Betting the A10 Battle of the Rams, Plus Ivy League Previews
© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Today, I will take a look at Rhode Island’s first real road test in A10 play, as they travel to the always raucous Siegel Center to play VCU (+4.5). I’ll also take a look at the following three Ivy games that could go a long way in determining the shape of the conference’s 4 team playoff.
- Harvard at Columbia +1.5
- Brown at Penn -9
- Yale at Princeton -8
Follow me on twitter @jorcubsdan for in-game analysis, injury updates, and second half predictions. Six total plays are summarized at the end of the article.
Rhode Island @ VCU +4.5
7 p.m. ET
There’s no denying that the A10 is extremely down this year as a whole. The league has one dominant team in Rhode Island and a slew of mediocre teams that feast on a terrible bottom tier of the conference. The A10, usually in the 7 or 8 range in KenPom’s overall conference rankings, ranks 11th this year. The A10 has consistently had 3+ NCAA Tournament bids, but unless Rhode Island gets upset in the A10 tournament, it looks like a one-bid conference for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
Rhode Island, the clear class of the down A10, currently sits at 10-0 in league play, 3.5 games clear of a pack that includes VCU, Davidson, and a resurgent Richmond. However, the Rams have slept through their last two games. They needed a late rally and a Stan Robinson buzzer beater to beat Duquesne.
The Rams followed that up by nearly blowing a 14 point lead with under 4 minutes to play at UMass. URI has an extremely backloaded conference schedule, which starts tonight with a trip to the Stu to face VCU. They also still have two games with Davidson, a home contest with Richmond, and a trip to Olean for the Bonnies.
While I just spent a paragraph seemingly tearing down the Rams, they are a very good basketball team. I chalk up the near collapse at UMass to tired legs, as the Rams dominated most of the game. In fact, they finished at a season best 1.41 points per possession. However, those tired legs didn’t get much rest, as the Rams are in the midst of a Weds-Sat-Tues-Fri stretch. Also, the back end of that trip includes a second straight road game tonight in the A10’s toughest environment.
The strength of Rhody lies in their deep, physical, and athletic backcourt. Danny Hurley loves to create mismatches for those guards (Jeff Dowtin, Jared Terrell, and Jarvis Garrett), who are all nearly equally efficient in those situations. Terrell’s emergence as URI’s go to scorer has allowed EC Matthews to enjoy his most efficient season of his injury plagued tenure in Kingston. Matthews’ usage and shot rates have decreased, but URI has benefited as a result. Sophomore Jeff Dowtin, part of a dual ball handling committee, has the second highest offensive rating in the A10 at 128.0. He also owns the conference’s highest assist rate and 13th lowest turnover rate.
So how well does VCU defend ball screens? Reasonably well. Jon-Jon Williams defends solidly on the perimeter and VCU has a lot of perimeter length. Malik Crowfield, De’Riante Jenkins, Mike’l Simms, Issac Vann, and Khris Lane all run between 6’4 and 6’7 and can switch onto guards. That said, VCU struggles to rotate on the perimeter and currently sit in the middle of the A-10 pack in defensive efficiency.
Hurley’s small lineup actually only allows .931 points per possession, the best mark in the A10 by far. In a league that lacks many true back to the basket bigs, Rhode Island can get by without size. However, VCU has the conference’s best rim scorer in Justin Tillman. Per Synergy, Tillman actually ranks as the nation’s most efficient post scorer (minimum 100 post possessions) at 1.18 points per possession. URI hasn’t seen that type of a post threat since Nevada’s Jordan Caroline in the second game of the season. Similar to Tillman, Caroline is a mobile and athletic big that can play facing the basket. He went off for 28 and 12 in Reno, shooting 17 free throws in the process. Caroline simply bullied Stan Robinson when Hurley tried to stick a smaller but more mobile defender on the Nevada hybrid 5.
Hurley’s general philosophy consists of running teams off of the three point line with extended pressure from a small, athletic lineup. To wit, only two teams in the country allow a lower 3PT attempt rate than URI. Also, only four teams generate a higher defensive turnover rate. However, Hurley must overcome some of his stubbornness (he rarely doubled the post) and routinely dig down on Tillman with help. They need to turn a VCU team that shoots just 31.7% from 3 in league play into jump shooters.
Speaking of extended pressure, perhaps only Virginia and Syracuse are more synonymous with a style of defense than VCU is with “Havoc”. While the halcyon days of Shaka Smart’s intense full court press are long gone, former Smart assistant Mike Rhoades has amped up the press again. Under Will Wade last season, the Rams pressed on 20.4% of their defensive possessions, which still ranked as one of the highest rates in the country. However, VCU has pressed on 31.3% of their defensive possessions this year. Ironically, URI has actually played better pressure defense this year and VCU’s backcourt of Williams and Jenkins has played better press offense.
