Game Preview: VCU at La Salle [INSIDER]

We are just hours away from our second game within a three-day window in this insane season of cancelations. Is this real life? Is this really going to happen!? And if so, can VCU extend their winning streak to six games that would included three road wins!?? We'll find out starting at 2PM, but first, let's look at the matchup.
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VCU (8-4, 1-0)
LA SALLE (5-6, 0-1)[/HEADING=3]

The La Salle Explorers have a laundry list of issues that is perhaps bigger than any school in the conference. Not only has their basketball struggled under fourth-year head coach, Ashley Howard, the school itself is in <a href="">seriously bad financial shape</a>, forcing many to question how many more years of La Salle basketball in general we will see in the Atlantic 10 conference. The Explorers haven't had a winning conference season since 2013, a wild ride led by former head coach, Dr. John Giannini, his only trip to the NCAA tournament in his 14 seasons in Philly, but one that resulted in a surprising trip to the Sweet 16 in VCU's inaugural Atlantic 10 year. La Salle's spending is among the lowest in the conference with an arena that is better compared to local high school gyms than the better arenas in the Atlantic 10, making Howard's climb to success an uphill one, assuming he can hang on for several more years.

This season Howard's strategy to hang on seems to be scheduling what Explorer fans hoped was a winnable schedule, but one that has proven to be more challenging than expected. Of their 10 non-conference games, La Salle played just four teams in the kenpom top-200 and only one within the top-100. Two of those were "Big 5" matchups against No.6 Villanova and No.127 Temple, two absolute blowout losses for the Explorers. La Salle almost managed a road upset at No.151 Delaware before falling by three in overtime, but did pick up a December 11 win at No.200 Penn, La Salle's highest-ranked win so far this season.

Three of La Salle's five wins are against teams ranked 300 or worse by kenpom, plus Howard's group has a brutal 12-point road loss to No.315 Bucknell, as well as a season-opening home L against No.283 Sacred Heart that may have been an early expectations setter for the Explorer faithful, of which there are few.

La Salle's issues are abundant, but perhaps their biggest challenge has been their ability to put the ball through the hoop on a consistent basis. The Explorers rank 248th nationally in effective field goal percentage, which well true, is better than VCU, but they don't have a third-ranked defense to bail them out and it's a ranking that's even worse considering their 352nd ranked strength of schedule (VCU checks in at 211 there).

La Salle's weak schedule has seen them matched up with just two top-100 defenses, the first and biggest challenge resulting in a 46-point night against Villanova's 16th-ranked D (a 28-point loss) and most recently a 61-point night in their Atlantic 10 opener against the Fordham Rams' 93rd-ranked defense, an 8-point home L for Howard and Co.

The Explorers are led by two blue blood transfers, leading scorer Josh Nickleberry (11.9 ppg but just 38.8% from the field) via Louisville as well as 6'10 Indiana transfer, Clifton Moore (10.3 ppg, 5.6 rebs). Those two are followed up by sophomore guard, Jhamir Brickus (9.5 ppg), arguably their overall most talented player and the team's leading three-point shooter at 39.6%. Their fourth-leading scorer, Sherif Kenney (a 6'4 wing who dropped 20 on the Rams this past season), left the program following his 13 minutes of action in the Explorers recent loss to Bucknell just two games ago.

The long and short of this Explorers team and program is it is a complete mess. When the highlight of your program is a new neon sign and two smoke machines, you've got issues. VCU will hope to spotlight La Salle's issues on the court today when they tip it up at 2PM.

The Rams pulled off a thrilling win Wednesday at Dayton, their fourth in a row against the Flyers, thanks to an elite defensive performance and one huge three-point shot from sophomore Ace Baldwin. The road win was made even more impressive considering some of Dayton's recent successes including wins over Virginia Tech and No.6 Kanas, not to mention VCU added to their degree of difficulty by doing it without starters Jayden Nunn (10 ppg) and Levi Stockard (7.8 ppg).

It was the Rams fifth consecutive win and yet again, another dominant defensive performance. The 52 points scored by the Flyers was their lowest of the season and their fewest in almost a year when VC held them to just 43 last January 23rd. It was also VCU's second road win over the season scoring 53 or fewer points, the first coming against No.68 Vanderbilt, 48-37 (note: Vanderbilt has won four straight including two consecutive top-50 victories, so Ram fans will want to casually root for Jerry Stackhouse's Commodores squad).

Still, it was clearly a far from pretty win. The Rams finished just 39.5% of their shots inside the arcs against a Flyers team giving up 47.9% down low on the season. That comes just two games after Dayton allowed 77.4% shooting inside the arc to the Rebels of Ole Miss.

That's been and will likely continue to be the challenge with this VCU team all season. The Rams on paper are essentially the best defense black and gold fans have had the pleasure of cheering for in the history of the program, but one with an offense that statistically is among the worst. Can VCU get the offense turned around? Being 12 games in, that appears somewhat unlikely, meaning VCU will rely on their D all year to determine if this Rams team can punch their second consecutive NCAA tournament ticket and fourth in the last three seasons under head coach Mike Rhoades.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">LAS 69.6, VCU 59.9</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 56.3, LAS 71.2</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">LAS 47.8%, VCU 47.1%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 40.7%, LAS 49.2%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #ff0000;">LAS 32.8%, VCU 29.8%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 23.6%, LAS 34.1%</span>
2-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 48.3%, LAS 46.8%</span>

2-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 43.6%, LAS 47.9%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #ff0000;">LAS 39.4, VCU 32.6</span>
Turnover% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">LAS 19.3%, VCU 23.5%</span>
Turnover% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 27%, LAS 18.8%</span>

For starters La Salle's 261st-ranked offense is the worst offense VCU has seen since they opened the season against St. Peter's who's checked in at No.316. The Rams have some more experience under their belts since that contest (not to mention Ace Baldwin back on the court), but still, only allowed 54 that night. It would seem only VCU playing down to the competition and/or completely overlooking the Explorers could sabotage what should be a great matchup there for the Rams. Defensively La Salle isn't much better than their offense, so on paper this is technically (outside of the road location) VCU's worst opponent they will have seen to date. Still, the Rams defeated two somewhat similar foes (St. Peter's and Campbell) by a combined 7 points, both of those games within the friendly confines of the Stuart C. Siegel Center and strange things happen in college hoops.

With such an elite defense, limiting turnovers on the offensive end and keeping the rebound battle close or in the Rams favor tends to be a death sentence for opposing foes. The Rams did just that this week in Dayton, winning the turnover margin by three and out-rebounding the Flyers by three as well, helping VCU to a victory despite shooting just 37.5% from the field and getting outscored at the free throw stripe 19-2. When you can win that way you seem darn near unbeatable, so add in just a decent offensive performance and the Rams can turn this into an absolute blowout.

Kenpom: 67-59 VCU loss with a 78% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 2PM at Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia, PA

Watch: USA Network

Listen: <a href=";pname=1248&amp;campid=header&amp;cid=index.html">Fox Sports 910 AM &amp; 98.5 FM</a>
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Mat Shelton-Eide
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