Game Preview: No.25 VCU v North Texas [INSIDER]

Rock fight Friday. That appears to be what we're in for tonight when the defensive-minded Rams host the defensive-minded Mean Green of North Texas.

This could get ugly.
<h4>No.25 VCU (1-0)
NORTH TEXAS (1-0)</h4>

Tonight's CUSA representative comes to Richmond after a tuneup against DII Oklahoma Christian, a game they dominated to the tune of a 79-40 victory. It was just their second victory dating back to February 7 of last season, as the Mean Green went on a serious late season 2018-19 skid that included eight losses over their last 10 games of the season. That followed up what had been a promising 20-4 start to the season before the wheels completely came off the wagon.

What seemed to doom Grant McCasland's second year at the University was an abysmal offensive showing during the majority of conference play. North Texas ranked 265th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency on the season and checked in at 12th out of 14 CUSA teams in conference play at efficiently finding ways to put the ball through the hoop.

What kept them from pulling a full on Fordham however was CUSA's top-ranked defense. The Green wreaked a bit of havoc on their opponents, turning teams over 19.1% of their possessions (third best in CUSA) and when they weren't turning teams over they were making scoring a challenge by limiting teams to a 48.2% effective field goal percentage.

McCasland has added some new pieces he'll hope can help change things for the better this year, particularly on the offensive end. That group included 6'6 JUCO transfer, Thomas Bell. The Chahokia, IL native led North Texas with 16 points in their first game, just shy of his 17.7 JUCO average. He's joined by returning redshirt sophomore guard, Umoja Gibson. The sharpshooter from Waco hit 37% of his threes in conference play and opened last season with a career-high 32-point night in which he hit seven of his 11 threes in just 24 minutes of action. That duo is joined by 6'10 big, Zachary Simmons. Simmons has been a bright spot of efficiency for McCasland since joining the green, boasting a career true shooting percentage of 63.6%.

James Reese and Javion Hamlet are two other players to watch tonight. Reese was a deadly accurate JUCO three-point shooter prior to playing limited minutes at Buffalo before transferring to North Texas. Hamlet found his way to North Texas via the JUCO rout as well. The 17th-ranked overall JUCO recruit of 2018-19, Hamlet averaged 17.8 points and 6.5 assists while leading his team to the No.1 overall seed in the NJCAA National Tournament, giving the Mean Green a scoring point guard who they'll hope will help get that offense up out of the gutter, making this year's group a much more balanced squad than the one that faded so hard last season.
The Rams flashed a good bit of what we got used to last season during Tuesday's opener, which is to say they played a lot of lockdown defense that helped ride out a high-turnover, poor three-point shooting performance in yet another win.

VCU looked sloppy often through their regular season opening win, appearing to as Coach Rhoades would say, "fight the game" at times, but were never really threatened against an outmatched St. Francis team who was picked to win the NEC.

One important note however, was the Rams were without what should be a serious breakout sophomore in Vince Williams. Williams ran into a Marcus Santos-Silva shoulder in practice and found himself benched due to concussion protocol.

The Williams-less Rams got a monster 21-point, 18-rebound night from big man Marcus Santos-Silva and an efficient 16-point evening from senior wing, De'Riante Jenkins, but saw some early efficiency struggles from the senior quartet of Evans, Crowfield, Vann and Simms, the foursome combining for one more turnover than their eight made field goals.

Freshman backup point guard, Bones Hyland, put on another demonstration of his promise this early in his young career, posting the fourth-highest offensive rating behind Santos-Silva, Jenkins and Corey Douglas, who gave VCU efficient minutes off the bench, which combined with a bounce back night from VCU's senior group could make for roughly 7600 happy Ram fans this Friday night.

This game's tale of the tape is unavailable due to North Texas' data sample. The Mean Green's only competition this year was a non-DI team, meaning their data is currently unavailable through kenpom and with so many new faces, it's somewhat unfair to use last season's data in it's place.

Due to that lack of data, it's somewhat tough to really assume this year's North Texas team is going to look like last season's, but there are two numbers I think are worth pointing out:

20 - Amount of North Texas turnovers versus Oklahoma Christian.
277 - North Texas' current national ranking in adjusted tempo.

The top number is one VCU defenders should drool over. The Rams ranked 8th nationally in turnover defense this past season and all they did was get more experienced since then. Turning the ball over 20 times against a non-DI opponent is a terrible sign when your next game is at the Siegel Center, so VCU's ability to drive that number up could be huge tonight.

The second number is somewhat of a McCasland special. The previous three season's (two at North Texas, one at Arkansas State) saw his teams ranked around 200th or lower in tempo. VCU will want to push the pace tonight and the Rams' ability to control the tempo -- particularly with one of the deepest VCU teams we've seen in a while -- could go a long way towards 2-0.

Kenpom: 77-60 VCU win with an 94% chance of a VCU victory.

Game tips at 7PM in the Stuart C. Siegel Center in Richmond, VA.

Watch: MASN
Listen: 950AM
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation

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Mat Shelton-Eide
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