Game Preview: VCU v Memphis

VCU will look to bounce back from a loss against 15th-ranked West Virginia yesterday with yet another huge opportunity when taking on the fringe top-25 Memphis Tigers this evening -- Penny Hardaway's squad sat just outside of the most recent AP poll as the team receiving the 27th most votes. It will be a contest loaded with young talent as Memphis starts four underclassmen including 5-star top-10 freshman, Moussa Cisse. Winner leaves South Dakota with a winning record and another crucial resume-padding win in this highly unusual non-conference season.

VCU (1-1)

Third-year head coach and legendary alumnus, Penny Hardaway, has wasted no time in rebuilding his alma mater that saw a quick decline under previous head coach (and former VCU assistant), Tubby Smith. Hardaway has recruited at an extremely high level after his time coaching in the AAU ranks and in a very John Calipari style, has yet another talented group of young players he'll hope can mature into a deep NCAA tournament team. His sophomore-led squad ranked No.1 nationally as a recruiting class, highlighted by recent No.2 overall NBA pick, James Wiseman, as well as fellow first-rounder, Precious Achiuwa. But back is a slew of talent including top-40r four-star and current leading scorer, Boogie Ellis. Ellis and his talented classmates were joined this offseason by Virginia Tech prized transfer, Landers. So far in South Dakota that squad picked up a fairly easy win against perennial NCAA tourney squad, St. Mary's, before dropping their next contest to the Charles Bassey-led Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (note: Bassey was a top-10 recruit according to 247 Sports in the class of 2018).

Last season the Tigers were an elite defensive unit, ranking first nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage, but needed every bit of that to bail out an offense that struggled throughout the year and finished dead last in the American Conference in offensive efficiency (yes, even behind ECU, Tulane and South Florida). So far through two contests they look improved on that side of the ball thanks largely to Ellis' eight of 13 start from deep and the offense's combined 20 total turnovers through two games.

One potential red flag however may be in how the Tigers have looked inside the arc. Memphis finished just 43.1% of their shots inside the arc against St. Mary's, a team that ranked 233rd nationally in two-point D the previous season and connected on just 39.1% of their deuces against the Hilltoppers, a team that finished 317th nationally in interior D the previous season. Add 58.3% shooting from the free throw stripe and early on the Tigers may resemble a bit of a "live by the three, die by the three" type of group.

VCU ran into a second tough defense on Thanksgiving, but this time weren't able to do enough from long range to really challenge their Big 12 opponent. The Rams hit just three of their 21 attempts from distance (14.3%) and despite pulling within three in the second half, just couldn't put enough consistent offense together to pull up what would've been a monster upset win. Still, there were some bright spots even in the loss. Rhoades and Co. continued with their deep bench approach to continue to find out exactly what they are working with this season. The Rams played nine players double-digit minutes with two more missing that mark by a matter of seconds, the highlight of which perhaps coming from freshman Jamir Watkins, who scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds (three on the offensive glass) in just 12 minutes of action. He joined Corey Douglas as the Rams only two players with a 100+ offensive rating in the loss.

While his sample may be a borderline microscopic 21 total minutes, Watkins leads the team early in player efficiency rating at 24.9, leads all Rams in win shares per 40 minutes and is the team's most active rebounder with a team-high 15.2% total rebound percentage and passes the eye test that no doubt VCU's opponent yesterday, Bob Huggins, saw when he attempted to recruit Watkins himself to West Virginia.

Through two games it's been a solid showing for this young group in the black and gold. Some minor tweaks to minutes played and I think the Rams are very capable of pulling off yet another upset tonight.

For starters, VCU limiting Memphis inside -- as I hinted was possible throughout this post -- would go a long way toward pulling off a win. The Rams have held their first two opponents to just 46.5% inside the arc so far including a fair performance against a Utah State team that finished 35th nationally in two-point offense last season. If they do that, I'm of the opinion that it will be hard for Memphis to keep their current pace from distance. Outside of that, VCU clearly needs to find some consistent shot-making from distance outside of Bones. The reality is the Rams have played big minutes for a number of guys who do not have a great history of hitting threes. Junior KeShawn Curry leads the team in minutes so far this season and is a career 20.5% three-point shooter. After Bones Hyland's 28.5 minutes comes Vince Williams next in the line of three most played and his career clip from distance sits at just 23.8%. Ace Baldwin ranks fourth in minutes (he's 1-2 from deep) followed by sophomore Tre Clark who so far is a 18.7% career three-point shooter. Anyone see the problem there? The numbers suggest the Rams will need Baldwin to be a three-point marksmen alongside longtime friend Hyland or we need to see a three-point breakout soon from someone else who has yet to show that so far.

Kenpom: 74-69 VCU loss with a 31% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 9PM at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, SD

Watch: ESPN2
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Mat Shelton-Eide
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