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ReconU. Dayton BasketballRecon: Virginia Commonwealth

Dayton faces off against VCU in a key Atlantic Ten game Tuesday night

Another ho-hum blowout victory for your Flyers against UMass. As your insightful BR insiders have stated previously, the only thing stoppin’ this squad is an injury to one of their key cogs. Obi Toppin’s ankle sprain early in the second half chilled the Arena to whispers as the banal utility of what the Flyers have to endure over the next 15 games came into full view. It isn’t arrogance to think the Flyers likely win 16+ in the Atlantic Ten this season, a majority coming in double-digit margins. That’s simply the evidence presented before us, and the jury has found the rest of the league guilty, punishable by death.

Give credit to Anthony Grant, in the midst of another blowout he managed the minutes in a responsible and efficient manner. No starter played more than thirty minutes. Dwayne Cohill logged a season-high twenty minutes, CAG rolled out Chimichanga for an entertaining sixteen minutes, and even Jhery Matos (‘member him?) got a solid run in. Grant’s utilization of the bench is encouraging, it’s an admission that risk aversion is in the forefront of his mind.

I know what you are thinking — is this really what we have to look forward to as the rest of conference play rolls on? Until further notice, yes. This is the luxury Dayton’s performance this season has afforded them. Make no mistake, UD will lose a game or two in the A10, the odds dictate it. There will be nights when Toppin, Crutcher and Mikesell are on the floor for 34+ minutes. Although I loathe to use the term “load management,” an idiom borrowed shamelessly from the pornography industry, Grant’s minute governance will be the most vital part of his job until we reach the money making days of March.

That being said, we have a somewhat exciting week of basketball ahead of us: the Green Devils of the Richmond Professional Institute come calling tomorrow night, and the first game of the Arch Baron Cup will be a sock-hop in Saint Louis this Friday. I believe I speak for everyone when I proclaim, particularly this week — “let the rivers run red with the blood of the vanquished.” If Obi is on the floor with three minutes left in a blowout against VCU, well, I think I can live with that. Crutcher running the offense up seventeen late in the second half against SLU? I’ll allow it.

No one has a handle on this year’s VCU team. While the Rams are 12-4 on the season, their lone signature win came against LSU by two points back in November. VCU’s losses are nothing to be ashamed of — three-point defeats against Purdue and Tennessee, a loss at Wichita State and an uncharacteristic letdown against Rhode Island in the Cafenasium™ this past Saturday — there’s nothing to indicate that the Rams are a team to be feared.

Defensively, VCU is still elite. They force their opponents to turn the ball over on 26.5% of possessions, that’s second best in all of the land. The Rams prioritize guarding the three-point line and defend the lane better than any A10 team not named Saint Louis. On paper, Virginia Commonwealth has the best chance, of any team left on the schedule, to cause…havoc…when Dayton has the ball. In Marcus Santos-Silva (13.1 ppg/9.0 rpg), the Rams have a big body capable of making Obi Toppin earn every bucket. Santos-Silva is an above-average shot blocker, is very efficient offensively around the rim, and might be the best rebounder in the conference. VCU’s chances in tomorrow’s game will hinge on keeping the foul-prone Santos-Silva on the floor as much as possible.

Marcus Evans (11.1 ppg/3.1 apg) is months away from ending his Ram career and, while he never reached the heights predicted of him, he’s still a player who can heat up and win you, or lose you, a ballgame. Evans was never a consistently dependable perimeter shooter, the term “volume scorer” is more fitting. He will get to the line and make tough shots in the lane. He is either hot or cold, no in between. De’Riante Jenkins and Isaac Vann are finally in their senior season as well (next year might be a rough one for the Rams). Jenkins (10.8 ppg/4.2 rpg) has been struggling behind the arc this season but is still doing the little things that make him VCU’s best all-around player. Remember the unmitigated hype surrounding Isaac Vann (6.2 ppg/2.1 rpg) when he transferred in from Maine? All hat, no cattle. Regardless, he remains the Rams’ best on-ball defender and an excellent scorer in transition.

While this season was supposed to be the best of Mike Rhoades’ tenure at Virginia Commonwealth, it seems the Rams will likely not reach their pre-season expectations. VCU failed to capitalize on its chances in the non-conference, close losses to Purdue and Tennessee were games the Rams let slip away, and those pair of defeats will probably come back to haunt them come Selection Sunday. Their lone signature win this season came against LSU and a loss against UD tomorrow would have the Rams looking at a 2-2 record in league play. While the matchup with the Flyers is not necessarily a must-win for Rhoades squad, a victory would put them back on the path, albeit a long track, towards the NCAA Tournament.

It will be a surprise to no one reading this where the metrics for VCU sit on both offense and defense. Since joining the Atlantic 10, the Rams have succeeded by playing physical defense that turns their opponents over while trying to piece together enough on offense to win. The former of that equation remains constant while the success of the latter can fluctuate game to game. 

The impressive defensive stats that are ever present for VCU are seen in this season’s squad. On defense, the Rams have forced opponents into a turnover rate of 26.5%, the second highest of all Division 1 squads. They block 14.7% of attempts, 22nd highest of any team in these here United States. They have a hack an opponent but not have the refs call it steal rate of 13.7%, 5th highest among all teams. Their 89.7 KenPom defensive efficiency rate sums their defensive prowess up nicely and is good enough for 26th in Division 1.

