Game Preview: VCU v UNC Asheville [INSIDER]

It gets real tomorrow. After dropping a head-scratching exhibition loss to DII Queens, the Rams will look to avoid their first official L of the season when hosting Big South returning champ, UNC Asheville. The Bulldogs come to the Stu after a 41-point exhibition win of their own, a game in which they hit 50% of their threes against NAIA unit, Montreat. But can a rebuilt Bulldogs team do the same in front of a hostile Siegel Center crowd against an angry Rams team coming off the toughest loss the program has seen in over a decade?

VCU (0-0)

The Bulldogs were coming off a great season and looked primed for another before a brutal offseason struck. First came the news of 2016 Big South Tournament MVP Dwayne Sutton (12 ppg, 7.7 rpg) transferring to Louisville, then another blow with the loss of leading scorer Dylan Smith (13.5 ppg) to Arizona. The two talented freshmen ranked No.1 and No.2 on the Bulldogs, joining senior Sam Hughes as three of the team's five double-digit scorers. Back however are starters Ahmad Thomas (11.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg), the team's best returning defender, as well as junior guard Kevin Vannatta, who returns as the team's main deep threat after connecting on 37 of his 98 attempts this past season. The Dogs own a preseason blowout win over Montreat College but will make a huge jump in weight class when visiting VCU on Friday. Despite hitting 50% of their attempts a week ago, UNCA returns a team that struggled this past season from deep. The Bulldogs connected on just 32.1% of their threes last year (284th nationally) while turning the ball over 18.6% of their possessions (215th). Defensively UNCA was lockdown on the perimeter, ranking fourth in the country in three-point D but struggled when opposing offenses got inside, giving up 52.1% shooting inside the arc to rank 300th nationally out of 351 teams. They helped offset that weakness with a defense that as we say around here, "wreaked havoc". UNCA turned teams over 22.2% of their possessions, outdoing even last year's Rams who ranked 18th nationally at the stat.

[caption id="attachment_18914" align="alignright" width="200"]<a href=""><img class="size-medium wp-image-18914" src="" alt="Justin Tillman finished with 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds in VCU's exhibition loss versus Queens." width="200" height="300" /></a> Justin Tillman finished with 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds in VCU's exhibition loss versus Queens.[/caption]

With relatively high expectations coming into this season that included a third place preseason A-10 spot and even a few votes in one of the two national polls, this season's outlook came into question during a flat performance a week ago and VCU's first DII exhibition loss since November 2005 (albeit against a Virginia Union team that was fresh off a Division II National Championship in '05 and headed back to that game where they would finish national runner-up). What makes things even more worrisome is head coach Will Wade's outlook delivered three days after the loss. "We knew we had some issues before all that came out on Friday night (referring to the Queens loss)", Wade commented. "We gotta figure it out. Right now we're a team that's up and down...right now we're a team that could lose to anybody or a team that could beat the best team on our schedule when we're fired out". Anybody starts Friday with a UNCA team that has plenty of questions to answer themselves. The Rams will need to play much better after turning the ball over 25 times while connecting on just 36.4% of their attempts on offense. VCU trailed DII Queens the majority of last week's game and gave up 48.3% shooting (47.8% from deep) in the loss. The Rams will once again get a favorable matchup against a much smaller team but will have to do a better job of taking advantage of that. Senior big and preseason A-10 All-Conference selection, Mo Alie-Cox, finished with just three attempts against Queens but did manage to get to the free throw stripe to finish the game with 11 total points. Alie-Cox will need his backcourt to do a better job of both finding him and holding on to the ball. Starters Lewis and Williams combined for just four assists to 13 combined turnovers. No player on VCU's team had a positive assist to turnover ratio in the Rams' loss versus Queens.

TALE OF THE TAPE (2015-16 stats)[/HEADING=3]
Scoring Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 77.2, UNCA 75.1</span>
Scoring Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UNCA 68, VCU 68.5</span>
Effective Field Goal% Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 51%, UNCA 49.6%</span>
Effective Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 49.2%, UNCA 49.3%</span>
3-Point Field Goal%: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 35.2%, UNCA 32.1%</span>
3-Point Field Goal% Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UNCA 29.6%, VCU 33.8%</span>
<span style="color: #ff0000;"><span style="color: #000000;">Rebounds per game:</span> UNCA 37.6, VCU 37.4</span>
Turnover Percentage Defense: <span style="color: #ff0000;">UNCA 22.2%, VCU 21.4%</span>
Turnover Percentage Offense: <span style="color: #339966;">VCU 16.3%, UNCA 18.6%</span>

VCU has a legit size/skill advantage in the paint, but unlike in their game against Queens, can/will they use it? UNC Asheville's strength lies in their backcourt, so if VCU's guards can simply match their play (although in theory VCU should own that battle, something they did not do against Queens) the Rams SHOULD open their season with a win. Once again, there is no player on the opposing team that should be able to bang with the likes of Alie-Cox, Tillman and Hamdy, meaning UNC Asheville will likely attempt to force VCU into a game of small ball (which the Rams will have to defend). It's up to VCU to make sure they don't allow their home-opener to come into the Siegel Center and tell the black and gold how things are going down. I've said all offseason that VCU's trio of Lewis, Alie-Cox and Tillman give the Rams their highest ceiling, so getting the three locked in tonight could go a long way in erasing the memory of last week's heartbreak.

The Bulldogs are playing on the road but with house money. Asheville had just one top-100 kenpom win last year, a road upset at Georgetown. They were also extremely competitive in their 12 losses last season, losing just two by double-digits (blowouts to Sweet 16 participant Texas A&amp;M and eventual National Champ, Villanova). They won't be intimidated tonight. Queens drew up the blueprint, which is simply to turn VCU's guards over and win the battle of the backcourt. The Rams guards failed to both guard the three and defend against penetration against the Royals and will need a much-improved performance Friday night or things get messy on our forum tonight.

Kenpom: 81-63 VCU win with a 94% chance of a Rams victory.

Game tips at 7PM at EJ Wade Arena at the Stuart C Siegel Center with 4PM pregame tailgate surrounding the Stu on both Harrison and Marshall streets.

Watch: CBS 6.3, Official game day headquarters are Buffalo Wild Wings locations at Virginia Center and downtown on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom.
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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