By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
At one point this year, VCU was the marquee game of the A-10 schedule. A ranked team, at home, on Friday night in primetime on ESPN, is a dream matchup for any college basketball program. Unfortunately, the only team in the conference with a more significant fall from “on the bubble” to “out” than SLU is, in fact, Virginia Commonwealth.
The game will be intense regardless of the changed context. Both teams sit tied for 6th in the conference with five games to play, and the winner of tonight’s matchup will be vaulted into a position to compete for the double-bye down the stretch.
Both the Billikens and the Rams have had disappointing stretches of play of late and are looking to rebound at just the right time to make a late run. SLU has been plagued by inconsistent play and losses to weaker teams. Whereas VCU has been the victim of one of the more rigorous schedules in the league, having dropped only one truly bad game to George Mason. The rest of their losses have come to teams in the top three of the conference.
VCU has certainly struggled. For the team projected to dominate the conference, falling to 6th and battling for double-bye, things have certainly not gone their way this season. But they are still in the upper tier of talent in the conference. VCU has had clear and away the most challenging schedule in the conference and are not to be taken lightly.
The Rams have been anchored by freshmen breakout star Bones Hyland, who has been able to help key into their team offense from the point guard position. With the highest offensive rating and the second-highest assist rate on the roster, Bones has brought an edge to the VCU offense that has helped them maintain their high caliber while Marcus Evans has been injured.
Senior Marcus Evans is the big question mark of this game. The point guard in his third year at VCU after transferring from Rice has been a sort of a lightning rod for the Rams this season. He was benched in a game early in the year against George Mason for violating a team policy. But has most recently missed the past two games against Dayton and Richmond with a knee issue. No one is quite sure exactly how bad the ailment is, or if he will play Friday night. Right now, he sits as a game-time decision and will have the ability to sway any projection for the game.
The Rams have a talent roster, with a depth of scoring that will keep the Billikens honest across the board all evening. But it is their defensive system that will challenge the Billikens most.
The full-court press has given the Billikens fits this season, and it is mostly responsible for the breakdowns the Billikens have late in games. In UMass, when the Minutemen started providing pressure in the second half, that was the beginning of the end for the Bills. When the full force comes, the SLU offense slows down to a dead stop. Yuri Collins and Tay Weaver aren’t exactly confident in those situations, but no one has been a revelation, so it’s not as if there is a simple fix to this ball handling problem.
Fortunately, the Billikens have spent a ton of time this week working out these issues and finding ways to exploit the VCU press. Jordan Goodwin said at before Thursday practice that they’ve instituted a handful of new press breaks to use throughout the game, and Travis Ford made it the principal focus at the practice that followed, personally stepping in and running point at times to demonstrate methods to avoid traps, and to look for better choices in said traps.
The issue Travis Ford is most concerned with going into VCU is sticking to the scouting report and the installed game plan. Travis said at practice Wednesday, “We need to see consistency, competitiveness at a high level, focus, all the time. We need to execute the scouting report the whole time. We had more breakdowns in the scouting report in the last three minutes of our last game than we’ve had in any game since I’ve been here. That’s just uncalled for. It’s unnecessary.”
It is one thing that Billikens know what to expect and have a plan to approach it. It appears it is an entirely other thing to say if they can, in the heat of the game, make decisions that align with said plan. A young team will have problems with executing the game plan, and they will get better at such with experience. But right now, it seems as this is another by-product of their maturity and the growing pains associated with playing with such a young group.
Tay Weaver told the media he was confident in the coaching staff’s ability to create a useful scouting report and game plan for the team, and it is on this group to find ways to implement it and make decisions that support that plan. He is an example of how more mature players can elevate their game from a well-informed game plan. It makes sense that a 5th-year player has been able to excel and change his game for the better from those game plans. Tay has added a slashing and midrange game to his offensive arsenal because he now knows that defenders will close out hard on him. He has created a more versatile attack and is seeing significant production results from it.
The Billikens will have the talent and the home court support to give VCU a run for their money and continue their unlikely path to postseason success. With the depth of the Rams in question, they will have an even better chance to get their 19th win of the season. They have the plan, they have the team, they need to execute.