Game Preview: VCU takes on Saint Mary’s in NCAA tournament first round

An NCAA tournament revenge game, how often do you get one of those? The Rams (…sorta) get just that when taking on the Gaels of Saint Mary’s today in the first (second?…what are they calling this now?) round of the NCAA tournament, a bit of a rematch from an 85-77 loss back in 2017, Will Wade’s last game as a VCU Ram. Both teams are obviously completely rebuilt including a new coach on the side of the black and gold, but an opportunity to advance while sending Saint Mary’s packing this time, certainly adds an extra layer of intrigue to today’s contest in Albany, NY.

No.12 VCU RAMS (27-7)


The Gaels make their way into this year’s tournament for the second consecutive season under longtime head coach, Randy Bennett, by way of winning the WCC regular season, which yes, includes finishing ahead of perennial power, Gonzaga. The Gaels finished 14-2 in the WCC, tied with the Zags, but due to conference tie-breakers, got the top seed in this year’s WCC tournament. There they would go on to lose to Gonzaga, 77-51, going 1-2 overall on the year against the conference’s top dog, but prior to the lose had done enough to punch a high seed in this year’s tournament.

They did so with an experienced group that has already seen tournament action, advancing past their first game in last year’s March Madness, 82-53 over the then-Archie Miller-led Indiana Hoosiers. Logan Johnson, Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen return as starters from that squad as well as key reserve turned double-digit scorer this season, Mitchell Saxen, with freshman Aiden Mahaney joining that core as the team’s breakout star, averaging a team second-best 14.5 ppg in his firs year of DI hoops.

The Gael’s don’t play a particularly deep bench, but have great balance from their starting core. Four Saint Mary’s players average double-digit scoring for the nation’s 40th-ranked offense, but it’s their defense (ranked 10th nationally), that has gotten them to this matchup today.

Saint Mary’s has been one of the stingiest defenses in the nation this season, limiting opponents to a 46.7% effective field goal percentage (the 28th best EFG% defense in college hoops), put a lid on the hoops for any shots taken inside the three-point arc and are the second best defensive rebounding team in college hoops, limiting second-chance points for the opposition. The Gaels turn teams over about 19% of their possessions, solid (120t nationally), but by no means elite like VCU.

Offensively Bennett’s squad does a great job of limiting turnovers, rebounding and hitting threes, making them on paper the most efficient team all around VCU has played all year.

Any reason to believe the Rams can win? Yes.

Saint Mary’s has three sub-100 losses on the season, falling early in the year to No.105 Washington (in overtime), No.111 Colorado St (by two points) and at No.108 Loyola Marymount (in overtime). That’s not a bad way to lose, but still, these are teams who all rank below the Rams. Also the Gael’s WCC opponents are collectively horrible in turnover percentage defense, something VCU as a program is quite famous for.

Turnover % against elite turnover Ds
23% v Southern (15th nationally in TO% D)
30% v Houston (26th nationally in TO% D)…only a 5-point L to the nation’s top team

It’s the tiniest of samples, but perhaps the bigger point is the Gaels haven’t played a team like VCU in a looong time (the Houston Game was Dec 3). Can havoc win the day for the Rams?


Jamir Watkins takes a three-pointer for VCU in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Sophomore Jamir Watkins his 53.3% of his 15 threes during VCU’s run through the Atlantic 10 tournament.

While the Gael’s enter this year’s tourney by way of an at-large bid, VCU couldn’t leave things up to chance and had to go take an A-10 Tournament Championship to punch their ticket. They did just that, somehow, someway, defeating all their Atlantic 10 tourney opponents by double-digits, including a Dayton Flyers matchup that saw the black and gold down by as many as 11 points in the second half. It’s just hard to kill the VCU Rams.

The Rams played solid defense that week in Brooklyn, but it was their three-point shooting that really got them over the hump. VCU has been very hot or cold from beyond the arc through stretches of the season, but three consecutive 40%+ games from deep ended the seasons of three challenging A-1o opponents.

Smart decision making and a lack of hero ball were on display all this past week from the Mike Rhoades-coached squad, something this coaching staff will hope travels to Albany. That type of play has helped lead VCU to a nine-game winning streak heading into this tournament, currently the fifth-longest winning streak in the nation.

It’s a balanced attack too from this VCU, with the Rams’ top scorer, Ace Baldwin, averaging just 12.7 points per game. Only three Rams average double-digits (Jalen DeLoach and Brandon Johns joining Baldwin there) while two more, sophomores Jayden Nunn and Jamir Watkins, are just below at over nine points per game. Eight Rams are averaging double-digit minutes for this year’s VCU squad.


Scoring Offense: VCU 71.4, STM 71.4
Scoring Defense: STM 60.1, VCU 62.9
Effective Field Goal% Offense: STM 52.5%, VCU 52.2%
Effective Field Goal% Defense: STM 46.7%, VCU 47%
3-Point Field Goal%: STM 36.7%, VCU 34.7%
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: VCU 32.3%, STM 32.8%
2-Point Field Goal%: VCU 52.3%, STM 50.9%

2-Point Field Goal% Defense: STM 45.6%, VCU 46.2%
Rebounds per game: STM 35.6, VCU 33.3
Turnover% Offense: STM 16.4%, VCU 19.5%
Turnover% Defense: VCU 24.1%, STM 19%


The formula for this team remains the same: play elite defense and be solid from three. When the Rams shoot around 35%+ from three they are darn tough to beat. When they shoot over 40% like they did in all of their conference tournament games, forget about it. St. Mary’s defends the paint (on paper) even better than Dayton, who limited VCU to 45.7% inside the three-point arc in VCU’s last game, putting even more pressure on the long ball. And again…havoc. As I pointed out above, it’s been quite a while since St. Mary’s played a team who pressures you defensively like the Rams. Hopefully that will play a huge role in today’s contest and the Rams can use it to advance in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.

Kenpom: 65-59 VCU loss with a 32% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 2PM at MVP Arena in Albany, NY

Watch: TBS

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 ...