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Is this week make-or-break for VCU’s March hopes?

By the time you read this lede, the calendar on your wall, or your phone, or your desk, will have flipped to March.

Apart from showing warm weather on the horizon, the flip means even more to college basketball fans – the start of the most consequential stretch of games on the college basketball calendar, culminating with the NCAA Tournament in just over two weeks.

The first conference tournament of the season began on Feb. 28, with the opening round of the Northeast Conference Tournament tipping off on Monday night.

While the Atlantic 10 Tournament doesn’t open until next Wednesday, the tournament really begins on March 1 for the VCU Rams (20-7, 13-3 A-10).

Having avoided all the major low Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 “land mines” in the A-10, VCU now sets its sights on the final two games of the regular season, which see the Rams take on two of the top teams in the conference. In all likelihood, the Rams must walk away with wins in both contests to keep their at-large hopes alive for the NCAA Tournament.

Up first: The Bonnies come to town

In a rematch from a trip to Olean earlier this year, VCU will close out the home portion of its schedule with a visit from the defending A-10 champions, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (19-7, 11-4 A-10). The game will tip off at 8:30 p.m. from the Stuart C. Siegel Center at VCU.

St. Bonaventure enters the game with all the momentum in recent matchups. The Bonnies have won three of the last four times they played the Rams, including a 74-65 win in last year’s A-10 title game.

In the most recent meeting between the two schools, St. Bonaventure dominated throughout and ultimately won by 20 points, handing VCU its first loss in A-10 play for the season. The Jan. 14 matchup was sealed by a 17-2 run by the Bonnies in the middle of the game, effectively sealing the win for the Bonnies. The 73-53 loss is VCU’s only loss in a true road game this season.

Just like their last meeting, VCU enters the March 1 game against St. Bonaventure on a seven-game win streak. The streak has catapulted the Rams to second place in the A-10, with Saturday’s win against Massachusetts clinching a double-bye in the A-10 Tournament for the Rams.

Unlike their last meeting, the Bonnies and the Rams could each be without their best player.

In the Bonnies’ last game against St. Joseph’s, senior center Osun Osunniyi left the game after a hard fall with just over eight minutes to play. The reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year and A-10 Tournament MVP has been designated a “game-time decision” with an undisclosed ankle injury, according to St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt.

In their last meeting, Osunniyi tallied nine points and seven rebounds in 36 minutes of action.

If Osunniyi cannot play, Schmidt’s rotation will be altered significantly. One of the tightest rotations in college basketball, Schmidt is known for leaving his starters in for extended minutes, sometimes having multiple players play the entire game. In the Jan. 14 game against VCU, only seven Bonnies played iin the game, with every starter logging at least 34 minutes.

For VCU, question marks surround the availability of senior forward Vince Williams. Williams came up with a limp midway through the second half against George Mason but was not taken out of the game and played his regular role. In the UMass game, Williams left with a left ankle injury with just over 11 minutes to play and did not return.

Head coach Mike Rhoades termed Williams’ injury as a “slight sprain” and added that Williams planned to practice on Monday. While indications seem to be pointing to Williams playing Tuesday night, nothing has been definitively said one way or the other.

Williams leads the Rams in points per game and has proven to be a “Swiss army knife” type of player while building a resume that puts the Toledo, Ohio native in the conversation for A-10 Player of the Year. In the Jan. 14 game against the Bonnies, Williams tallied 12 points, four rebounds and three assists.

While just six weeks have passed since their last meeting, expect Tuesday night’s game to be radically different in terms of play style and available personnel than the Jan. 14 game.

Later on: Road tripping to Saint Louis

VCU will close out the season on the road, visiting reigning A-10 Player of the Week Francis Okoro and the Saint Louis Billikens (19-10, 10-6 A-10).

The Rams and the Billikens have yet to face each other, and Saturday’s game represents the final Quadrant 1 opportunity for VCU to further bolster its tournament resume. So far this season, VCU is 3-2 in Quadrant 1 games, with road wins against #25 Davidson, Vanderbilt and Dayton.

