Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fordham/VCU Preview, Part II

Juvonte Reddic's double-double was one of several key performances in VCU's first win over Fordham this season. (Photo courtesy of The Sporting News)

Fordham heads into their final four games of the regular season with their second of four back ends of home-and-home series, welcoming Virginia Commonwealth University into Rose Hill Gym for the first time since Richmond's finest joined the Atlantic 10 two years ago.

VCU handled the Rams in the first meeting between the two schools back on January 29th, a 76-60 victory at the Siegel Center that followed up last season's win against Fordham at the arena affectionately referred to by VCU fans as "The Stu." In that game, Melvin Johnson and Jequan Lewis led Shaka Smart's team with 13 and 11 points, respectively, off the bench, while Juvonte Reddic poured in 10 points and 10 rebounds to overcome a valiant effort from Mandell Thomas, who put Fordham on his back with 25 points in the losing effort.

At 20-7, and 8-4 in Atlantic 10 play, VCU is playing for NCAA Tournament seeding as well as a top four seed in the upcoming conference tournament at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, while Fordham is merely hoping to avoid the opening round play-in game, which seems to be more of a distinct possibility after the Rams' loss to Saint Joseph's this past Saturday, one in which Langston Galloway buried Fordham with ten three-pointers in an incredible display of long distance marksmanship.

Two herds of Rams go to war yet again, this time in the Bronx, and to get a feel for what the invaders have done since their last showdown with Fordham, we are pleased to reintroduce the portal of all things VCU that contributed to the Q&A of our most viewed preview this season. Without any further ado, here is what VCU radio color analyst Mike Litos, who also operates, offered us in regard to the black and gold, whose "Rowdy Ram" fan base will almost certainly sell out Rose Hill tomorrow night:

Jaden Daly: Catch us up on VCU since they beat Fordham at the Siegel Center. What has changed, better or worse, since January 29th, and what has been the biggest improvement over the last month?

Mike Litos: Well, not much to be honest. This is really the same VCU team, just a little bit better version. There are still moments where they can't shoot straight, or get sloppy with the basketball, but really they've been slowly getting better all season. The offense under Briante Weber has made great strides. The biggest difference is that Terrance Shannon left the team. His role had been reduced as the season wore on, so the biggest impact is that Shaka Smart won't have as many options when he goes to the bench. If Smart wants to go with a big lineup, he's reduced to Mo Alie Cox (who is playing MUCH better) or Jarred Guest (who is skinny).

It's an interesting season for VCU. After we got back from Puerto Rico, there haven't been a ton of ups and a ton of downs. We've just progressed a little like flowing lava--slowly but surely. There have been hiccups but no disasters.

JD: Tell us a little more about Melvin Johnson, who will have a homecoming of sorts Thursday night after he turned down Jim Larranaga to play for Shaka Smart. He seems like the anti-Jon Severe in that he is way more efficient on both sides of the ball. What makes him so dynamic as the sixth man?

ML: Johnson is an incredibly dynamic offensive player, and I mean a game-changing offensive player. Smart has given him the neon green light to shoot any open three, which is great for confidence, but Johnson is not a one-dimensional player. He's got all the moves, including a running floater he calls The Melvin. He's a fun player to watch because he has that guard cocky you love to have on your team. VCU is a much better offensive team when who I call "SwagMel"  is in the gym.

That offensive ability is what makes him a game-changer. He subs in just as the opponents starters are getting a little rubber-legged, so he is able to create more opportunities. Johnson is still coming along as a defensive player, which is code for he isn't a very good defensive player, but his offense alone demands he plays as many minutes as possible.

And "turned down Jim Larranaga to play for Shaka Smart" has a certain ring to it.

JD: Even though VCU came up short against Saint Joseph's, Saint Louis and UMass, they may very well have been the better team down the stretch in each game. Good, bad , or indifferent, what was most revealing from those three games about VCU?

ML: VCU played four top 40 RPI teams in a row, and three on the road. Nobody, in any conference, has faced that gauntlet this year. I think what we learned is that it takes a complete effort to win against very good teams, especially on the road. Smart calls it focusing on the details of the game plan but his instructive point is clear: you can't take possessions off, you have to guard ball screen well, and you have to take advantage of opportunities. That layers on top of scouting report detail.

You can't shoot poorly from the foul line, or try to hit a home run in a one-possession game, and you have to box out…those kinds of things that make you drift across that line from winning to losing. We are seeing the things that drives coaches crazy come to life. Many times you can't really see what a coach is referring to when he is displeased with the minutiae of a team's play in any game. We saw those things with this team during that stretch.

The very encouraging part is that I don't think anybody would grade the VCU performance against SLU or UMass higher than a B, and in both games we had a shot in the air with a chance to lead with less than two minutes to play on the road. Quite frankly that's exciting to me as we barrel into March.

JD: With the Saint Louis rematch coming up Saturday night, how early will we see a more aggressive (if that's even possible) VCU, one who will look to take care of business quickly against Fordham, and what would be Tom Pecora's best chance to keep the proceedings from getting out of hand?

ML: I don't think you will see anything different from this team. The one area that VCU has been very consistent with this year is that they've been aggressive and attacking and playing hard from day one. Some games they have the energy and enthusiasm better than others, but generally speaking the effort level has been high all season.

As I mentioned before, there are the little things that may be different, but you won't suddenly see VCU play a 1-3-1 zone or a new offensive wrinkle. 

Fordham has to shoot a high percentage, especially from three point land. So much of this game is about confidence. VCU will have it, and I think Fordham's best chance is to match VCUs confidence level. They will then be strong with the basketball, and strong with the shot. Severe, Thomas, and Frazier start knocking down shots and not turning the ball over and feeling good about themselves will go a long way.

JD: At the moment, VCU would need a total meltdown to keep them from the NCAA Tournament, so with that being said, where do you see their ceiling as far as seeding is concerned; and ultimately, how many teams do you think represent the Atlantic 10?

ML: From what I can tell, VCU is in that 7-9 range for their seed. If things go well at the end of the season and in Brooklyn, a 6 and maybe even a 5 is not out of reach. Things go poorly and a 10 is in the picture. The one thing I love about this team is that they take the court believing they can beat anybody. So the whole "avoiding the 8/9 gamer to avoid the #1 seed in the second round" is more of a fan's take than one for the players. I'll peg them at an eight seed.

I'm going with five A-10 teams, and possibly six. SLU, UMass, and VCU are going to make it. GW and St. Joseph's are on the cusp. That leaves Richmond and Dayton. There is a lot of carnage to occur that will hurt those two teams as we go down the stretch. Dayton's road is especially tough, and they play each other in Dayton to end the season. That game may be an elimination game. But certainly one of those two can sneak in with a good finish and good performance in Dayton.

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