Shaka Smart has faced Fordham coach Tom Pecora before, but VCU head coach welcomes residents of Rose Hill into Richmond for first time in history of both schools tonight. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
Three days removed from a bitter four-point loss to a Saint Joseph's team that looked beatable despite being picked to win the Atlantic 10 at the start of the season, Fordham University finds itself with arguably its most difficult opponent to date in Tom Pecora's third campaign in the Bronx.
Pecora knows Virginia Commonwealth University from his many battles with the Rams while in the Colonial Athletic Association as the head coach at Hofstra, but tonight will be the first time Fordham has faced the 2011 Final Four participant in the long and storied history of its program, as Pecora's Rams square off against Shaka Smart's VCU Rams at 7 p.m. inside the Siegel Center in Richmond.
For Fordham, it will be the latest in a long line of opportunities to win its first-ever conference road game under Pecora since he replaced Jared Grasso at the helm in 2010. If the coach's past history inside the venue affectionately dubbed "The Stu" is any indication, the deck is already stacked against Fordham, as Pecora is winless in each of his seven trips to Virginia's state capital against the school with perhaps one of the largest homecourt advantages in the nation.
Fordham will also have to once again overcome the absence of forward Chris Gaston, who will be missing his fourth consecutive game as he deals with aftereffects of the knee injury that kept him out of the lineup earlier in the season. However, the Rams have remained competitive without their all-conference player, using an increased contribution from leading scorer Branden Frazier, the junior guard who has stepped up to become a greater leader than seemingly anyone could have envisioned. Freshman Mandell Thomas has provided Frazier with a potent and deceptive second scoring option in recent games, and the backcourt partners will need to consider ball control their top priority this evening as they tackle VCU's vaunted "Havoc" defense head on. The Fordham front line of Ryan Canty and Travion Leonard, who average 13 points and 11 rebounds per game combined, will also need to revert to their physical advantage from last week's win over Rhode Island to attack the backboard against a smaller VCU team that predicates their success on its transition game and ability to force turnovers and steals.
Speaking of Shaka Smart's Rams, their aforementioned "Havoc" defense may be unorthodox, but its aggressiveness yields results rarely seen at any level of organized basketball. On average, the VCU defense causes an eye-popping 20 turnovers per contest and on a nation-leading 29 percent of their defensive possessions, coming away with an average of 12 steals in the process. Smart's point guard platoon of senior Darius Theus and sophomore Briante Weber are the primary reasons why, as the pair accounts for 47 percent of the Rams' 266 collective steals while managing half of VCU's team assist total on the offensive end.
Inside, VCU may be undersized in comparison to Fordham's front line featuring a 6-8 freshman (Leonard) and a 6-9 sophomore, (Canty) but Juvonte Reddic has comparable numbers on his own to what Leonard and Canty have combined for, averaging over fourteen points and eight rebounds per night. Swingman Treveon Graham may be playing out of position as a 6-5 power forward, but his six rebounds per game help Reddic create a mismatch in favor of VCU, who is undefeated in each of the nine games where they score 35 or more points in the paint, something Smart will likely preach before the game. Should Fordham make the mistake of double-teaming Reddic, VCU has a trio of outside shooters that will make the invading Rams pay, as Graham joins guards Rob Brandenberg and Troy Daniels as the leaders of a VCU team who shoots 34 percent from three-point range, Daniels being the man whose 41 percent clip from beyond the arc is number one with a bullet in the Ram cavalry.
For Fordham, their keys to victory are simple: Get the advantage inside while resisting the urge to double-team Reddic and take advantage of a smaller lineup. Fordham has the shooters to stand up to VCU if the game becomes a battle of the threes, but aside from Frazier and Thomas, Tom Pecora's bunch does not have a consistent threat as of late, as Bryan Smith hasn't had a solid game since the Rams' New Year's Eve victory over Monmouth, while Jeff Short and Jermaine Myers have been searching for a stable offensive groove seemingly all year. As mentioned before, ball control needs to be atop Pecora's list of priorities as well. If Branden Frazier can have a game similar to his double-doubles against Siena and Duquesne, where he had ten or more assists with very few turnovers, Fordham will be able to compete with the Rams for a full 40 minutes. For VCU, Fordham's relative inexperience plays right into their favor. Fordham has committed the 20-plus turnovers that VCU forces four times this season, and has reached 18 or 19 on several other occasions. The exceptional point guard play of Theus and Weber will also be a factor that the Rams will need to overcome, as Fordham has been overmatched at times against floor generals the likes of UConn's Ryan Boatright and UMass' Chaz Williams this season.
The VCU fan base, which calls itself the "Rowdy Rams," says in its pregame war chant:
"You don't want to go to war with the Rams...don't start no stuff, won't be no stuff."
Two herds of Rams go to war tonight. One leaves victorious.