 In addition to the typical defensive metrics we would look at, another stat that stuck out to me when crunching the numbers is the 18.7 seconds VCU’s opponents typically spend on offense each possession. To me this signifies that when the Rams aren’t turning their opponents over, they are frustrating them on offense for much of the shot clock. This frustration is leading to opponents of VCU taking bad shots frequently, with the Rams opponents taking a mid-range jump shot on 24.7% of the time and a shot 25 seconds or later in the possession 21.5% of the time, the latter stat being the highest percentage of any defense in the A10. Dayton’s offense has been efficient all season, but it could face the strongest defense it has possibly faced since Kansas.

Anyone who saw VCU and Rhode Island throw gigantic rocks off the backboard for two hours Saturday after the conclusion of the Dayton-UMass game like I did knows that offensive performance is what is keeping VCU from being on a similar level to UD so far. They are averaging 1.027 points per possession so far this season, which is only a slight downturn from their 1.034 points per possession they put forth last season. The fact VCU has only had a slight regression in offensive performance from last year where they ran away with the conference at a canter is more of an indictment on the sorry state of the Atlantic 10 last year than an indicator of the Rams’ performances.

While VCU might be scoring at a similar rate as they did last season, where they are finding success has been flipped. The types of shots the Rams have taken this season and last season remain similar, but last year the Rams were much more efficient at the rim, scoring 1.30 points per shot at the rim while this season they are scoring a below league average 1.13 points per shot at the rim. VCU have made up for that lack of efficiency at the rim by being a far better perimeter shooting team. This year the Rams are averaging 1.04 points per shot from three, a huge improvement from the 0.91 points per shot they averaged in 2018-19. This is reflected in their traditional shooting numbers as well, hitting 34.8% of the threes they have attempted compared to 30.5% last season. We see the inverse with their field goal percentage at the rim, hitting 56.3% of their shots at the rim, a regression from the 65% they shot last year.

The change in where VCU is and is not successful has a lot to do with the play of their two best players, Marcus Evans and Marcus Santos-Silva. Last season, Santos-Silva surprised a few people with his efficient scoring in addition to his ability to block shots and corral rebounds. This was reflected in his 118.1 offensive rating last season, where he also put up a 59.5% effective field goal rate. The 6’7’’ Junior is still scoring efficiently for VCU this season, with a 91st ranked in the country 60.6% effective field goal rate. Yet his overall offensive rating has dropped slightly to 111.9 this season. 

This is still an impressive number that signifies the Flyers will need to stop, but the slight dip in this metric is likely due to the increase in usage and Santos-Silva attempting a few more mid-range jumpers. Last season, Santos-Silva had a usage rate of 21.6%, which would put him in the “significant contributor” range. This season he is being relied on even more on offense for VCU, accounting for a 25.2% usage rate which is the second highest on the VCU squad. As usage rate goes up, typically efficiency goes down and that seems to be the case here. 

I’ve beat over your head this season that mid-range jump shots are inefficient boondoggles on the court. With Santos-Silva shouldering more of the Ram load (*snickers*), he has taken a few more of these enemies of efficient basketball. Last season, Santos-Silva took only 20% of his field goal attempts from the mid-range. This season it has increased to 30.3%. Given he is only scoring 0.79 points per shot on these attempts compared to 1.39 on shots at the rim, if Dayton can force Marcus Santos-Silva into these mid-range jumpers, it can go a long way into neutralizing the VCU offense.

Marcus Evans will be a name Flyer fans are familiar with, hitting the winning shot at UD Arena with six seconds remaining last season and scoring 17 points in the Rams win at the Siegel Shoebox. The senior guard has always been great at setting up his teammates and we see that again this year with a 23.7% assist rate. Though his winning shot at UD Arena last season was a layup, Evans has never been a guard that likes to put his head down and drive; only taking 23% of his shots at the rim last season and 19.2% of them this season.

Last year, Evans took a decent amount of mid-range jump shots and surprisingly did alright scoring from them. In 2018-19, he took 30.4% of his field goal attempts from the mid-range and averaged 1.04 points per shot on them. This jump shooting ability did not translate from the beyond the perimeter, where he only shot 27.3%. He still took plenty of deep shots, shooting 46.6% of his attempts from there but he only averaged 0.82 points per shot on them.

Maybe it was just bad luck for Evans, as his perimeter shooting has greatly improved this season. Still taking 52% of his shots from the three-point line, Evans had made 38.5% of those attempts which averages to 1.15 points per shot. This is a huge improvement for a player and makes him a potent threat from deep. Dayton might have been able to go under Evans on the perimeter last season, but that won’t be the case here. The good news is that if the Flyers are able to contain Evans and Santos-Silva, there does not seem to be any VCU players that can match the output of those two players. Stopping them will be vital to a Flyer victory. 

Tori, of VCU twitter fame, has blocked everyone in the entire UD websphere. A quite remarkable turn of event, personally I was always a big Tori supporter and can only hope she will come back to me, someday. I assume she is preemptively shutting down the possibility of a long Tuesday night on Twitter, I understand it.

Anyway, if any team can keep within striking distance and make Dayton engage in a rock fight it’s VCU. The Rams will try to out-physical the Flyers, and given Dayton’s penchant for finessee play, it’s a sound strategy. I have to believe Grant is going to attack Santos-Silva from the jump and try to get the big man in foul trouble (at least that’s what your boy would do). Marcus Evans is going to have difficulty getting untracked against Dayton’s guards, a bad omen for Rhoades’ crew. Dayton wins a fairly competitive ballgame, 72-63.

Tom Blackburn

Tom Blackburn is a proud U. o' D. alum. He loses faith in humanity one day at a time, but not in you, you seem like you are all kinds of alright. Charter member of the T-Man fanclub.

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