Saint Louis guard Mike McCall Jr. (11) battles for a rebound against VCU guard Briante Weber, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. Saint Louis beat VCU 64-62.(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee) EDWARDSVILLE INTELLIGENCER OUT; THE ALTON TELEGRAPH OUT
AMHERST — From the moment the University of Massachusetts’ 2013-14 men’s basketball schedule came out, Friday’s game against Virginia Commonwealth (7 p.m. Mullins Center) was one to circle on the calendar. Both teams entered the season with entertaining playing styles and high expectations.
Nothing that’s happened since then has diminished the anticipation. Both teams have been ranked in the top 25 at points this season. Both are in the mix for a bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and both are included in all major NCAA Tournament field projections. The game was been sold out for weeks.
“You have two teams that are competing and fighting for the same stuff, that are both thought of as pretty good teams. It’s a fun game,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “It’s a good game for our league. I just hope we play well. ... We’ve had some sellouts this year and those games have been fun. They help you. We’ve played better with some good crowds and it’ll be fun to play a good game against a really, really good team again at home.”
UMass sophomore Trey Davis, who struggled against the Rams last year, especially in Richmond was eager to play them again.
“It’s a big time game. Everybody wants to play in this game,” he said. “We just have to come out and bring it as a team. You don’t want to lose this game. It’s becoming a rivalry now.”
The game is a rare Friday game, scheduled specially for a spot on ESPN2. It’s Friday’s only nationally televised game. UMass senior guard Chaz Williams was looking forward to the experience.
“Where else would you want to be on a Friday night, but in a sold out arena with your fans behind you?” he said. “It’s the best.”
VCU isn’t as effective on the road (4-4) as they are at home (13-0), where the roar of the crowd is an intimidating part of their trademarked Havoc defense, which pressures and traps opponents all over the floor for the entire game. But even on the road, VCU is tough to play against.
To be successful, the Minutemen will have to effectively deal with Rams junior guard Briante Weber, who is the most disruptive defensive force in the conference and among the most disruptive in the nation. He leads Division I in steals per game (3.73) and total steals (97). VCU’s 11.7 steals per game and 304 total also lead the nation.
“They’re going to double us and trap us. We have to get it out quick and knock down our shots,” Davis said. “It’s all about not having that many turnovers.”
Kellogg said Havoc is impossible to simulate.
“It’s always difficult to prepare for no matter what you do. They operate at a different speed and it’s hard to duplicate how they play,” Kellogg said.
UMass is hoping to avenge a pair of losses to the Rams last year. In the regular season meeting in Richmond, the Minutemen led at halftime, but VCU used a 21-1 run out of intermission and crushed UMass in the second half en route to an 86-68 final.
In the Atlantic 10 semifinal in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Minutemen were within four points with under two minutes left but the Rams pulled away, 71-62, a game that ended UMass’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
The Minutemen turned the ball over 24 times in the first game and 23 in the second. Kellogg thought the maturation of Davis and the addition of Derrick Gordon made his team better prepared to handle Havoc.
“Last year we didn’t have many guys that could dribble,” Kellogg said. “Trey was still getting comfortable with how we play and we didn’t have a lot of guys that were natural ball-handlers. With D.G., Trey and Chaz we at least have three guys that are confident handling the ball.”
VCU coach Shaka Smart added his name to a long list of opposing coaches to rave about Williams.
“He’s a great player. He’s someone as good as anybody in our conference, and he’s been that way for a long time,” Smart said at his weekly press conference at VCU. “He’s made a lot of winning plays over the years, throughout games and then particularly, at the end of games. The most obvious attribute he has is his great quickness and explosiveness. He’s a guy that’s really low to the ground and explosive and you can’t relax at all when you’re guarding him. And then he uses that quickness on defense, as well. He’s a guy that we certainly need to be aware of and need to defend with five guys.”
The Rams (20-6, 8-3 A-10) arrive in Amherst tied for second in the conference with Saint Joseph’s, a game ahead of the Minutemen (20-5, 7-4), who are in fifth. George Washington is fourth at (8-4).
After winning six straight games, VCU has lost two of their last three, sandwiching a win over GW between losses at St. Joe’s and Saint Louis. Junior guard Treveon Graham leads VCU with 15.7 points to go with his 6.9 rebounds. Senior big man Juvonte Reddic averaged 12.4 points and 8.3 rebounds.
STATS — Williams enters the game needing 14 points to pass Harper Williams at No. 9 on UMass’ career scoring list. Chaz Williams needs 23 assists to pass Chris Lowe (678) and become the program’s all-time leader in the category.
PROMOTIONS — The first 8,000 fans entering the game get rally towels and the first 3,000 get T-shirts. UMass Student Athlete Advisory Committee is requesting nonperishable donations to benefit the Amherst Survival Center at both UMass’ basketball and hockey games this weekend.