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VCU to face Saint Louis in A-10 semifinals

If the second verse is the same as the first, as the old saying states, then how does the third verse go?

The No. 1 VCU Rams (25-7, 16-3 Atlantic 10) and the No. 4 Saint Louis Billikens (21-11, 13-6 A-10) will answer that question at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York at 1 p.m. on Saturday in the A-10 tournament semifinals.

The winner gets a chance to play for a conference title and an automatic bid to next week’s NCAA tournament on Sunday; the loser is almost certainly eliminated from tournament consideration (and in the case of Saint Louis, possibly eliminated from National Invitational Tournament consideration as well).

March is here, ladies and gentlemen.

Last time out: VCU 71, Davidson 53

Saturday’s game is the second time in two A-10 tournament games that VCU will face an opponent for the third time this season, completing a three-game sweep of the No. 8 Davidson Wildcats (16-16, 8-11 A-10) in dominant fashion on Thursday morning.

VCU set a season-high in field goal percentage (57.4%) and in blocks (10), while leading for the vast majority of the early afternoon contest. The contest also marked the seventh-straight victory for the Rams, a season-high streak for the black and gold.

Since the calendar flipped to 2023, the Rams have lost just once in a road or neutral site game and hold a nine-game win streak in such contest. On the season, VCU is 2-1 at the Barclays Center, including a key early season win against Pittsburgh on Nov. 17.

Depth was the name of the game on Thursday, with five Rams scoring nine or more points. VCU was led by three players with 11 points each: A-10 Player of the Year Ace Baldwin, sixth-man Jamir Watkins and sharpshooter David Shriver.

The bulk of Baldwin’s points came via the midrange, which has proven to be his most consistent offensive weapon. Watkins and Shriver, meanwhile, made it rain indoors in Brooklyn by each dropping three 3-pointers on the afternoon.

Jayden Nunn joined his teammates in double figures, scoring 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting; graduate student Brandon Johns Jr. scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds.

Sophomore Nick Kern led all players with a career-high nine rebounds, while Baldwin dished out a game-high six assists.

In sum, VCU’s bench scored 30 points for the second straight game, with 22 of those points courtesy of Watkins and Shriver. Zeb Jackson (six points) and Josh Banks (two points) made up the difference to push the Rams to 30 bench points.

VCU’s defense was exceptional, holding the Wildcats under 50% shooting and to just 3-of-12 from 3-point range. Foster Loyer and Sam Mennenga, Davidson’s two top scorers, shot a combined 6-of-19 on the afternoon – although Mennenga’s nine point, eight rebound day flirted with a double-double.

The one blemish on the day for VCU was the turnover battle, where the Rams and Wildcats played to a 12-12 draw. VCU averages 16.8 turnovers forced per game, good for eighth-best in the country.

Thursday’s game marked the first time Davidson has ever been eliminated from the A-10 tournament before the semifinals. The Rams, meanwhile, push their A-10 tournament record against the Wildcats to 4-0 all-time and have advanced to the A-10 tournament semifinals for the ninth time in 11 tournaments since joining the conference in 2012-13.

Up next: Saint Louis

No. 4 Saint Louis had a similar Thursday to VCU, cruising to the semifinals on the back of a dominant victory over No. 5 George Mason – which to that point had won seven-straight games.

The Billikens will have its full roster available for the game Saturday – including senior Francis Okoro, who missed the Feb. 28 game against VCU. That is the only game Okoro has missed this season.

The Billikens are led by star point guard Yuri Collins, who along with Baldwin was named to the All-A-10 First Team earlier this week. Collins is the only player in the country averaging a points-assist double-double (11.2 points, 10.1 assists) and is one of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which is awarded by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame to the nation’s top point guard.

Should Collins, the nation’s leader in total assists and assists average, end the season with a points-assists double-double, he will become just the fifth player ever to average double figures in both categories.

The St. Louis native holds every assists record in Saint Louis history – career, single-season and single game. He also holds A-10 records for single-season and career assist total and is the active career leader in assists across the NCAA.

