Game Preview: VCU at UMass

As hard as it may be to believe, VCU got a solid from their crosstown rival last night, when the Richmond Spiders handled their business against the Saint Louis Billikens. Why that is helpful to the Rams is because with a win today against kenpom No.198 UMass, the black and gold would lock up a top-4 finish in this year's A-10 standings and the helpful A-10 tourney double-bye that comes with it. A win would also give Mike Rhoades and Co. 20 wins on the season and would be Rhoades' 100th win as Head Coach of the VCU Rams.
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VCU (19-7, 12-3)
UMASS (12-14, 5-9)[/HEADING=3]

The easy way to understand UMass is to essentially just think of the opposite of VCU, but without the wins. What I mean by that is UMass has been extremely good on one side of the ball (offense), while struggling on the other (defense). The Minutemen currently rank 48th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency under fifth-year Head Coach Matt McCall -- potentially his last season in Amherst -- but check in at 340th nationally on defense out of 358 DI teams. In conference play that offense has cooled off a bit, checking in at seventh in A-10 action (just one spot above the Rams), but the defense has been the same level of horrible, sitting in dead last among the 14 Atlantic 10 schools.

Two incredibly bad stats for UMass: While they have been good offensively on the season, they live and die by the three. UMass ranks 14th in offensive two-point percentage as well as 14th in defensive two-point percentage. That makes it extremely challenging to win. They are however, shooting 38.8% on the season from deep, good for the eighth best mark in the country. They have hit 37.8% in Atlantic 10 games, which is third in the conference behind VCU at 39.5%.

The Minutemen play a fairly deep, but relatively small lineup, going 6'5 and under for the most part from point guard to power forward, with 6'10 transfer journeyman (via San Jose State and Montana), Michael Steadman, providing most of the height for UMass and 6'8 240 Penn State transfer, Trent Buttrick (who went scoreless against the Rams in 15 minutes last season with the Nittany Lions) playing both the 4 and the 5 for UMass. Buttrick (11.1 ppg) along with leading scorer Noah Fernandes (13.9 ppg, 5.5 apg), Boston College transfer Rich Kelly (12.8 ppg 48.8% 3p%) and Albany transfer, CJ Kelly (11 ppg) are the four Minutemen averaging double-digit scoring with TJ Weeks (9.5 ppg) right behind in a group that can all knock down the three.

While it hasn't been a banner year for the Minutemen by any stretch of the imagination, they do have three top-100 home wins against No.81 Penn State, No.71 Rutgers and No.61 Saint Louis, making them a threat to the Rams today with so much on the line.

VCU has won six straight and nine of their last 10 thanks to a deep roster that has helped them survive injury issues and a more balanced attack than they perhaps saw earlier in the season. One player who has been key in both of those areas is sophomore big man, Mikeal Brown-Jones. MBJ has posted career-highs in back-to-back games, first scoring 11 points to go with seven rebounds in just 11 minutes against Richmond, then following that up with a 15-point, six-rebound performance in the win against George Mason. In fact MBJ has scored exactly one point per minute (31 total) over his last three games. His 128.7 offensive rating in Atlantic 10 action is one of the best in the conference.

Brown-Jones has been a part of a balanced attack led by the trio of Ace Baldwin, Vince Williams and KeShawn Curry, with freshman Jayden Nunn proving a capable and dangerous option out of the backcourt as well. The Rams experienced key pieces of that group have shown much more efficient offense than they did earlier in the season which has made VCU look that much scarier of a team for their opponents with the Rams' D already one of the best in the country. Curry in particular has taken a huge efficiency leap his senior season, going from a -- let's be honest -- abysmal 79 A-10 offensive rating his junior year to a career-high 105.4 this season. He's posted o-ratings of 124 or better in four of his last five contests (note: that is REALLY good) and is averaging 15.6 points per game over that stretch.

Long story short, VCU has just been way more efficient offensively as of late than they were earlier in the season. With the nation's 5th-ranked defense already on their resume, that has made VCU a dangerous opponent and one that is a real threat to run through DC on a path to the NCAA tournament and a major challenge for UMass today.

Fun fact: VCU is 8-1 in true road games this season, a better winning percentage than they have at home or in neutral contest.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UMASS 75.1, VCU 65.5</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 60.8, UMASS 77.7</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UMASS 51.6%, VCU 50.5%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 43.7%, UMASS 55.5%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UMASS 38.8%, VCU 35%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 27%, UMASS 37.1%</span>
2-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 49.7%, UMASS 46.3%</span>

2-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 45.4%, UMASS 55.5%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UMASS 33, VCU 32.7</span>
Turnover% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UMASS 16.2 %, VCU 21.8%</span>
Turnover% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 25.4%, UMASS 17.7%</span>

The first key step toward victory (cliche alert) is to not underestimate UMass. The Rams survived at Fordham by five points, outlasted Duquesne by nine, escaped No.220 Campbell by four and No.164 Saint Peter's by three and none of those teams could shoot it like the Minutemen. So step-1 is entering today's matchup like it's for the A-10 championship. Step-2 is continuing to make smart decisions on offense. The Rams have looked so much better on that side of the ball and today are taking on the lowest-ranked defense they have played all season. The worst they had faced up to this point was Duquesne and their 268th-ranked D. UMass checks in at No.340. One of the funnest things as a hoops fan is watching your team score efficiently and everything on paper points that that is something VCU CAN do today. Will they is anyone's guess. And step-3 and clearly the most important seems to be defending the arc. One paper this is UMass' worst matchup of the season. Why? Because their strength of three-point shooting faces the nation's third-best three-point defense. Their last similar matchup came back on Dec 11 against North Texas, the country's eighth-best three-point defense. The Minutemen still shot a respectable 37.5% (although just six makes), but were also held to a season-low 57 points in the loss. D the three, don't "fight the game" and the Rams can clinch a double-bye in DC and we can all have a wonderful weekend.

Kenpom: 75-69 VCU win with a 71% chance of a Rams victory.

4:30PM at the Mullins Center in Amherst, MA

Watch: USA Network

Listen: <a href=";pname=1248&amp;campid=header&amp;cid=index.html">Fox Sports 910 AM &amp; 98.5 FM</a>
Live Tweets: <a href="">@VCURamNation</a>

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Mat Shelton-Eide
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