, 154) – Not sure what happens to the Minutemen this year. Their best-case scenario is likely a middle of the pack finish, but so far they’ve actually competed somewhat well for a team that sustained so many losses this offseason from an already bad team. UMass hung with BYU and South Carolina but also lost to No.314 Quinnipiac and a pretty bad Harvard team. VCU plays them late in the season on the road, so at that point they could be one of those late trap games that always seems to catch ya.
FORDHAM (3-5, 230) – Solid defense, miserable offense. Fordham lost to the one top-100 team they played (FSU) by 24. They’ll both open and close VCU’s A-10 slate so you’ll get to know what’s left of that roster soon enough.
DUQUESNE (4-3, 249) – Shaka Smart mentor Keith Dambrot takes over the Dukes this year and is essentially going for the classic youthful rebuild. All four of Duquesne’s wins have come against teams ranked 300 or worse by kenpom and the Dukes have already lost to home games to sub-200 teams as well. Analysts seem to think Dambrot is the guy who can turn Duquesne around, but it ain’t happening this season. All four of Duquesne’s wins have come against sub-300 teams and the Dukes have added two sub-240 losses as well. VCU hosts Duquesne in their only game against Dambrot and Co. this season.