VCU and Saint Louis have played each other once per season in each of the last five seasons. In their last meeting on Feb. 23, 2021, VCU secured a narrow 67-65 win at the Siegel Center. Williams led VCU with 16 points while Ace Baldwin added 15 of his own. The Rams won without their leading scorer, A-10 Player of the Year Bones Hyland, who was out with injury.

The top two Saint Louis scorers in that game will not appear in the March 5 game. Hasahn French, who scored 21 points last season, now plays professionally in Slovenia. Javonte Perkins, who scored 16 points, suffered an injury in the preseason that ended his season before it even began.

The Billikens have had a back-and-forth close to the regular season, alternating wins and losses over the last five games. In their most recent outing, the Billikens lost a close 68-66 matchup on the road against the Richmond Spiders. Saint Louis’ next game will be on the road against a slumping Rhode Island team.

Aside from Okoro the top player to watch from Saint Louis is Yuri Collins, who is among the frontrunners for conference player of the year. Collins is averaging 11 points, 3.9 rebounds and eight assists per game and is among the best pure passers in the conference. Richmond, Virginia native Gibson Jimerson is the team’s leading scorer with 15.9 points per game and will also be one to watch against the Rams. Both players still have multiple years of eligibility left, proving that head coach Travis Ford has again cemented Saint Louis as one of the premier programs in the conference.

A win at Chaifetz Arena would give VCU a 4-2 record in Quadrant 1 games and a 7-6 record in Quadrants 1 and 2 – assuming games don’t shift quadrants in the coming weeks. With those games being heavily valued by the NCAA selection committee, the road trip to Saint Louis could be the most consequential game VCU plays in the regular season.

News nuggets

  • Saturday’s win against UMass was the 100th win for head coach Mike Rhoades at VCU. Rhoades joins Shaka Smart (163 wins), Sonny Smith (136 wins) and J.D. Barnett (132 wins) as the only coaches in program history to win 100 games. Rhoades is one of four VCU coaches (Smart, Barnett, Anthony Grant) to earn multiple NCAA Tournament bids at VCU.
  • Sam Hunt Racing, owned by VCU graduate Sam Hunt, began its second full season of competition in the NASCAR Xfinity Series earlier this month. The team’s best finish thus far is a third place finish the team’s flagship #26 Toyota earned at Richmond Raceway last September with driver John Hunter Nemechek.
  • Former VCU player Michael Gilmore has appeared in 15 games this season with the Wisconsin Herd, the NBA G-League affiliate of the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. Gilmore has averaged 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Gilmore spent two stints with VCU, playing for the Rams from 2014-2016 and again in the 2018-19 season. Gilmore joins fellow VCU alum Justin Tillman in representing VCU in the G-League.
  • For the second year in a row, the VCU women’s track and field team captured the A-10 indoor title. The win is the fifth in program history.
  • The VCU baseball season is underway, with the Rams picked as preseason favorites to take home the A-10 championship. Led by Preseason All-American infielder Tyler Locklear, VCU sits at 2-4 on the season. The team’s next game is a home game against #24 Old Dominion on Tuesday night.

A look at the metrics

As of Feb. 28, VCU sits 53rd in the NET rankings, trailing only Davidson among A-10 member schools.

  • VCU is 3-2 in Q1 games, 3-4 in Q2 games, 10-1 in Q3 games and 4-0 in Q4 games
  • VCU’s remaining games are a Q3 game (vs St. Bonaventure, 79th) and a Q1 game (@ Saint Louis, 63rd)
  • If St. Bonaventure moves up four spots in the NET, Tuesday night’s game becomes a critical Q2 game for VCU.

Per Bracket Matrix, VCU is included in 24 of the tracked brackets, trailing only Davidson among A-10 member schools. Davidson, as the current A-10 leaders, are typically selected as the conference’s “auto bid” in brackets.

KenPom is not as kind to the Rams. Per that metric, VCU is 65th, trailing Davidson, Dayton and Saint Louis. The site also shows how wide the gulf is between VCU’s offense and defense. Per KenPom, VCU ranks 253rd in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency but sits fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency.