Virginia Commonwealth University wraps up the brutal portion of its non-conference schedule with a visit to Cincinnati on Saturday at noon.
- What: VCU (6-3, 0-0) at Cincinnati (7-2, 0-0)
- Where: Fifth Third Arena
- When: Saturday, December 20th at 12:00 PM
- Watch: ESPNU
- Listen: Rams Radio
The years of the most exciting non-conference game for VCU being the ESPN Bracketbusters are long gone. The Rams rank 5th in the RPI, 1st in non-conference strength of schedule, and eight of their ten games were against teams currently ranked in the KenPom top-100.
#6 UVA and #7 Villanova are household names this season. But ODU is 8-1 and pushing the top-25; UNI is 9-1 and was undefeated and ranked entering the Siegel Center; and Toledo, Illinois State, Oregon, and Belmont are contenders in their conferences. With Cleveland State and ETSU left in the non-conference slate, Cincinnati is VCU’s last significant challenge until Davidson on January 7th.
The Bearcats are a defensive force. They are effective in man-to-man defense and their zone defense with man-to-man tendencies has the ability to frustrate offenses who are indecisively stuck between running man offense or zone offense. Their size is imposing, they regularly use full-court pressure, and they rarely foul.
Their offense is currently still a work in progress. Troy Caupain (10.1 PPG) is the only player averaging double-figures, they can’t shoot the ball, and they struggle with turnovers. Last Saturday, the Bearcats lost in double-overtime to Nebraska to the eye-popping score of 56-55 (!).
They are somewhat effective near the basket, and they excel in cleaning up the offensive glass. They lack 3-point shooting. The Bearcats have hit 43 3-pointers this season and are shooting .305. For comparison, Treveon Graham and Melvin Johnson have combined for 46 3-pointers this season.
In many ways, Cincinnati is a turbo version of those turn of the decade Old Dominion teams. They rank 338th in adjusted tempo, they rebound exceptionally well, and their size could force VCU’s under-sized lineups or VCU’s under-sized lineups could force Cincinnati.
VCU is undoubtedly improving, but the Bearcats are designed to exploit the one area where the Rams truly have yet to show progress: scoring against stout half-court defenses. When it’s a run-and-gun game, Briante Weber is a force (see: no-look assist to Justin Tillman).
But when the Rams hit a brick wall à la UVA’s pack-line defense, what’s going to happen? The development of JeQuan Lewis and Jonathan Williams as distributors over the last two games and almost everyone as scorers is a huge positive for VCU, but the Rams still have yet to effectively score on grind-it-out defenses.
Saturday is a huge opportunity to add yet another impressive win to an already impressive non-conference schedule. More importantly, the Rams have an opportunity to improve upon their weaknesses leading up to the A-10 conference schedule.
The Star: #2 Octavius Ellis
9.1 PPG (27-46 2PFG), 8.1 RPG, 2.7 BPG
A JUCO transfer from Trinity Valley College in Texas, Ellis has quickly become an imposing and effective center during his first season in The Queen City. He’s defending the paint with dominance, and he’s one of the best rebounders in the nation. Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman have been effective over the past few games, it will be interesting to see if they can score against such a talented front court.
#10 Troy Caupin (PG, Sophomore) • In addition to leading the team in scoring, the senior point guard is the chief distributor, an effective perimeter defender, and the leader of the team.
#25 Kevin Johnson (SG, Sophomore) • His stats don’t show anything meaningful, but he starts because of his ability to defend.
#3 Shaquille Thomas (SF, Junior) • He’s a versatile G/F who can makes the Bearcats big when he plays the 3 or makes the Bearcats small when he plays the 4.
#11 Gary Clark (F, Freshman) • Clark is quietly putting together one of the best freshman campaigns in the country. The 6-7, 230 pound PF is averaging 8.9 PPG (32-59 2PFG), 7.8 RPG, and 1.4 BPG.
#15 Jermaine Sanders (SF, Senior) • He does a little bit of everything, but perfects the jack-of-all, master-of-none persona. He’s the second best 3-point shooter at 9-of-24 (.375).
#22 Farad Cobb (PG, Junior) • He’s the only consistent big-time 3-point threat for Cincinnati. He shot .463 from 3-point range in JUCO last season and is 15-of-42 (.357) from beyond the arc this season.
KenPom picks Cincinnati to win 65-63 with a 58% chance of victory. If the Rams can score, they’ll be able to set up their press and win. If not, it could be a long, low-scoring affair.
- Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
- Enrollment: ~43,000
- Conference: American Athletic Conference
- Bonus Stat Coach Smart is a perfect 6-0 against teams from Ohio.