Game PreviewsVCU

Sweet Home Chicago: VCU to face Ramblers for first time in history

According to Sports Reference, Virginia Commonwealth University has faced 219 Division I or equivalent schools since joining Division I in 1973-74.

On Tuesday night, Loyola University Chicago will become opponent No. 220.

The VCU Rams (11-5, 2-1 Atlantic 10) will begin a two-game swing through the A-10’s westward flank, beginning with a Tuesday night trip back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago and the conference’s newest entrant, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (6-9, 0-3 A-10).

Both teams are tournament darlings of yesteryear, with iconic appearances in the NCAA Tournament Final Four in the last 12 years. The Ramblers in recent years became the cream of the crop in the Missouri Valley Conference before joining the A-10 in 2022. Before this season, the Ramblers have appeared in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, highlighted by a Final Four run in 2018.

But the jump to the A-10 has proven problematic for the Ramblers so far this season, as head coach Drew Valentine and team are still in search of their first win in A-10 play. Entering Wednesday, Loyola is one of only two schools in the A-10 without a conference win (St. Joseph’s).

VCU hits the road with momentum following a dominant home win against Davidson on Saturday. But, the Rams are without a true road victory, with the only blemish on their conference schedule being a nine-point loss at Duquesne.

Per Caesars Sportsbook, the Rams are three-point road favorites over the Ramblers. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. Tuesday night from the Joseph J. Gentile Arena in Chicago and will be televised on CBS Sports Network.

Last time out: VCU 89, Davidson 72

For the fourth consecutive game, VCU trailed its opponent by double figures in the first half.

For the third time in four games, the Rams took home the victory.

Davidson started the game out hot at the Siegel Center on Saturday, building a 10-0 lead in the first 3:38 of game time. But, by the time the teams hit the locker room at the half, the Wildcats trailed 41-29.

VCU’s ability to claw back on Saturday afternoon came down to an area that has been a weakness in recent seasons: 3-point shooting. The Rams entered the game ranked 289th in made 3-pointers on the season, up slightly from being ranked 316th the season prior.

Nobody told David Shriver that bit of information. The Hartford transfer, brought in for his sharpshooting ability, knocked down a VCU career-high six 3-pointers on his way to an 18-point afternoon, his season-high.

Shriver’s range lit up the scoreboard and at times looked more like something out of “NBA Jam” than range you see in a real-life mid-major college game.

The graduate student from West Virginia had been streaky during the year, riding a significant cold streak before being pressed into the starting lineup on Dec. 17 against Northern Illinois after fellow graduate student Brandon Johns Jr. was a late scratch.

On that day, Shriver shot 4-for-7 from the floor in 25 minutes of action, scoring a then-season-high 14 points.

While the stat sheet hasn’t shown it, Shriver has continued to look better in the latter part of December before exploding against Davidson. His 30 minutes off the bench marked a season-high for both Shriver personally and for any VCU bench player.

The 3-point onslaught wasn’t limited to Shriver. Sophomore guard Jayden Nunn added four 3-pointers of his own, on his way to a 12-point afternoon on 80% shooting. Like Shriver, Nunn only shot the ball from deep.

Leading the Rams in scoring was junior guard Ace Baldwin, who put up 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Baldwin added three 3-pointers of his own, to pair with a team-high eight assists. The Baltimore native showed his passing acumen in the second half, where he recorded seven of his assists while consistently making plays.

Jamir Watkins (10 points) and Johns (14 points) joined the scoring onslaught by contributing double figures as well. In sum, VCU made 15 3-pointers during Saturday’s game, the most by any Rams team since a 15 3-pointer games against Grambling State in November 2017.

Additionally, Saturday was the first time VCU had five double-digit scorers since last February’s win at George Mason. Baldwin and Nunn scored in double figures in that game, joined by former VCU players Hason Ward, KeShawn Curry and Vince Williams.

For a VCU team that has struggled offensively for much of the year – and continued to struggle opening on Saturday – the last 36 minutes were exactly what the doctor ordered against a solid Davidson team. The 89 points scored by VCU Saturday is its second-best scoring output of the year, one point behind the 90-point day against Northern Illinois.

