A little over four years ago, Michigan demolished VCU and shredded Shaka Smart’s vaunted Havoc defense to advanced to the Sweet 16 en route to the National Championship game. Now the Rams and Wolverines will face off once more on Wednesday afternoon in Maui (5:00 p.m. eastern, ESPN2).
Shaka Smart has moved onto Texas and his replacement, Will Wade, has also moved on. Wade happened to be on the opposite bench on Monday night, coaching LSU to an upset win over the Wolverines. Wade and new VCU coach Mike Rhoades would room together on the road as VCU assistant coaches and both were on staff when the Wolverines beat the Rams in 2013. Now they’ll both coach their own programs against Michigan within 72 hours of each other.
Rhoades won 197 Division III games in 10 years at Randolph-Macon before joining Smart’s staff at VCU in 2009. He was hired away to Rice as a head coach in 2014 where he stayed for three seasons before the VCU job opened up.
Havoc-style full court pressure is still a part of VCU’s defensive approach because what would the Rams brand be without Havoc. The Rams have pressed on 38% of their defensive possessions this season, but they haven’t been effective turning teams over. VCU opponents are coughing the ball up on only 18.4 percent of their offensive possessions, an eye-opening stat for a program that hasn’t ranked worse than 33rd in in forced turnover rate over the last 6 years.
VCU opponents are getting open shots as well, making 50.8% of their twos and 36.2% of their threes for a 52.2 eFG% — all ranked 200th or worse nationally. The primary strength of the Ram defense through five games has been to avoid sending teams to the charity stripe.
While the defense might not be up to VCU standards, the offense is just fine. VCU has scored at least a point per possession in all five games it has played this year. The Rams are a good three-point shooting team — making 39.2 percent of their triples on 38.9 percent of their attempts — and they don’t turn the ball over often. VCU is also a very good offensive rebounding team and has the ability to crash the glass from a number of different positions — something that is certain to be emphasized against a Michigan team that has struggled on the glass.
Expect a heavy dosage of ball screen action (26.1% of possessions) and a concentrated effort to push the ball in transition (20.4% of possessions). The Rams rank 38th nationally in adjusted tempo and have played at least 76 possession games against every opponent other than Virginia. Most recently, VCU scored 29 fastbreak points in its consolation bracket win over Cal.
The Rams are incredibly balanced offensively and have five starters averaging double figures.
6-foot-8 senior Justin Tillman is a Michigan native and leads the Rams with averages of 15 points and 8 rebounds per game. Tillman is a finisher (66% two-point shooting), rebounder and rim protector, but he’s started to stretch the floor a bit this season as well (4-of-11 from three). It isn’t a focal point of VCU’s offense, but Tillman is a capable post-up scorer when he gets the ball with his back to the basket. He also should have the mobility and length to deal with Moritz Wagner’s skill away from the basket.
6-foot-6, 210 pound wing Issac Vann sprained his ankle against Marquette and missed the game against Cal. He’s listed as Vann shoots 55% on twos and 31% on threes and is an impact rebounder from the wing.
Sophomore wing De’Riante Jenkins went crazy against Cal with Vann sidelined on Tuesday, finishing with 27 points on 5-of-8 three-point shooting. Somehow he was the only double-digit scorer in the win, with 7 other Rams finishing with 7 to 9 points. Jenkins is a rangy wing who attempts over half of his shot attempts from three-point range, but also shoots 52 percent inside the arc.
6-foot-1 point guard Jonathan Williams is the primary assist man and pick and roll playmaker. He’s adept at getting to the free throw line and attempts the majority of his shots inside the arc. Williams is just 6-of-38 for his career from three-point range, but he’s hit 3-of-8 threes to start this year, doubling his career makes.
Sophomore guard Malik Crowfield is VCU’s designated shooter. 87% of his career shot attempts have been from three-point range and he’s just 6-of-12 on two-point attempts for his career. Crowfield has knocked in 12-of-28 threes to start this season and has to be chased off the line.
6-foot-7 senior Khris Lane starts at the four spot for the Rams. He’s ultra efficient — 62% on twos, 50% on threes to start the year — and is an impact rebounder on both ends of the floor. True freshman Marcus Santos-Silva provides backup minutes at the post at 6-foot-7, 255 pounds. He’s been turnover prone early on but is shooting 54% on twos and is one of VCU’s better rebounders on both ends of the floor.
While Santos-Silva provide a traditional post reserve, 6-foot-8 freshman Sean Mobley is a stretch big man who has made 7-of-15 threes to open his career.
- Transition defense: VCU’s offense relies on scoring in transition and looks to speed up the game whenever possible. Michigan generally does a good job of limiting transition opportunities thanks to its tendency not to crash the glass, but they haven’t been tested against a transition offense nearly as aggressive and effective as VCU.
- Point guard play: On Monday, a true freshman point guard took over the game for LSU. Now the Wolverines will have to deal with a senior point guard who has seen it all and has been an on-and-off starter throughout his career. Williams isn’t the same sort of impact playmaker who will use all of VCU’s possessions, but the bigger question is whether the Wolverines can get consistent point guard play and where it comes from. Brooks has a start under his belt, but the truth is that none of Michigan’s point guards have played a great game.
- Defensive rebounding: VCU might not turn teams over like previous Havoc teams, but they still have a lot of length and athleticism on the floor and they play hard. LSU rebounded 39% of its misses against Michigan on Monday night and Chaminade rebounded 37% of its misses. Those are ugly numbers and the Rams should attack in a similar fashion. VCU doesn’t have single offensive rebounding weapon inside as much as it is has a handful of players who can crash from any position.
This is one that Michigan has to figure out a way to win considering the difficult schedule coming up. VCU might be down a bit from recent seasons, but they should still finish with a strong RPI and in the top half of the Atlantic 10. KenPom projects a 76-71 Michigan win, giving the Wolverines a 68 percent chance of leaving Maui with a 2-1 record.