Game Preview: VCU v Penn State [INSIDER]

After a successful trip to South Dakota this past week, the Rams play their first true road game in Happy Valley. VCU enters tonight's contest having notched two top-100 victories including an 11-point top-50 win over Memphis. They'll look for yet another resume-booster when taking on last season sixth-place Big 10 finisher, Penn State.
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VCU (2-1)

Nittany Lion basketball had not been synonymous with success, but were in the process of changing all that lately under Pat Chambers. Chambers had the Happy Valley squad a top-50 team these last few seasons, but due to an investigation into his past conduct, stepped down as head coach in October, leaving recent Duquesne coach, Jim Ferry, to take over in the interim. Ferry is off to a 1-0 start, picking up an opening-season win over the Keydets of VMI. The Lions grabbed the 21-point victory, but not before taking just a one-point lead into the half.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise however, that the Nittany Lions got off to a slow start in that one. Penn State replaces 2020 leading scorer, Lamar Stevens (17.6 ppg, 6.9 rebs), as well as Richmond native via Indiana transfer, Curtis "Cujo" Jones (6.2 ppg) and leading rebounder, Mike Watkins (9.7 ppg, 7.6 rebs). Still, Penn State managed the win with a balanced shot selection (36 attempts both inside and outside the arc) and by forcing 25 VMI turnovers.

The level of havoc wasn't something Penn State was known for last season. The Nittany Lions ranked just 180th nationally in turnover percentage defense despite ranking 64th in steals percentage, but still finished top-25 nationally in overall adjusted defensive efficiency despite finishing 11th in the Big 10 on that side of the ball.

This year's Lions look to employ a fairly short bench. Ferry's squad played just seven players double-digit minutes in the win against outmatched VMI.

They are also considerably smaller than the lineups VCU has seen so far to star the year. Penn State plays a fairly undersized backcourt with 6'1 Jamari Wheeler joining 6' Samuel Sessions and a front court that saw action from two 6'4 players with the only true big coming in the form of 6'9 240 senior, John Harrar.

VCU threw the kitchen sink at a talented Crossover Classic field this past week and came out of the event as the third-place finisher and the owners of a perhaps surprising 2-1 record for such a young team. Nine Rams have averaged double-digit minutes to start the season with two freshmen not far off. It's an "army" approach that head coach Mike Rhoades has enjoyed since taking over the reigns at VCU (and perhaps even long via his time as Associate Head Coach), seeing the Rams currently rank 58th nationally in bench minutes despite playing a schedule that hasn't offered your typical bench minutes opportunities (meaning "we're up 20, time to dump the bench"). It's been a true full team start to the season.

Bones Hyland leads the Rams balanced attack with his 16ppg average, but is joined in the backcourt by an extremely talented group that includes breakout "true point guard", Ace Baldwin, a freshmen with an extremely impressive 44% assist rate, as well as this year's definition of havoc, sophomore Tre Clark who has a team-high and Briante Weber-like 7.4% steals percentage. Add in serious front court production and you get the start we've seen so far from the Rams despite so much to still figure out.

One thing it seems VCU may be figuring out, is that somehow, someway, sophomore big man, Hason Ward, makes things happen when on the floor. Ward played a career-high 21 minutes in VCU's win over a Memphis team featuring the No.10 recruiting in the 2020 class, 6'10 big man, Moussa Cisse. Ward posted a team-best 125 offensive rating, scored nine points, dished two assists, grabbed seven rebounds and had a game-high two blocks in the win.

Ward has helped make up for the massive hole left with the transfer loss of rising senior, Marcus Santos-Silva. He's been the primary backup to senior Corey Douglas, who has been rock-solid for the Rams to start the year, boasting a team-best 136.1 offensive rating and a legit 8.6% blocks percentage, making both VCU primary five men legit shot-blocking threats for a Rams defense that looks to bounce back this season after struggling somewhat to end the 2020 campaign.

With only a one-game sample (against VMI), it's a little too early to insert our statistical tale of the tape. Check back for these soon!

Captain Obvious here, but VCU (and all teams) clearly fair better off when their highest volume players find success offensively. The Rams lone loss this season came in a game against West Virginia where VCU's four most played players (Hyland, Curry, Baldwin and Williams) all posted sub-100 offensive ratings. You can get a bad game from one...maybe even two of those, and pull out a win against decent teams, but you can't expect to beat top-100 and top-50 teams when your majority minutes played are inefficient -- although credit a lot of that to a stout WVU defense (no surprise there, it's sorta what they do). The moral of the story there is someone, preferably multiple people, have to make plays.

Offensively Penn State wasn't lights out last season, ranking 177th nationally in effective field goal percentage offense. They didn't get to the stripe often and didn't even really dominate the boards. What they did do well, was hold on to the ball. The Nittany Lions didn't shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers, ranking top-20 nationally in turnover percentage offense. But here's a pretty surprising stat: only ONE Big 10 team ranked top-100 nationally in turnover percentage defense last season and that was the Purdue Boilermakers at 80th nationally. This year's PSU offense has a primary backcourt of Jamari Wheeler, who had a ridiculously-high 32.7% offensive turnover rate last season and Binghamton transfer, Sam Sessions, who averaged 3.4 turnovers per game for his American East team that ranked 333rd nationally on the season. VCU's havoc defense on paper presents a challenge the likes of which these Nittany Lions haven't seen in a good while. Let's hope that works out great for the Rams tonight.

Kenpom: 74-70 VCU loss with a 36% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 5PM at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, PA

Watch: FS1
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Mat Shelton-Eide
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