VCU Rams Game Preview and Q&A

Posted In News - By Alan Kelly On Wednesday, February 4th, 2015 With 0 Comments

Today is the day that George Mason fans have circled since the schedule was released in August: the 18th-ranked VCU Rams (17-4, 7-1 A10) make their first trip to Fairfax since Sherrod Wright daggered them in February 2012. Everyone in Mason Nation should be at the Patriot Center for the 7 pm tip-off on Wednesday night, but if you’re out of the area, the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.

After a year apart, the Patriots (7-13, 2-6 A10) lone meeting with the Rams in A10 conference play last season was a 71-57 loss in Richmond. Paul Hewitt’s squad performed better than many expected, keeping the game close until the final minutes as then-freshman Marquise Moore and company handled “havoc” with something approaching poise. The successful offensive game plan from a season ago will have to be replicated and improved if the Patriots intend to hand VCU their fourth straight loss in Fairfax. One mistake that can’t be repeated from a season ago: the Patriots put the Rams on the free throw line 39 times, while only earning 16 trips of their own.

The big news for the Rams over the weekend was the loss of Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury. Weber was leading the country in steal rate for the fourth straight year, and was just twelve steals short of the NCAA career mark when he tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in Saturday’s home loss to the Richmond Spiders. One of Weber’s career highlights came at the expense of the Patriots a season ago:

Tonight’s game will be the sixth time the Patriots have hosted a nationally ranked team at the Patriot Center, and the third time since joining the Atlantic 10 a season ago.

Earlier this week, I asked Mat Shelton-Eide (@MatSheltonEide) of to answer a few questions about the Rams and especially the anticipated effects of Weber’s injury. Let’s start with the big story this week: the loss of senior guard Briante Weber to injury in Saturday’s loss to Richmond. How big of an impact will his absence have for the Rams, offensively, defensively, and emotionally?

Mat: Losing Weber never helps. The guy was a legit National Defensive Player of the Year candidate, not to mention one of the top assist men in the league this season. I do however think VCU has the depth to help make that loss a little less noticeable than if it were to happen to other teams in this conference.

Emotionally he was clearly the vocal leader of this team, and while he’ll no longer be that on the court, he’s not dead, he’ll still be a major factor on the sidelines. I think there’s also the rallying aspect of the whole thing that could oddly work as an emotional positive for VCU. Guys want to win really bad for Bri (hell I want to win really bad for Bri).

Defensively you lose the player who was your identity. Bri was in people’s heads, and there is no better example of this than when I’d see him get switched up on what looked like mismatches. He would get picked at the top of the key then have to defend much larger players. I kid you not, teams never passed to the larger players when Bri was on them, obviously because he possesses an ability to steal the ball like no other player I’ve ever seen. It’s an odd skill but if you’ve seen as much of it in action as I have you learn just how amazing it is.

Offensively we’ve got two really talented young guys in freshman Johnny Williams, who’s a “true point guard”, and sophomore JeQuan Lewis, who is more of a combo guard. JeQuan’s production has taken a dip this season but he is capable of putting points on you in a hurry and is more of a threat to hurt you from deep than Bri — more of a threat to score in general. Williams isn’t a shooter at all but is the fastest player on the team and once he gets some more experience I think he has a ridiculously high ceiling. I think both players perhaps do a better job of getting into the lane than Bri for buckets or easy dunks for our bigs, but on the negative side they have both struggled with turnovers.

Ultimately I’m optimistic however because the last time we played without Bri this season we beat a top-100 team (Tennessee) by 16 points, turning them over 19 times. On a personal note I just have to add how heartbroken I am for the guy. To see his career ended so close to the all-time steals record (12 away, which he could realistically have done in a minimum of two games), just kills me. He had his issue this offseason but I promise you, he’s really a great guy who I really root for. He’s faced MUCH bigger challenges in life than this knee injury, so make no mistake, he is far from done as a basketball player. JeQuan Lewis is expected to start at point guard, but who will take the bulk of Weber’s minutes? Lewis, Jonathan Williams, and Melvin Johnson have all seen some time at the point for VCU this season.