Needless to say, the Collins-Baldwin point guard matchup could be the guard matchup of the entire tournament.

Joining Collins as players to watch is redshirt-sophomore Gibson Jimerson, who hails from Richmond. The 6-foot-5 guard leads Saint Louis in points per game with 14.3 and is one of two Billikens to start all 32 games so far this season. Jimerson led the team in scoring on Thursday with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the floor.

Senior Javonte Perkins joins Jimerson as the only other Billiken to have started all 32 games. The St. Louis native averages 10.9 points per game on 41.6% shooting.

Okoro’s return is another major key for Saint Louis, which is looking for its first win over VCU this year. Okoro averages a team-high 8.7 rebounds per game and snagged a team-high seven boards in the win over George Mason on Thursday.

Regular-season sweep

VCU is 2-0 on the season against the Billikens, starting with a 73-65 road win in a Friday night ESPN A-10 showcase game that proved to be the crown jewel in Baldwin’s season.

The junior guard scored a career-high 37 points – the most points scored by a Ram in almost five years – in the Feb. 3 game. The offensive explosion came on 12-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-5 from deep and a perfect 9-of-9 from the charity stripe.

Despite the nuclear performance by Baldwin, the game was back-and-forth throughout until the last five minutes of the game, when VCU began to pull away.

Baldwin was joined in double-figures by Johns (15 points) and Jalen DeLoach (13 points, 11 rebounds).

The win gave VCU the outright lead in the regular-season standings, an advantage the Rams would never surrender.

Saint Louis was led by Jimerson, who scored 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting – with the majority of his production coming in the first half. Collins was held quiet in terms of scoring, with just four points on 2-of-8 from the floor, but dished out a game-high 11 assists.

Jake Forrester (12 points) and Perkins (11 points) also tallied double figures, with Jimerson, Okoro and Sincere Parker each grabbing five rebounds.

VCU hosted the Billikens at the Siegel Center on Feb. 28 in what proved to be the coronation of the Rams as A-10 regular-season champions. VCU battled back from a 35-31 halftime deficit to secure a 79-67 victory and clinch the outright regular-season title for the second time since joining the A-10.

Six Rams tallied double digits on the night, led by DeLoach’s 14 points. Baldwin, Nunn and Kern all provided 12 points, with Johns and Watkins scoring 11 and 10 points, respectively.

VCU’s second half was among the best offensive halves the Rams have had this season. The Rams shot 62% during the half. Despite this, Saint Louis pulled to within one possession just before the final media timeout, but VCU ultimately pulled away.

The Rams defense forced 20 turnovers on the night and put the clamps on Collins, who turned the ball over eight times. Despite this, Collins fell two assists short of a double-double.

The game, VCU’s home finale, also saw the jersey retirement ceremony for VCU legend Charles Wilkins, who was the program’s first superstar after VCU basketball began play in 1968. Wilkins’ No. 40 became the seventh men’s jersey honored in the Siegel Center.

The numbers

  • As of Friday night, VCU is 70th in KenPom, while Saint Louis sits at 94th. KenPom projects VCU as 73-70 winners on Saturday and gives the Rams a 61% chance of winning.
  • The NET rankings give VCU a similar advantage: 63rd compered to 96th for Saint Louis. Since Saint Louis rose from 102nd to 96th after beating George Mason, Saturday’s game is now a Quadrant 2 opportunity for VCU. VCU is 2-4 in such games and has not played a Quadrant 2 or higher game in more than a month.
  • The A-10 is projected as a one-bid league, making Saturday’s game do-or-die for both teams. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects VCU as a seed as of Friday night, projected as the A-10’s automatic bid.
  • VCU last won the conference tournament in 2015. Among the semifinalists, only Saint Louis has a more recent A-10 title (2019). On the other side of the bracket, Dayton is looking for its first A-10 title in 20 years, while Fordham has never won the A-10 tournament since joining the conference in 1995.
  • Caesars Sportsbook lists VCU as four-point favorites, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Rams a 65.6% chance of winning.

Featured photo: Hunter Hensel/A10Talk