Game Preview: VCU v Belmont

[caption id="attachment_13363" align="alignright" width="201"]<a href=""><img class="size-medium wp-image-13363" src="" alt="JeQuan Lewis posted a season-high six assists in Saturday's win over Northern Iowa and will look to continue to heat up against Belmont." width="201" height="300" /></a> JeQuan Lewis posted a season-high six assists in Saturday's win over Northern Iowa and will look to continue to heat up against Belmont.[/caption]

VCU takes on Belmont tonight in the third meeting in as many years between the two. The Rams trailed early in Nashville last season before taking over in the second half for the 81-68 win. The previous season the sensational Ian Clark did his best to help the Bruins pick up a road win but didn't have enough to defeat VCU in the Stu, falling to the Rams 75-65 in 2012. VCU looks to make it three in a row against Belmont tonight while hoping to pickup what could prove to be another incredibly helpful non-conference win against the always underrated Ohio Valley opponent.

VCU (6-3)

Rick Byrd returns for his 29th season as Belmont head coach and leads a squad picked to finish second overall in the Ohio Valley Conference. Byrd led the Bruins to last season's NIT quarterfinal but had taken Belmont to three consecutive NCAA appearances prior to that. The Bruins graduated senior leading scorer JJ Man  and his 18.3 ppg, not to mention fellow double-digit scorer, 6'9 stretch forward, Drew Windler (10.4), but return enough pieces to contend for another OVC title en route to this season's NCAA tournament. Craig Bradshaw has done most of the heavy lifting this season, leading Belmont with a ridiculous 21.3 ppg in just 29.4 minutes per contest. The 6'3 junior guard was shooting an insane 46.4% from deep on his seven three-point attempts per contest but has missed Belmont's last two games due to injury. The Bruins lost both games. Coincidentally Bradshaw was knocked out of the teams' last meeting in the first half, finishing the game with three points in 13 minutes as the Rams picked up the road win. Bradshaw is listed as doubtful for tonight's contest. Even without Bradshaw the Bruins have a number of players who can fill up the stat sheet. As a team Belmont ranks 28th nationally in effective field goal percentage (54.9%) and can hit shots anyone on the court. Defensively they haven't been quite as good, ranking 158th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (not terrible, not exactly good either). Their biggest cause for concern however is their 20.3% team turnover percentage, and that's including Bradshaw's 16.8% (one of the best among high-usage players). Belmont has yet to play a team that ranks within the top-100 in turnover percentage defense but will take on a VCU team that currently ranks 17th nationally but had led the nation in that stat the previous three seasons.

VCU has been working on polishing up two key weaknesses over the last few games: shooting and halfcourt defense. Those are pretty major things to polish up but the Rams are off to a nice start after shooting 47% against Northern Iowa in a 93-87 win this past Saturday. Unfortunately the Rams were up against a UNI team that couldn't seem to miss either, giving up 49% shooting to the Panthers in the double-overtime win. Defensively the Rams have done a nice job of turning teams over -- although not quite at the rate they used to -- but have seen gambles turned into easy buckets for the opposition on a number occasions and thus ranks 320th nationally out of 351 teams in effective field goal percentage defense (55.2%!!!). In their defense (no pun intended), VCU's strength of schedule according to ranks No.1 in the country. The Rams have played just two teams out of kenpom's top-100, one of which, Toledo, was picked to win the MAC this season after winning 27 games last year. The other was a 106-66 blowout of Maryland Eastern Shore where VCU shot 55% in the win while giving up 38% shooting. Moral of the story: VCU's numbers might look a lot better if they had a few cupcakes thrown into their schedule like the rest of the country. Belmont is not that cupcake, nor is Cincinnati, who VCU plays next, so it may be some time until VCU's numbers are as sexy as fans would expect from a top-25 caliber team. They'll need a top-25 caliber effort tonight against a Belmont team that can burn you when left open. Another thing to watch for tonight is VCU's rotation. Justin Tillman seems to be emerging as a dangerous piece of Shaka's arsenal, averaging increased minutes over his last three games. Tillman posted his second most minutes of his career against UNI (16) as well as a career-high 132 offensive rating after going 4-5 from the field. Tillman is just one of four VERY talented freshmen so it will be interesting to see how they progress throughout the season.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 76.8, Belmont 75.6</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Belmont 69.1, VCU 72.1</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Belmont 54.9%, VCU 50.2%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Belmont 50.4%, 55.2%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Belmont 39.1%, VCU 35.1%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Belmont 37.2%, VCU 41.6%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 35.8, Belmont 33.2</span>
Turnover Percentage Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 24.8%, Belmont 19.8%</span>
Turnover Percentage Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 16.6%, Belmont 20.3%</span>

For starters,  it certainly wouldn't hurt VCU's chances if Bradshaw sat tonight. Losing your best player and one of your better ball handlers against a VCU team that has made a name for itself by turning teams over is a killer. Play that game at the Siegel Center and it's even tougher. You hate to admit those things but doesn't make them any less true. Regardless of his status VCU needs to keep making strides in the areas mentioned earlier: Gotta make shots, gotta defend in the halfcourt (meaning stay in front of your man, no dumb gambles).

Belmont is a well-coached squad with the talent/shooters to leave the Stu with a win. The Bruins should be able to break VCU's halfcourt defense down IF they can handle the press. When they do they gotta hit the open three as that extra point is HUGE when you're playing a VCU team that is almost guaranteed to have 10-20 more attempts than you from the field. Teams have had success hitting the three against the Bruins, and we're talking about a schedule that hasn't shot the three-ball well outside of their games with Belmont. Belmont can't afford a similar night tonight. A hot-handed duo of any combination of Melvin Johnson, JeQuan Lewis, Treveon Graham, Jordan Burgess or the emerging distance threats of Larrier, Brooks and now Weber, could spell the third straight loss for Belmont.

Kenpom predicts an 82-71 Rams win with an 84% chance of victory.
Vegas predicts a VCU win with the Rams a 14-point favorite.

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

Watch: MASN, Official watch parties at Baja Bean Co. in the Fan as well as 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: <a title="@VCURamNation" href="">@VCURamNation</a>


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Mat Shelton-Eide
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