VCU Rams Preview and Q&A
Tonight at 7pm, George Mason (9-18, 3-11 A10) will host VCU (20-7, 12-2) in one of the most anticipated home matchups of the season. More than a little pride will be on the line for the Patriots, who have won 3 of the last 4 meetings in Fairfax, but have not beaten their former CAA rivals at all since February 2012. A season ago, the Rams defeated the Patriots 71-60 in Fairfax (for the first time since 2007), led by Melvin Johnson’s 17 points. Jalen Jenkins led Mason with 15 points, Shevon Thompson pulled down 16 boards, and Isaiah Jackson posted his first double-double with 12 points and 10 boards.
This season, George Mason faced VCU in Richmond all the way back on January 2, which must seem like an eternity ago to both first-year coaching staffs. In that game, a 71-47 Rams victory, Melvin Johnson had 22 points and Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed added 16 for the Rams, while Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess were held to just two points each. The Patriots, who trailed by six with 14 minutes to play before going cold, were led by Marquise Moore’s 14 points, and committed 22 turnovers.
In order to get the win on Wednesday, the Patriots will need a full game from Marquise Moore, who returned from his ankle injury to play a rusty 22 minutes against UMass on Sunday, in his first action since February 3. They will also need to do a better job of containing Hamdy-Mohmmed than they did in the previous meeting, when the 6’9″ Egyptian scored a season-high 16 points. In January’s loss in Richmond, Hamdy-Mohamed got to the rim largely unopposed in the second half, while the Patriot frontcourt was held in check nearly the entire game and often did not touch the ball. Much more will be expected of the improving Shevon Thompson (2 points) and Jalen Jenkins (scoreless) this time around.
|Three-Point Shooting in Recent Losses|
|Dayton||14-22 (63.6%)||7-19 (36.8%)|
|URI||12-21 (57.1%)||4-15 (25.0%)|
|SLU||9-20 (45.0%)||6-26 (23.1%)|
|UMass||7-22 (31.8%)||1-18 (5.6%)|
|Total||42-85 (49.4%)||18-78 (23.1%)|
Equally as important, George Mason’s young guards will need to flip the script on three-point shooting. While they held VCU in check (4-15) in that previous meeting, opposing teams have shot 42-85 (49.4%) from behind the arc in the Patriots’ last four losses, and are 11th in the Atlantic 10 play in three-point defense for the season. Likewise on offense, they have shot just 18-78 (23.1%) in those four losses, and are dead last in the Atlantic 10 play in three-point defense. The Davidson game was the only recent abberation, and even then, the Patriots only benefited statistically because the Wildcats missed wide open shots. Expect guarding the perimeter to continue to be a focus for Dave Paulsen and his staff. And even though Paulsen’s offense is generating lots of open attempts, one wonders if they can afford to continue taking 19 or 20 three-point attempts per game.
To learn what’s changed for VCU since that game, I asked Mat Shelton-Eide (@MatSheltonEide) of VCURamNation.com to answer a few questions about the Rams.
AK: How much has the VCU lineup changed in the last two months?
MS: Outside of JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson, VCU’s lineup is a very fluid situation. Wade leans on those three the most (barring foul trouble). Unlike previous coaches however, Will Wade is not afraid to really mix it up and throw curveballs depending on matchup. For example, after losing at UMass Wade went from barely using Johnny Williams to making him a starter the past three games where he’s played 20-plus minutes in each of those contests. VCU scored 83 points against a very tough Rhode Island defense in that game (about 20 points more than Rhody gives up per contest) so apparently it was a pretty smart move.
I’ve covered VCU basketball since 2007 and watched it much longer than that and this year’s roster/rotation is easily the hardest to figure out from any VCU team I’ve seen. You just never know who Wade is going to put in there and how he plans to use them, which clearly has to make the Rams that much harder to prepare for.
AK: Sophomore forward Justin Tillman has been emerging as a star off the bench for the Rams, but he’s also been battling a knee injury. What’s the latest on his status, and how important is he to the Rams success?
MS: Justin “tweaked” his knee in the first half of UMass game (played 7 minutes there) but came back for all three of VCU’s games after that and averaged 11 points in just 16 minutes those last three contests. I’ve been the biggest fan of him since basically he hit campus and it’s easy to see why when you watch him finish around the basket. Justin leads the A-10 in field goal percentage during conference games at an amazing 73.8% shooting, has the No. 1 A-10 offensive rating and is the No. 1 offensive rebounder in conference play, grabbing 15.2% of VCU’s missed shots when he’s on the floor. He’s also been the conference’s seventh-best defensive rebounder and ranks No. 2 in the A-10 in turnover percentage.
Long story short, the dude is a 6’7″ 215 athletic freak who’s insanely efficient. There aren’t a ton of those in this conference so he’s clearly a very valuable piece for the Rams. His minutes will increase as he figures out the defensive end more, basically knowing his assignments and doing all his details. I think what makes him so valuable for the Rams is what he does under Will Wade in our offense. Shaka Smart didn’t play him a ton but when he did he didn’t really have him in the right spots on the court. What Wade did that changed everything for Tillman and this VCU offense was bury him on the baseline.
