Game Preview: VCU at Saint Joseph's [INSIDER]

[caption id="attachment_15856" align="alignright" width="300"]<a href="" rel="attachment wp-att-15856"><img class="size-medium wp-image-15856" src="" alt="VCU backcourt mates Melvin Johnson and JeQuan Lewis look to stay hot in a tough road game at Saint Joseph's." width="300" height="237" /></a> VCU backcourt mates Melvin Johnson and JeQuan Lewis look to stay hot in a tough road game at Saint Joseph's.[/caption]

The Rams head to Philadelphia to attempt to extend their four-game winning streak against a red-hot Saint Joseph's team looking for their eighth consecutive win after upsetting the Spiders of Richmond this past weekend. The Hawks have downed three Virginia teams already, knocking off Virginia Tech and Old Dominion on neutral courts before that recent defeat of UofR. VCU has been gaining momentum after three consecutive losses kenpom top-100s, defeating their four most recent opponents by an average margin of victory of 21.3 points per contest. Something's gotta give tonight in what promises to be a great early season A-10 battle.

VCU (9-5)

The Hawks won the Atlantic 10 tournament just two seasons ago before taking a somewhat large step backwards after the graduations of the deadly Roberts, Galloway, Kanacevic trio. This past season was the Hawks first losing season since 2010-11, seeing St. Joe's finish 7-11 in conference play. That record included a 15-point road loss at VCU. A season later the Hawks are surging with basically the exact same roster (minus point guard Chris Wilson, who apparently is the new Carl Jones). DeAndre Bembry has once again been very good but has been helped by big jumps from sophomores Shavar Newkirk and James Demery and seniors Aaron Brown and Isaiah Miles. Miles in particular has been the big difference, upping his numbers across the board while surprisingly leading Saint Joseph's in both points (17.3) and rebounds (8.6). Those improvements have been huge for St. Joe's offense, driving them up into the top-100 of adjusted offensive efficiency all the way from 257th nationally this past season. The defense was solid last year but has improved as well, rising to 55th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks to a defensive effective field goal percentage of 44.8% that ranks 32nd in the country. The Hawks only two losses have been very forgivable Ls to Florida and Villanova, both being decided by double-digits. They have however also had to avoid disaster on more than one occasion, escaping No.225 Drexel by a point in their regular season home opener then most recently having to pull away from No.314 Maryland Eastern Shore, leading by just five with under 1.5 minutes to play.

Will Wade seemed to hint a surge was coming from an improved team after a close home loss to Cincinnati. So far that's pretty much been the case, as VCU has dominated their four most recent opponents to that 21.3 average margin of victory during their current winning streak. That streak however has been against four teams ranking 132 or below by Can they do more of the same against a top-100 team? So far the Rams have been competitive but ultimately came up short against their five toughest opponents, VCU's biggest win coming with relative ease against an Old Dominion squad clinging to a kenpom top-100 ranking (No.99). The Hawks would give VCU their biggest so far this season after falling to the five top-75 opponents they faced in November and December, their worst loss coming against the lowest ranked of those opponents, a 13-point L at No.72 Georgia Tech. Offensively VCU's backcourt is either gelling over these last four or just shining against a weaker schedule (or perhaps both?). Starting point guard JeQuan Lewis has dished 16 assists to just four turnovers his last two games and 22 assists to nine total turnovers over his last four (while averaging 8.8 points), leading scorer Melvin Johnson is averaging 20.5 points over his last four while shooting an insane 53% from three (on 32 attempts) and ORU transfer Korey Billbury has added 14 points per contest these last four while shooting 42% from three and 50% inside the arc. The Rams D has been stout, holding the nation's then-No.1 three-point shooting team, North Florida, to just five makes on 18 attempts (27.8%) and 16 points under their season average, held George Mason to just 47 points and 32% shooting and held Liberty to just 16 first half points before ultimately letting their foot off the gas in the second half in a 57-point night for the Rams defense. Time to see just how real some of that improvement is against a tough Hawks team in Philly's Hagan arena tonight.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 74.6, SJU 74.3</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 64.8, SJU 68.8</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">SJU 48.5%, VCU 48.4%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">SJU 44.8%, VCU 49.1%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 37.1%, SJU 32%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">SJU 30%, VCU 35.9%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #ff0000;">SJU 40, VCU 37.1</span>
Turnover Percentage Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 25.7%, SJU 14.7%</span>
Turnover Percentage Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">SJU 15.4%, VCU 16.9%</span>

Can havoc live in Philadelphia? The Rams forced 20 turnovers in their win over Saint Joseph's last season at the Siegel Center but will need to bring that level of chaos into SJU's Hagan arena tonight to pull off a road upset. On paper Saint Joseph's appears to be a very good team at holding on to the ball, a nice improvement over last season's team that turned the ball over once every fifth time down the floor. The Hawks have faced four top-100 turnover defenses in Florida-99 (14 turnovers), Villanova-24 (7), Illinois St-41 (13) and Virginia Tech-97 (13), for an average over just 11.8 turnovers per contest. The Rams are a step up in weight class at No.3 nationally, forcing a turnover every fourth possession, but so far the Hawks' resume reads as a team that might not be effected by that. Offensively VCU has been somewhat dependent on the three-ball but faces a Hawks defense that has locked down on all the top three-point shooting teams they've faced. Can the Rams stay hot from deep tonight? Statistically VCU and Saint Joseph's strengths and weaknesses match up perfectly and hint at what should be a serious Atlantic 10 battle.

This game has all the making of a major defensive battle, a rock fight, if you will, which is why the team who can get just a couple of guys going offensively will have the advantage tonight. DeAndre Bembry was fantastic all last season but had little help in what ended up as a disappointing season for Hawks fans. This year the calvary has finally arrived thanks to a breakout season from Isaiah Miles and a maturing supporting cast. The Rams have done a great job lately of focussing on and shutting down the strengths of opposing teams, which is why I think VCU will do everything they can to make SJU beat them from deep tonight. If the Hawks get the three-ball going that could be the difference. SJU ranks 247th nationally behind the arc a season after ranking 328th from distance with virtually the same lineup. My gut tells me VCU will do everything they can to protect the front porch, which means the Hawks will need another night like the one they had against Richmond (11-21 from range, 52.4%) to beat VCU.

Kenpom: 73-70 Saint Joseph's win with a 38% chance of a VCU victory.

Game tips at 7PM at Hagan Arena in Philadelphia, VA.

Watch: ASN, Official watch parties at Buffalo Wild Wings locations at Virginia Center and downtown on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom.
Listen: <a title="FM 107.3" href="">107.3FM</a>
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation


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Mat Shelton-Eide
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