Game Preview: VCU v Princeton - NIT First Round

The show goes on. While the Rams time in DC was shorter than hoped, the black and gold will get an opportunity to continue playing after accepting an NIT bid this year in what is a loaded NIT field featuring four Atlantic 10 teams. VCU will start their path against a fairly familiar opponent, taking on Mitch Henderson's Princeton Tigers squad, a rematch six years in the making following VCU's 81-70 win over the Ivy League squad back in November of 2016. The Rams got out to an insanely slow start in that one, going down 16-0 early before rallying to tie it at halftime and eventually pulling out the win. VCU will hope to avoid that same kind of start to begin their path to Madison Square Garden this evening.
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VCU (21-9)

Princeton finds themselves in the NIT via the automatic bid they earned by winning the Ivy League regular season before falling to Yale in their conference tournament. The Tigers have matched their best start ever under Henderson, doing so with their highest ranked offense (33rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency) in Henderson's 11 years as head coach.

The Tigers bring the nation's fifth-best shooting team into the Stu, but have yet to face a defense anywhere near the caliber they'll see against VCU's fourth-ranked D tonight. And that's what makes this Princeton team somewhat hard to predict. The Tigers shooting numbers are off the charts, but they've played just one kenpom top-100 team all season, defeating Frank Martin's 97th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, 66-62, in their first Division I matchup of the season. Martin's group is a bit of a poor man's VCU, ranking 32nd nationally in defensive efficiency and like VCU, struggles a bit on the other side of the court (200th in adjusted offensive efficiency). The Tigers posted a pretty impressive 57.3% true shooting percentage in that matchup, hitting 35% of their 31 threes and 15 of their 24 free throw attempts. They are the definition of a "live by the three, die by the three" group, taking 45.6% of their shots from beyond the arc and are the 11th-most three-point dependent team in the nation.

About half of the Tigers team has entered the transfer portal already, but those players will play in tonight's matchup. The Tigers are extremely dependent on their core group, playing the 14th fewest bench minutes of any team in the country (think St. Bonaventure type of rotation). That group however, is extremely experienced, led by three seniors and two juniors. Tosan Evbuomwan (15.8 ppg, 6.5 rebs), Jaelin Llewellyn (15.8 ppg, 39.6% 3p%), Ethan Wright (14.6 ppg, 40% 3p%), Ryan Langborg (10.5 ppg, 39.2% 3p%) and Drew Frigberg (9.5 ppg, 40% 3p%) dominate those minutes/possessions for the Tigers, a relatively small lineup that has struggled to defend this season. Despite their lack of beef in the paint, the Tigers do a great job of limiting second-chance points from their opponents, checking in at No.28 nationally in defensive rebound percentage.

Defensively they are one of third worst shot-blocking team in the country and with that, teams tend to have some success inside against them. Also with a limited bench, they really prefer to avoid foul trouble and do just that, ranking 11th nationally in defensive free throw rate. They also don't turn teams over at all, ranking 320th in the nation in turnover percentage D.

Of Princeton's 23 wins, 18 against come against teams ranked 200th or worse by kenpom. All six of their losses have come to teams outside of the top-100, their worst in terms of ranking coming to No.192 Cornell by five, their worst in point differential via a 12-point road L to No.166 Monmouth. Five of their wins were by one basket. So that's really the story in a way in this one. Princeton has put together a nice record, but are stepping up in weight class big-time tonight in the Stu. When you can shoot like they do it makes you a threat to beat anyone, but can VCU's 4th-ranked D give the Tigers their biggest test of the season? On paper that at least is what is SUPPOSED to happen.

Speaking of experienced teams who play Princeton offenses, VCU's A-10 tourney was snuffed out in game-1 by, let's be honest, a very old Spiders team who had essentially underachieved much of the season leading up to that point. That same Spider group was ranked in the top-50 two seasons ago, then stumbled in what would've been their final year in a normal era, but due to COVID cancelations, that group of players were allowed to return for a full fifth year and clearly made the best of it against a VCU team that played two underclassmen guard 29+ minutes each. The Rams would've likely needed to win one more game after that to be in the bubble discussion, but find themselves in the NIT tonight with an opportunity to keep playing and get more experience for a team with so much young talent.

The Rams were -5 in turnover margin in that game and were outscored by 20 at the free throw stripe, two stats that highlight VCU's key struggles this season. The black and gold have the 12th-worse turnover offense in the country, effectively canceling our their 4th-best turnover D and are the 29th-most foul prone team in the land. Luckily their opponent tonight rarely turns teams over, but VCU has had no issues in helping their opponents there with a deep catalogue of self-inflicted turnover methods they have developed over the course of the season.

Another interesting thing to watch is VCU's rotation. The Rams started the season with a bit more of that "army" approach we've heard about this year, playing nine players double-digit minutes in the win against Syracuse and nine in the win at Vanderbilt, but have seen that down to just six players in their last two contests, both losses.

One thing that potentially helps VCU during this hopeful NIT run, is this is seemingly the healthiest the Rams have been all season. VCU has missed a number of key players throughout the season, but as far as we know, enter the NIT at full strength.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">PU 79.9, VCU 66.1</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 61.3, PU 69.4</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">PU 51%, VCU 51%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 43.8%, PU 50.8%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #ff0000;">PU 38.5%, VCU 34.3%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 27.5%, PU 33.3%</span>
2-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #ff0000;">PU 55.9%, VCU 50.8%</span>

2-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 45.2%, PU 51.2%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #ff0000;">PU 35.6, VCU 32.5</span>
Turnover% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">PU 14.5%, VCU 22.2%</span>
Turnover% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 25.2%, PU 15.7%</span>

...If they defend like the 4th-best defense in the nation the numbers say they are. Obviously the Richmond Spiders play a very similar style of offense as VCU should see tonight and they hung 75 on the Rams, hitting something like 70% of their threes in the first half. On paper this Princeton offense (literally) has been better than that Spiders team, albeit against a much weaker schedule. VCU earned a reputation for their D all year, but it failed them in their last two games, both losses that effectively relegated them to the NIT (if VCU defends better at SLU, instead of a 4-point loss they pull out a win, earn the top seed in the A-10 and are likely an NCAA tournament team this week). The Rams need to ride their D, hopefully all the way to Madison Square Garden, while making smart, efficient plays on offense, particularly in attacking the basket tonight against a Princeton D that has been very beatable there.

Kenpom: 74-67 VCU win with a 74% chance of a Rams victory.

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

Watch: ESPNU

Listen: <a href=";pname=1248&amp;campid=header&amp;cid=index.html">Fox Sports 910 AM &amp; 98.5 FM</a>
Live Tweets: <a href="">@VCURamNation</a>

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Mat Shelton-Eide
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