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A10 Tournament Preview: VCU opens A10 tourney against familiar foe

College basketball at its heart is a cruel game.

Seasons end for most schools not with a triumphant victory, but with a postseason defeat. The way the NCAA and conference tournament structure is set up, well over 95% of schools end their seasons with a devastating loss, ending the seasons of our favorite players and the careers of our favorite upperclassmen.

The antidote to certainty? Just win, baby.

The VCU Rams will look to do just that, opening its conference tournament appearance on Friday afternoon against a Dayton Flyers team coming off a comfortable victory against the Rhode Island Rams.

VCU must view that as a win: Rhode Island has eliminated VCU from the last three Atlantic 10 tournaments and historically plays VCU well, no matter what the matchup looks like on paper. The sighs of relief once Dayton secured the victory Thursday likely raised the wind speeds throughout downtown Richmond.

Now on tap for the Rams and the Flyers is a relatively rare occurrence: a chance to face the same team for the third time. Will VCU secure a 3-0 sweep, or will Dayton make the third time a charm when it counts the most? We will see Friday afternoon at the Stuart C. Siegel Center in Richmond, Virginia.

Who will play for VCU?

The last time VCU played was six days ago, on the road against Davidson. While the scoreboard shows a loss for VCU, the true damage from that game transcends the “L” in the scorebook.

Bones Hyland, the leading candidate for A10 Player of the Year, missed the game. It was the second game missed for Hyland after he suffered an ankle injury late in the Feb. 20 loss to George Mason.

In addition, junior guard KeShawn Curry missed the game due to personal reasons. Curry has taken time away from the team to be with his family after the death of his brother. Head coach Mike Rhoades and the VCU program has stressed that Curry should take as much time as he needs away from the team.

During the game, Mikeal Brown-Jones and Vince Williams, two impact players for the Rams, suffered injuries. Williams suffered an ankle injury that appeared similar to Hyland’s, which necessitated ice on the sidelines. Brown-Jones dislocated his finger during the week and aggravated the injury during the Davidson game, causing him to miss the remainder of the contest.

While KeShawn Curry will not return to the team this week, VCU fans got good news Thursday on the trio of injured Rams. Williams, the team’s second-leading scorer and most consistent 3-point shooter, is “set to play” Friday, per the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Wayne Epps Jr. Mikael Brown-Jones is also set to play, giving the Rams much needed depth.

As for Hyland, Rhoades is playing it close to the vest, only saying that he is “day-to-day.” With an at-large bid virtually secure, Rhoades needs to balance the long-term success of the Rams with the pursuit of a conference title when evaluating Hyland. Expect Hyland to play but look for more updates as tip-off draws nearer. Either way, the VCU team hitting the floor in conference play will be a healthier version of the one that played Davidson last week.

Three is a magic number

VCU and Dayton will face off for the third time this season in the A10 quarterfinals. Both regular-season meetings were convincing victories for VCU, who won on the road in January and at the Siegel Center in February.

Friday’s game will count as a home game for VCU, like the January meeting between these teams. VCU put on a defensive clinic, holding the Flyers to 43 points as Bones Hyland scored 28 points on his own. Hyland made five 3-pointers, far and away leading all scorers.

In the January meeting, four Rams scored double-digit points, led by Williams and Hyland, who both had 19. Williams also made it rain in UD Arena, knocking down five triples. The defense also smothered Dayton star guard Jalen Crutcher, who was held to eight points in 40 minutes played.

These games seem to point to a convincing Ram win again in March. But March is where logic and reason can be thrown out of the window, where upsets rule the day. While the A10 tournament has had a chalky taste through the Thursday games, the conference has a penchant for wild outcomes and improbable upsets. Take Dayton for example, who regularly defeat the top teams in the conference while struggling against teams that wound up playing in the Wednesday afternoon tournament games.

Take it from the New Orleans Saints: it is hard to defeat the same team three times in a single season.

Dayton: Last time out and ones to watch

Dayton is coming off a Thursday night victory against Rhode Island to open the tournament, building positive momentum for a team that has ridden a roller coaster to close the season. The Flyers lost to Saint Joseph’s by double-digits on Feb. 24 but closed the season with a 55-52 win on Monday against the top team in the conference, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies.

A potential stumbling block for the Flyers is the fact that this will be their third game in five days, but there is something to be said about positive momentum.

Dayton showed no signs of fatigue Thursday, winning 84-72. Guard Ibi Watson went nuclear, scoring 25 on nine made shots, including six made 3-pointers. Crutcher continued to cap off his incredible college career on a high note, scoring 14 points and dishing out seven assists. Mustapha Amzil, one of the elite freshmen in the conference, added 14 points of his own off the bench.

Dayton is perhaps under-seeded as a #7 seed. The top half of the A10 is relatively deep, meaning that Dayton appears to be a team more worthy of a seed around the #5 seed range. Even though VCU has defeated Dayton twice already this year, it is important to realize that Dayton is still a very capable team, potentially able to run the table in March.

Predictions

The last time VCU and Dayton faced off in the postseason was in the 2018 A10 tournament, with the #8 seeded VCU Rams defeating the #9 seeded Dayton Flyers 77-72 in Washington D.C. Jalen Crutcher, who had seven points and eight rebounds, is the only Flyer left from that team. None of the 10 players that appeared for the Rams in that game are on the current VCU team.

#2 VCU (17-6 overall) are likely going to be the odds favorites in Vegas. They will have an almost unheard-of luxury in having home-court advantage in a postseason tournament. While crowds will be small due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which nukes a lot of the home floor advantage Siegel provides, there is still something to be said about being able to sleep in your own bed in the playoffs.

#7 Dayton (14-8 overall) have begun to build momentum. As a senior, Crutcher will be fighting for his basketball life on Friday, fighting to extend his career for one more day. Crutcher is dynamic and able to take over the game in a way that only one Ram can, and he is questionable to play. While it seems like everything is pointing to a Ram win, don’t be surprised if Dayton pulls off the upset.

Look for VCU shot-blocker Hason Ward, Dayton guard Rodney Chatman and VCU sixth-man Jamir Watkins to break out in this game. All three fill their roles on their respective teams very well and should be exciting to watch.

In the end, VCU seems to be the more talented team this season, even with the injury questions around Williams and Hyland. I anticipate a close and fun game but look for the Rams to pull off the win on Friday afternoon.

Jason’s Pick: VCU 72, Dayton 68 (Jason’s record: 2-2)

Perfect for those of you that want to take an early weekend, Dayton v. VCU will tip off at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. NBC Sports Network will have the coverage.