What to expect: UMass and the unfamiliar feeling of familiarity

Not since the days of the CAA have VCU and its fans enjoyed weekly battles so ripe with history and so loaded with consequences in the conference race.

  • What: VCU (20-6, 8-3) vs. Massachusetts (20-5, 7-4)
  • Where: Mullins Center
  • When: Friday, February 21st at 7:00 PM
  • Watch: ESPN2
  • Listen: Rams Radio

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Virginia Commonwealth University visits Massachusetts on Friday evening to face the Minutemen who started the season 16-1 before stumbling to 7-4 in conference play. The game is loaded with consequences in the conference standings, and it’s also a reminder of the value of history.

The Rundown

This is the era of realignment. Syracuse plays in the ACC, Maryland is headed to the Big 10, and somehow Boise State almost joined the Big East before remaining in the Mountain West Conference.

VCU’s move to the Atlantic 10 created some serious advantages: almost every game matters, the conference sent five legitimate teams to the 2013 NCAA Tournament, VCU does’t have to sweat until earning an automatic ticket to the dance, and the basketball is of a higher quality.

VCU and the Atlantic 10 have proven winners despite a dearth of football and a few key defections, but the move wasn’t without costs. One cost in particular: abandoning history with conference foes. The 2012-13 season was exhausting as VCU battled their way through first and second time match-ups with new conference opponents every week.

Instead of playing game number 52 with William & Mary, VCU played St. Bonaventure for the first time since 1979 and fought their way through two other teams with Rams as their mascots. Bruiser Flint technical fouls and condescending Blaine Taylor comments gave way to a slew of unfamiliar faces and a shortage of material that the Rowdy Rams could use for heckling.1

Saturday’s loss to Saint Louis was energized with February familiarity not felt since the Rams’ 2012 CAA farewell tour. While it will only be the third matchup ever, Friday’s game against Massachusetts offers some of that same energy.

VCU was in a slugfest with UMass last season in the Siegel Center for the first half before HAVOC! happened, and the Rams ran to an 86-68 victory thanks to a 21-1 run. In the second game, Chaz Williams didn’t struggle, and it took a Troy Daniels 9-0 run and a contested, step-back 3-pointer by Rob Brandenberg for VCU to win 71-62 in Brooklyn.

VCU no longer has Troy Daniels. Massachusetts is a better team this year. Friday promises to be an exciting chapter in a quickly developing history between two of the Atlantic 10’s finest.

The Team

Athleticism. Balance. Experience.

Massachusetts blends the speed of Chaz Williams with the absurd length of the rest of the team in a way that is truly unique, and the results are terrifying. They play at the 21st quickest tempo in college basketball, they have the 85th best offense, and the 36th best defense. Six players are averaging 8.6+ PPG, and each one of them is capable of dropping 15 points on any given night.

Offensively, it all starts in transition for the Minutemen. Williams is one of the best at making defenses guess whether he’s going to score or get other players involved. The same is true in the half court. They haven’t hit as many 3-pointers this season, but every player is capable of attacking the paint, and they are effective on the offensive glass.

Defensively, Massachusetts likes to use a 3/4-court press. The Rams have had mixed reactions against presses. Can VCU keep its edge with another team trying to speed them up? More importantly, buckets are tough to get against the Minutemen. They rank 25th in defensive 3-point FG% and 57th in defensive 2-point FG%. This game is going to be a track meet, but the team that has more deliberate, turnover-free possessions will probably win.

The Star: #3 Chaz Williams

15.4 PPG (75-177 2PFG, 42-111 3PFG), 7.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG

Chaz Williams turned down professional opportunities to return to Massachusetts for his senior season. His senior campaign has been a huge success. He has 20 games scoring in double-figures and five double-doubles including an unbelievable 32-point, 15-assist outburst against BYU.

He’s only 5-foot-9, but he’s one of the best point guards in the country. How Williams goes, UMass goes. He’s posted an average offensive rating of 113.4 in wins and 86.6 in losses.

Last season he shot 1-of-7 against VCU but recorded 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 turnovers, and 2 steals in February before scoring 18 points in March while putting the team on his back in his home town of Brooklyn. He’s a joy to watch against any other team but he could be trouble on Friday.

Supporting Cast

#2 Derrick Gordon (G, Sophomore) • Gordon is a shooting guard without much of a shot, but he’s still a capable scorer and a solid defender.

#34 Raphiael Putney* (G/F, Senior) • Putney is a 6-foot-9 guard with a 3-point shot who presents matchup problems for just about every team in the country. In his first game against VCU he had 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals. His second game was a disaster. He’s a key guy to watch on Friday.

#22 Sampson Carter* (G/F, Senior) • Carter is another long, athletic wing with a 6-foot-8 frame and guard skills. He’s the third or fourth option on the team, but he can really heat up. He scored 20 points including 4-of-5 3-point shooting against George Washington on Saturday.

#25 Cady Lalanne* (F, Junior) • After averaging 16.4 PPG and 11.4 RPG through the first seven games of the season, Lalanne has returned to human levels, but he’s still one of the premier big men in the A-10. He’s every inch and ounce of 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, and his battle with Juvonte Reddic should be highly entertaining.

#12 Trey Davis (PG, Sophomore) • He’s a serviceable backup point guard and 3-point shooter. Expect to see plenty of him alongside Williams to help against the press.

#1 Maxie Esho (G/F, Junior) • Esho fits the mold of hyper-athletic, long wings that make UMass so dangerous. That being said, Esho has explicitly asked Coach Kellogg to never put him on the court at the same time as Briante Weber ever again.2

The Prediction

Will the 16-1 Minutemen show up, or the 80-91 loss to George Mason at home Minutemen? This hits me as the game that looks way closer on paper than it ends up being. Coming off a tough 1-2 stretch, the Rams are highly motivated while still playing quality basketball. Rams win by nine after some late game free-throws. KenPom picks UMass to win 75-74 with a 54% chance of victory.

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Massachusetts Profile

  • Location: Amherst, MA
  • Enrollment: ~27,300
  • Conference: A-10
  • All time series: VCU leads 2-0
  • Last meeting: 3/16/13. VCU won 71-62.

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  1. Technical fouls were down last year. It’s unknown whether this is because of no more Coach Flint or because of the learning curve needed by hecklers. Coach Mike Lonergan has done his best to return the Stu to its average.  
  2. This is entirely fictitious, but Weber has been known to strike fear in the hearts of others.  

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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