Game Preview: VCU v George Mason [INSIDER]

[caption id="attachment_15780" align="alignright" width="200"]<a href="" rel="attachment wp-att-15780"><img class="size-medium wp-image-15780" src="" alt="Korey Billbury has elevated his game as of late and is averaging 17 points over the last four contests." width="200" height="300" /></a> Korey Billbury has elevated his game as of late and is averaging 17 points over the last four contests.[/caption]

Conference play begins this weekend with a full plate of great Atlantic 10 games, but none more important to Ram fans than VCU v George Mason Saturday night at the Stu. The Rams have dominated the series as of late, going a perfect 3-0 against George Mason as Atlantic 10 rivals the past two seasons and have won 11 of the last 15 contests against the semi-rival from Fairfax.

VCU (8-5)

It's been a tough couple of seasons for the Patriots since joining the Atlantic 10. George Mason was trending downward under former head coach Paul Hewitt, finishing fifth in the CAA the season following VCU's departure to the A-10, then obviously saw that trend hit rock bottom during GMU's first A-10 season, a 12th-place finish and an A-10 tourney play-in loss to lowly Fordham. It got no better during their second year of Atlantic 10 action but new head coach Dave Paulsen hopes to change all of that this year. So far it's been a mixed bag for the former Bucknell coach, dropping games to the likes of Colgate and Manhattan (both ranked 279 or lower by while upsetting top-100s Mississippi and Oklahoma State. Paulsen has found some success early by ratcheting up Mason's defense from a sub-200 defensive unit to one that currently ranks 107th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. They don't do this by turning teams over and wreaking havoc like VCU -- Mason ranks dead last in college hoops at turning teams over -- but instead by making games into complete rock fights and defending well in the halfcourt. A key figure in this effort is 6'11 senior Shevon Thompson, one of the nation's best rebounders at 10.3 rebounds per contest. Offensively Mason has struggled. Their 63.5 points per game ranks 334th in the country. They are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country and haven't been much better inside the arc. A decent bit of this could be contributed to a new coach working in new pieces into a brand new system in Fairfax including freshmen Otis Livingston and Jaire Grayer who are the first and third most played players on Paulsen's new squad. Long story short, Mason is in the early stages of a serious rebuild and we'll see what that looks like today.

VCU is riding a three-game winning streak after holding the nation's No.1 three-point shooting team to just five makes Wednesday night. The Rams have held all three of their last opponents to under 70 points while averaging 85 themselves. Senior guard Melvin Johnson has been hot during that stretch, connecting on a lights out 56% from long range while averaging 20 points per contest. Johnson has been joined by senior Korey Billbury in the red-hot club, as the Rams have gotten over 15 points per contest from the Oral Roberts transfer during VCU's recent win streak. Billbury has added some punch for the Rams from long range as well, going 10-19 from deep over VCU's last four contests. Where the Rams will need improvement is inside the arc, as VCU has connected on just 45% of their two-point attempts this season (272nd nationally) despite three of VCU's most used bigs (Alie-Cox, Hamdy and Gilmore) each averaging over 53% shooting inside the arc. In short, VCU's guards need to do a better job of either finishing around the rim or drawing fouls. Despite a relentless attack of the basket the Rams simply haven't been very good at drawing contact, ranking 233rd nationally in free throws attempted this season.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 74.9, Mason 63.5</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Mason 65.2, VCU 66.2</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 48.8%, Mason 45.8%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Mason 46.2%, VCU 50.1%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 37.7%, Mason 30%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Mason 33.6%, VCU 36.4%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #ff0000;">Mason 41, VCU 36.8</span>
Turnover Percentage Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 25.1%, Mason 12.3%</span>
Turnover Percentage Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 17.5%, Mason 19.4%</span>

A healthy dose of the three-ball would work wonders for the Rams today. Mason held their opponents to a combined 11-40 from distance in their two wins over top-100 teams (27.5%). The Rams will need that bit of offensive havoc combined with their ability to turn teams over to speed Mason up, one of the slower teams in college hoops with an adjusted tempo that ranks 273rd in the country. Defensively VCU will hope to completely lock the Patriots down, a team that has averaged just 50 points in their previous two road games, coincidentally to former CAA rivals Towson and JMU.

Two big questions for Mason coming into this game: 1) Can they hold on to the ball? and 2) If so, can they score? The Patriots have been very turnover prone thanks to a youthful rotation and two bigs (Shevon Thomas and Jalen Jenkins) that can't seem to hold on to the ball, each with a turnover percentage of 27% or worse, meaning you've got two guys who play legit minutes that are turning the ball over one in every four times they touch it. That's not good and they'll now face a VCU defense that is the top turnover D they will have faced all season long. Assuming they don't turn the ball over at an extreme rate they'll be relying on young guys like freshman DeAndre Abram to put points on the board. Abram has been sensational over Mason's last two contests, posting consecutive career-highs of 24 and 27 points. It's one thing to do that at home against Wagner and Longwood, much less difficult than on the road in your first trip to the Siegel Center.

Kenpom: 74-62 VCU win with an 88% chance of a VCU victory.

Game tips at 5PM in the Stuart C. Siegel Center in Richmond, VA.

Watch: CBS Sports Network, 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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