Game Preview: VCU v Saint Joseph's [INSIDER]

Conference play gets underway today, or with at least one game canceled already today...attempts to get underway, with the Rams taking a trip the the city of brotherly love for a conference-opening matchup against the struggling Hawks of Saint Joseph's. VCU enters the game as a fairly comfortable favorite, but after a brutal non-conference schedule that ranked No.1 in the nation, could Saint Joseph's have a final batch of bad news in them for the VCU in 2020?
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VCU (7-2)

Second-year head coach, Billy Lange, is looking for some sign of turnaround this year after his first edition Hawks struggled to an abysmal 6-26 record last year with just two victories in Atlantic 10 play. While SJU has yet to notch a win so far this season, they have certainly challenged themselves. Three of the Hawks' five opponents currently rank top-8 or better on kenpom (No.3 Villanova, No.7 Kansas and No.8 Tennessee) with No.65 Auburn very much resembling a similar challenge the Hawks may face from their top level A-10 competition, that game offering up some hope with SJU losing in overtime, 96-91. What complicates any predictions and one's ability to chalk all the losses up to strength of schedule however, is an 81-77 L at the hands of kenpom No.152 Drexel, a game in which the Dragons scored a season-high 81 points. And with that, highlights perhaps the biggest glaring weakness for this SJU team: a Swiss cheese defense that ranks 258th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

The Hawks 54.9% effective field goal percentage defense is even worse than last season's, albeit against that brutal opening schedule. SJU has been destroyed on the boards when they aren't getting stops and have yet to bail themselves out with forced turnovers either.

On the offensive end however, the Hawks have shown a glimmer of hope. While they have been absolutely abysmal at finishing threes -- something they are extremely dependent on with just about half their attempts coming from beyond the arc -- they've been almost 5% better at finishing inside the arc and have done a solid job of not turning it over, helping to boost their offensive efficiency to near-top-100 status at No.114 currently. A huge part of that has been the return of 6'8 stretch 4, Taylor Funk. The Lancaster, PA native has finished 72.7% of his attempts inside the arc and is a versatile weapon as a 34.6% career three-point shooter, on pace with his prolific 39.4% freshman season at 39.3% from deep so far on his 28 attempts.

Funk joins volume machine, Ryan Daly, a fifth-year senior who leads the team in scoring and rebounds at a 17.2-point, 6.2-rebound average.

The Hawks' other early standouts have been a pair of transfers, 6'4 sophomore Columbia transfer, Jack Forest (10 ppg) and 6'5 guard/forward via Xavier, Dahmir Bishop (9.6 ppg). Neither however, has found much consistency in efficiency. Bishop has posted four consecutive sub-80 offensive ratings (note: that's bad), while Forest has been a bit hit or miss, posting two solid games against Kansas and Auburn to introduce himself to Hawks fans, only to follow it up with an 0-8 performance from three in his next two contests, a series that included SJU's disappointing loss to Drexel.

What makes SJU dangerous: Again, these dudes take about half of their threes from beyond the arc. We know Funk can go nuclear from downtown, but while he's struggled out to a 17.4% senior 3p%, Daly had a number of huge games last season that included six makes from deep on three occasions. Add in a hit-or-miss Bishop (8-15, 53.3% his first two contests) and Forest (50% from deep in three of his five games as a Hawk) and there's potential there for serious danger.

The Rams flirted with disaster in their recent win over former CAA in-state rival JMU, watching a comfortable 15-point halftime lead fade into a one-point win that to Ram fans and coaches alike, felt very similar to a loss for a VCU team that has looked so surprisingly good to start the season against much tougher competition than the Dukes.

A win is a win as they say, but hopefully the black and gold will have solved the puzzle as to how such a bad JMU offense managed to hang 50 second half points on the Rams in VCU's most recent win. No doubt a huge part of that will be in tightening up the Rams' interior defense. After allowing just one team to shoot over 50% inside the arc on the year -- Utah State in the Rams season-opening win -- VCU has given up 52% shooting inside the arc to the likes of Western Carolina and JMU.

Overall though VCU's season numbers have to satisfy Ram fans. The black and gold rank 20th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency heading into today's contest and are sniffing the top-100 on the other side of the ball, needing to tighten up a turnover problem that helped keep JMU within striking distance in the second half of the Rams' recent win, VCU turning the ball over 17 times in the win.

In that win the Rams got a bit deeper, returning junior wing, KeShawn Curry, from injury that held him out the previous four contests. Curry posted one of his most efficient games of his career in his return, scoring 13 points on 5-7 shooting for a 132 offensive rating that is the second best of his career so far at VCU. Curry played 14 minutes in his return, while promising freshman, Jamir Watkins, played 18 minutes, a large role he helped carve out for himself in Curry's absence, coming off a career-high 15-point performance in 18 minutes the game before.

Watkins is a quarter of the extremely impressive freshman group for the Rams, posting a 62.3% true shooting percentage that ranks third on this year's team. He's on pace to earn A-10 All-Rookie honors alongside Ace Baldwin, who's 3.6 assist to turnover ratio currently ranks forth in this year's Atlantic 10.

Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 77.4, 74.8</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 64.7, SJU 92.2</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 54.4%, SJU 47.6%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 44.8%, SJU 54.9%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 34.2%, SJU 28%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 28.6%, SJU 38.1%</span>
2-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 56.2%, SJU 53.1%</span>

2-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 45.9%, SJU 53.6%</span>
Rebounds per game: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 34.4, SJU 31.4</span>
Turnover% Offense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">SJU 18.7%, VCU 20.3%</span>
Turnover% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 24.9%, SJU 17.4%</span>

It's all about a full 40 minutes of communication and intensity on D. The Hawks have shown no signs of being able to defend this season themselves, so the points should be there offensively if the Rams play as a team and not as a group of AAU heroes. The Hawks are going to let it fly from deep when they get a hold of the rock, so VCU must be locked in on that side of the ball to avoid what would be an ugly upset the black and gold want no part of.

Kenpom: 82-73 VCU win with a 79% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at noon at Hagan Arena in Philadelphia, PA

Watch: ESPN+

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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Licensed Virginia Realtor and part-time basketball writer. Co-founder of and
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Mat Shelton-Eide
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