VCU has started slowly in nearly every league game, which they can’t afford to do tonight. The Stu should have a little more mustard than usual, as this was a “camp out” game for VCU students. Seniors Williams and Tillman will also look to avenge last year’s A-10 championship loss. VCU should keep this close. We also should see plenty of points in a fast paced game.
The PICK: VCU +4.5, Over 151
Ivy League Notes
Harvard at Columbia +1.5 (7:00 pm ET) Harvard travels to the “C’s” this weekend, starting with Columbia tonight. Despite scoring at one of the least efficient rates in the country, Harvard has started 4-0 start in Ivy play. They have essentially locked up a spot in the season ending playoff at the Palestra. Harvard’s suffocating half court defense only allows .87 points per possession, which leads the Ivy. Harvard also just had their best offensive performance of the year, scoring 1.17 points per possession at Brown. The offense benefits from the return of Bryce Aiken (18 points in 20 minutes off the bench in his second game back from injury). Also, wings Seth Towns and Corey Johnson have finally started to hit perimeter jump shots. Conversely, Columbia has started 1-3 in Ivy play, but they still have a shot at 4th playoff spot.
Columbia and Harvard have similarly structured offenses, especially with Aiken back. Both run a 1-4 flat ball screen for their point guards, Aiken for Harvard and Mike Smith for Columbia. Only two teams (Florida A&M and Delaware) in all of D1 defend ball screens worse than Columbia. Head coach Jim Engles has even tried some zone to counter this weakness, but they somehow defended even less efficiently. Obviously, Harvard’s mini-resurgence on offense is correlated with the return of Aiken, who did tweak a knee late last game. Aiken stated he is “alright”, but it’s a concern going forward. Per Henry Zhu of “The Harvard Crimson”, Amaker said the following about Aiken:
“I haven’t really gotten to the point of Bryce starting again, we’re just trying to increase his time on the court,” Amaker said. “We’ve done it the past two games and hopefully it can continue to trend in that direction where he’s playing more minutes and being more comfortable and confident in doing so.”
It sounds like Aiken will play 20-25 minutes again tonight. But if he plays half as efficiently as he did against Yale, the Crimson should win with their dominant defense. Columbia likes to attack in transition, but Harvard grades out in the 90th percentile in transition defense.
The PICK: Harvard -1.5
Brown at Penn -9 (7:00 pm ET) The sieve-like Brown defense allows 57.9% on 2PT attempts, the worst in the Ivy. For comparison, Harvard leads the league at 38.4%. Steve Donahue’s Penn offense is predicated on high percentage shots from 3 or high percentage shots at the rim. Nothing in between. To be fair, that describes the model for most Ivy teams, as they’ve been on the forefront of basketball analytics.
However, unlike most Ivy teams, Penn plays two bigs in Max Rothschild and AJ Brodeur. While Brown’s 4 out lineup struggles to defend inside (only Chicago State allows more points per post possession), Rothschild and Brodeur may struggle to defend Mike Martin’s spread pick and roll, transition heavy offense. Also, Darnell Foreman, Ryan Betley, and Antonio Woods have all defended poorly in pick and roll for the Red and Blue, which Brown will exploit. Brown posted 1.04 points per possession against the stifling Harvard defense last time out, becoming the only team to crack .90 points per possession against the Crimson.
The PICK: Brown +9, Over 146
Yale at Princeton -8 (6:00 pm ET) Similar to Brown/Penn, the bigger team (Yale) will need to chase the smaller team (Princeton) in motion. However, if Blake Reynolds returns to the Yale frontcourt tonight, the Elis will have the advantage at the rim. According to the Yale Daily News, he will play tonight:
“…the Bulldogs will be buoyed by the return of forward Blake Reynolds ’19, who suffered a hamstring injury two games ago and missed the Elis’ most recent contest against Dartmouth.”
Princeton’s outstanding trio of Amir Bell, Myles Stephens, and Devin Cannady will have an advantage on the perimeter. And Yale’s frontcourt duo of Reynolds and versatile 4 Miye Oni will also have a plus-matchup. However, I think Princeton can better exploit their advantage, as they at least have capable frontcourt defenders. Yale, meanwhile, really struggles to defend the perimeter. As for Makai Mason making his long awaited return to the lineup, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman has declared him doubtful for this weekend.
The PICK: Princeton -8
VCU/URI Over 151
Brown/Penn Over 146