What that does is creates tough decisions for opposing defenses thanks to the speed of guys like point guards JeQuan Lewis and Johnny Williams. When those guys drive one big has to pick them up or they are running a layup line on your team, BUT, when they do pick them up that means either Mo Alie-Cox or Justin Tillman are dunking on you. It’s been an incredibly hard thing to stop and is a major reason VCU has the most efficient offense in A-10 play.
AK: VCU’s non-conference schedule really didn’t reveal much about this season’s squad. The Ram beat everyone they were supposed to beat, but didn’t pick up any truly signature wins (0-5 against the Power 5, and 8-0 against everyone else). Now that they’ve gotten some solid conference wins, what’s your assessment of the team’s realistic goals for the season/postseason?
MS: I’ve thought about this a lot lately and honestly have more confidence in this Rams team heading into March than any previous unit I’ve covered. The problem is it clearly took Will Wade a bit to figure out how to use all these pieces and what all he had here. The Rams were VERY competitive in all but about one of those tough non-conference losses (the game at Georgia Tech) but seemed to have figured things out. Think about this: VCU is off to their best Atlantic 10 start ever AFTER losing Shaka Smart, Treveon Graham, Briante Weber and Terry Larrier. VCU has the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense but are still sorta flying under the radar.
What I like about this team more than previous units is they are playing efficient team ball. Under Smart it just felt like we ran motion all day and prayed individual talents would make big plays. Under Wade the offense in particular has felt more reliable to me, basically because we have the best and most efficient two-point scoring in unit we’ve had in a good while AND have three key players that are shooting over 40% from deep. Defensively we’re still wreaking havoc but doing so in the halfcourt, which means we aren’t exposing ourselves to all those easy dunks and layups quite like we were before.
Overall I just believe in this group a ton but we need to get there first, something that unfortunately may be harder to do this year because of the time it took our squad to figure out exactly what we were doing with this new coaching staff.
AK: After what some might call a slow start, Will Wade’s first season at the helm really took off in late December, with a 12 game winning streak that took VCU to the top of the conference (where they’ve pretty much remained all season). What changed? What were some of the growing pains along the way, and how has Wade solved them?
MS: See above. I think it’s been a combination of two things: 1) the adjustments we’ve made to the talent we have and 2) better matchups. When you look at the teams VCU struggled against earlier this season you see a common theme: they were all HUGE. These guys all had/have front lines that go something like 6’7, 6’9, 6’10 with a few more 6’8 guys to come in off the bench. And not just size but talented players at those positions as well. When you look at our one home loss this season it came against a GW team that very much resembled those Power 5 squads we lost to (6’6 Garino, 6’9 Cavanough, 6’10 Larsen). So I think realistically a drop in competition has benefited VCU a good bit.
But that said, I do think VCU has improved. Again, that Wisconsin loss came down to a final possession, Cincinnati came down to the final minute, FSU the same, Duke not so much but we did lead at the half in that one. I think if VCU gets another shot at those teams now after Wade has gotten to know his personnel and his personnel has gotten a better understand of what Wade wants to do, we probably win a few of those games. I think the big difference for VCU has been playing within the system, something it took guys a while to figure out.
Will Wade is a major advanced analytics guy. He loves assisted corner threes because they fall at a much better rate than say an unassisted showtime bomb from Melvin Johnson. But it takes a while for Melvin to realize his star actually shines brighter when he’s not trying to show he’s a star and I think that’s been the difference for this team.
AK: And on the flip side, are there any serious flaws that he hasn’t found a way to solve yet? Or is there a pet peeve of yours, even if it’s trivial?
MS: The one thing that bugs me most, when it happens, is guys forcing shots in the lane or trying a little too hard to draw a foul that might not be coming. We’ve been a team who has looked to get teams in foul trouble by attacking the basket but have just not gotten the calls this year — we currently rank 12th in A-10 free throw rate.
Some of our guys have done a good job to adjusting to this, particularly JeQuan who’s been finding Mo and Justin for highlight reel dunks, but occasionally you’ll get a guy like Korey Billbury who I think is one pass away from a really easy VCU basket (Korey is shooting 39% inside the arc in A-10 games). That’s probably my one major beef, is when guys opt for the individual play, be it a Billbury drive or a Melvin challenged three, as opposed to making the patient team play.
Defensively we have got to do a better job of defending the three-point line as well. I’ve always been a guy who has said if teams hit the three on us, even if open, I’d shake their hand and congratulate them on beating us by hitting low percentage shots. But damn if they aren’t hitting some threes on us. UMass hit their first eight against us. UMASS! 8-8! That can really hurt your team and it certainly did that night. The details are incredibly important at this level and while I think VCU has done a much better job on them there’s always room for improvement.