Game Preview: VCU v Mount St. Mary's [INSIDER]

VCU has done what a number of college hoops teams have yet to accomplish in this very weird basketball season, which is to say they have simply stayed healthy to make it to their first home game. After a solid start to the season and a 2-2 record against the kenpom top-100, VCU welcomes 250 total fans and the 252nd-ranked Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary's to the Siegel Center this afternoon.
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VCU (2-2)

Dan Engelstad's Mountaineers are looking for their first winning season since taking over for former VCU assistant and current GW head coach, Jamion Christian. Engelstad's group finished at 11-21 on the year this past season with a 7-11 Northeast Conference record that had them in the bottom half of the league. Engelstad returns everyone from that team and will use today's challenge against VCU to hopefully prepare his team for an improved year in NEC action.

After a 7-point season-opening win against kenpom No.336, Morgan State, The Mount's degree of difficulty has notched up with first a 6-point loss against the Navy Midshipmen, followed by an 18-point defeat at the hands of kenpom No.33, Maryland, a game the Mountaineers actually took a brief 2-point lead in with under nine minutes to play before the Terps blew the game completely open.

Returning so many players, it's easy to use last season's statistics to get an idea of what to expect with this group and it's safe to say this past season saw a balanced amount of struggles on both sides of the ball for Mount St. Mary's where Englestad's group ranked 281st and 283rd on offense and defense.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness however, was their ability to efficiently put the ball in the basket.

MSM finished 314th nationally in effective field goal percentage at a 46.2% clip, a rate that was only slightly better in the NEC at an even 47%. Last season that effort was led by leading scorer, 5'8 Damian Chong Qui. Chong Qui averaged a team-high 12.2 points and shot a solid 36.6% from three-point range. He returns with guards Jalen Gibbs (11.2 ppg) and Vado Morse (10.8) as the team's returning double-digit scorers, both Gibbs and Morse having a bit of a love with the deep ball last season despite their inability to consistently knock it down.

Chong Qui hit a respectable 37% of his threes this past season while Gibbs is off to a 42.9% start this season, up 10% from his junior year.

So far this season the team has relied on that three ball, taking 42.5% of their attempts from beyond the arc compared to 38.8% at the rim and 18.8% via two-point jumpers.

Defensively the Mountaineers were solid at defending inside the arc on the season (48.1%, but a number that jumped up to 54% against top-100 teams), but finished 292nd nationally in three-point defense.

MSM starts a very small three-guard trio that goes 5'8, 6' and 6'3 with two 6'9 juniors eating up the majority of minutes in the paint. They'll likely play about seven deep today against VCU, bringing a pair of freshmen forwards off the bench.

VCU has played what seems like a million players this season, but over the past week have seen that number trimmed due to injury. Promising sophomore forward, Jarren McAllister, will miss the season with a torn ACL while junior wing, KeShawn Curry, is reportedly suffering a shoulder injury that will likely have hime as a game-time decision over these next few contests. Still, to a VCU team that ranks 55th nationally (out of 353 teams in bench minutes), the black and gold appear well-prepared for that news.

VCU has played an extremely challenging schedule for such a young group figuring out a rotation. The Rams' strength of schedule currently ranks 24th nationally heading into today's contest. They've played four consecutive teams that finished top-50 nationally on the defensive end this past season.

Despite that fact, VCU has done a great job finishing inside against an extremely talented group of opposing bigs. The Rams 52.6% two-point percentage ranks 84th nationally, no easy feat against that group, but the black and gold would enjoy some three-point success soon to go with that. VCU has struggled from deep so far, connecting on just 29.8% of their threes early. That attack will seemingly go as the overall percentage of sophomore star, Bones Hyland, goes. After a 5-10 start to the season from distance, Hyland has hit three of his last 19 shots from distance.

Defensively the Rams rank 36th nationally thanks to what we've come to expect at VCU: a ton of steals and some nice half court defense.

A major player note: VCU's freshmen have been borderline sensational and one in particular drawing high praise is starting point guard, Adrian "Ace" Baldwin, who currently boasts an assist rate of 42.1%. That ranks 32nd nationally and is CURRENTLY just ahead of even the senior season assist rate of VCU legend, Eric Maynor. We have a lot of season left in front of us (knock on wood for that in the COVID era), but in theory, weaker opposing defenses combined with some added maturity and the gelling of the Rams' offense, should not hurt that number.

The Rams win this is they come locked in and not overlooking the Mountaineers after what has been an extremely challenging start in terms of competition. It's VCU's first home game, albeit a weird one that will have just 250 spectators in the building, so possible to expect some home-opening nerves? Maybe. But if VCU can find the interior scoring success they found against a number of brutal defense recently, those nerves should quickly disappear. Add some three-point makes to that and what may start the day as jitters could quickly turn into an adrenaline rush resulting in what on paper SHOULD be a fun afternoon for this team.

Matchup to watch: 6'3 185 senior Jalen Gibbs against 6'7 205 freshman Jamir Watkins. Gibbs ranked 10th on MSM this past season in defensive box plus/minus at -1.7. He may very likely be matched up a ton with VCU's promising 6'7 freshman who saw a team-high 15:53 second half minutes against recently Penn State following the shoulder injury to starting small forward, KeShawn Curry. Anyone who has to speak to me on a daily basis knows I am annoyingly-high on Watkins' potential. The Trenton, NJ native scored a game-tying bucket in traffic in VCU's recent buzzer-beater loss, getting to the rack against a 6'9 240 senior with the game on the line. His 17.4 player efficiency rating currently ranks 3rd on the team. I'm hoping for a statistical breakout from Watkins today and a preview of what's to come from what I think can be an extremely exciting career for Watkins at VCU.

Kenpom: 73-57 VCU win with a 92% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 2PM at the Stuart C Siegle Center in Richmond, VA

Watch: ESPN+
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Mat Shelton-Eide
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