Meet your opponent: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

It came as a bit of a surprise when it was announced in November 2021 that the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers were joining the A-10 as the conference’s 15th team.

The move made sense for a conference looking to add high-caliber programs: the Ramblers were in the midst of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and had achieved consistent success under head coach Porter Moser. Moser left the program in 2021 to take the job at Oklahoma, elevating Valentine to head coach.

Among college basketball fans Loyola is notable for its 1963 national title. The Ramblers won the 1963 NCAA championship game in overtime, defeating Cincinnati 60-58. The win was notable beyond the game for being the first time a team started four Black players in the NCAA title game, breaking a longstanding gentlemen’s agreement to not play more than three Black players at once. Head coach George Ireland consistently started four Black players in 1962-63, a move that helped usher racial equality into college basketball. Earlier in the NCAA Tournament, Loyola defeated Mississippi State – which at that time was racially segregated – in the game dubbed the “Game of Change.”

The most famous member of the Ramblers team today is not a player on the floor – it is Sister Jean, the team’s 103-year-old chaplain. Sister Jean first caught national attention during the Ramblers’ 2018 Final Four run and remains popular today, even inspiring her own bobblehead. She remains the program’s team chaplain today, a role she has held since 1994.

On the floor, Valentine and the Ramblers have not lived up to expectations in 2022-23. The Ramblers enter Tuesday night’s game on a four-game losing streak, beginning with the non-conference finale against Stanford. All three of Loyola’s A-10 losses have been by double-digits, including a 23-point loss to Davidson on Jan. 4.

Loyola’s leading scorer on the season is junior forward Philip Alston, who is averaging 14.4 points per game. In Loyola’s most recent game, an 86-75 loss to George Mason, Alston matched his Loyola career-high with 23 points. The outing was his third 20-point game of the season for the Ramblers’ offensive leader.

With a nod to our friends at 3 Bid League Pod, redshirt-senior Braden Norris is the roster’s biggest “triple nickel” threat. The Ohio native stuffed the stat sheet against George Mason, providing 12 points, five rebounds and a game-high seven assists. Norris is the team’s leading assist man and second-leading scorer.

Redshirt-freshman Ben Schwieger flirted with a double-double against George Mason, falling one rebound short. On the season, he is averaging 10.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game and is among the team’s strongest offensive threats.

One player for the Ramblers is questionable entering Tuesday. Sophomore forward Saint Thomas missed the George Mason game with an undisclosed injury, and his availability for the VCU game is unclear. Thomas averages 3.2 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.

Mo says… score?

In the NFL regular season finale on Jan. 8, VCU’s only football player in school history put highlights on tape once again.

Former VCU star Mo Alie-Cox, who played for the Rams from 2013 until 2017, caught a go-ahead touchdown for the Indianapolis Colts late in their game against the Houston Texans. The touchdown was his third of the season and 11th of his career – all with the Colts.

Before the 2022 season, Alie-Cox signed a three-year, $17.55 million contract with the Colts. The 2022 season marked his fifth in the NFL.

A fan favorite at VCU, Alie-Cox was known for his exciting shot blocking and memorable “Mo says no!” catchphrase. Alie-Cox remains second in career blocks and field goal percentage at VCU and is 35th on VCU’s all-time scoring list.

Brandenberg returns to the Stu

One of the best moments during Saturday’s game came during a timeout, when VCU recognized alum Rob Brandenberg.

A member of the 2011 Final Four team, Brandenberg was a regular starter during his final two years at VCU, which coincided with VCU’s move to the Atlantic 10 in 2012. He led the Rams in field goal percentage in 2013-14, shooting 44-for-55 on the year. He is 28th on VCU’s all-time scoring list with 1,219 career points and was named to the 2014 A-10 All Tournament Team.

In October, Brandenberg was reported missing by his family, and was found safely on Oct. 12. On Saturday, the VCU fans in attendance at the Siegel Center showed love and support for Brandenberg, a fan favorite and VCU legend, in his Siegel Center return.