Mat: My gut says the biggest beneficiary in terms of minutes is Lewis, but knowing how Shaka coaches, I think there is a group of players who all see an increase. Lewis, Williams and Doug Brooks, all of whom boast steals percentages of 3.5% or better (those are great numbers). I’ll add however that the game we played without Bri to open our season, JeQuan was hurt early and Williams fouled out in no time, leaving a platoon of Treveon Graham and Jordan Burgess to run the point. Graham ran some point with USA Basketball a couple of summers ago so he’s got experience and Burgess really impressed me against Tennessee. Those are two large point guards as well. How important does fellow senior guard Treveon Graham become without Weber? The preseason first team all-A10 pick is currently fourth in the league in scoring at 16.8 ppg and an impressive 12th in rebounding at 6.7 rpg.

Mat: I think where this effects Graham the most is from a team leadership perspective. When the going gets tough it’s usually Graham the Rams go to anyway, but it was also nice to have Weber out there as a senior as well. The toughest part with that is Graham isn’t as vocal as Weber. In my opinion more of Graham is never a bad thing. What else should Mason fans know about VCU’s starting five? What are some typical signs that indicate whether the game is going according to plan or not?

Mat: Overall I think the thing Mason fans should know is there is so much more to this team than a full-court trapping defense. That’s what VCU is known for but I couldn’t tell you the last time we turned a team over more than three times for easy buckets. I’m sure we have (possibly against California U. of Pa.), but it’s not something that is happening all the time. VCU presses a ton, but most of that press is designed to speed you up, trim a bunch of time off your shot clock, physically wear you down, etc. When we get a turnover in the backcourt for a layup or open three, that’s a bonus, but I think fans expect us to turn teams over in the backcourt a lot more than we really do. I think the best sign for VCU always is if the Rams are hitting shots early, something we haven’t done very well lately. It’s hard to press if you aren’t making shots and we’re a much better team when we get to press. VCU played the toughest out of conference schedule in the entire country this season. How well has that experience prepared the Rams for Atlantic 10 and NCAA tournament play?

Mat: Tough to say. We looked better against some of our tough non-conference opponents than against some A-10 teams who have struggled (Duquesne and SLU in particular). I think it helps with the big games but maybe hurts you against the lower ranked opponents. You know you can beat quality teams, which can’t hurt you when you’re playing at Rhode Island and they are out for blood, but when you head to Duquesne and are playing in front of 50% Dukes fans and 50% Ram fans, I think maybe that gives you a false sense of security because the difference between the best teams in college basketball and the not-so-good teams really isn’t as great as one would imagine (see: Columbia leading Kentucky at Rupp at the half). Is this the year Shaka Smart finally wins a conference regular season? Is that accomplishment something that’s important to the VCU program at this point, or is it just noise along the way to March?

Mat: I think that’s mostly noise. Would it be nice? Yes. But ask a Saint Joseph’s fan if they’d trade the experience of lifting the trophy in Brooklyn for a regular season title (I know I would). We’ve won a number of Sunbelt and CAA tournaments during my time as a Ram fan. I couldn’t tell you how many of those seasons we won the regular season title. I also think that stuff is overrated in conferences with unbalanced schedules. For example, VCU plays GW, Davidson, Mason and Richmond twice and had to play at Rhode Island. Rhode Island on the other hands gets SLU, Fordham, Saint Joseph’s, UMass and La Salle twice and hosts VCU. Who has the advantage there? One program (VCU) has home-and-homes with three top-100 teams, two of which are top-50 and has their tie-breaker on the road. The other (Rhody) has home-and-homes with only one top-100 teams (La Salle at 99) and has six games via home-and-homes against teams ranked 243 and below. The things that are important to this particular VCU fan are conference tourney trophies (we’ve lost back-to-back) and success in the NCAA tournament.

masonhoops: Thank you for your time, Mat.

Mat: See you all Wednesday night!

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About - Alan Kelly is a 2010 and 2013 graduate of George Mason University and a former member of the Patriot Platoon. He had the memorable experience of being in the middle of the college decision process as George Mason's Final Four run unfolded. He currently resides in Northern Virginia.

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