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Key ‘Rhode’ game up ahead for VCU

Besides the VCU Rams, there are 14 other schools in the Atlantic 10 conference.

Only one has a winning record against VCU: the Rhode Island Rams.

VCU will look to avenge the ghosts of team’s past on Wednesday night in Kingston, Rhode Island, as this year’s A-10-leading VCU squad (18-7, 9-3 A-10) looks to get back on track against a struggling Rhode Island team (8-16, 4-8 A-10).

Wednesday night’s Rams vs. Rams matchup will tip off at 7 p.m. Wednesday night from the Thomas M. Ryan Center in Rhode Island. VCU enters as 7.5-point road favorites against Rhode Island, who has lost its last three games. The game will air locally in the Richmond area on MASN.

The Ram Rivalry

Historically, VCU has struggled against the blue-and-white Rams from up north.

Entering Wednesday’s matchup, Rhode Island has an 11-9 advantage in the all-time series, including a 10-1 stretch from 2017 through 2021.

Much of that run was powered by former head coach Dan Hurley, who led Rhode Island to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2017 and 2018 and an A-10 Tournament title in 2017. Coincidentally, that 2017 A-10 Tournament win came against VCU, with the Rams from Rhode Island taking a 70-63 win in the title game in Pittsburgh.

The 2017 title game win was the first of three consecutive A-10 tournaments where Rhode Island eliminated VCU. Favorites or underdogs, under Hurley or David Cox, it didn’t seem to matter. For whatever reason, Rhode Island seemed to always have VCU’s number in key games.

The domination got to the point where when Rhode Island was eliminated from the A-10 Tournament in 2021, memes were made celebrating the loss – despite the fact that VCU was a much-higher seed and would have been favored in a potential matchup.

In recent games, VCU has turned the tide in the rivalry, with two consecutive wins against Rhode Island. The most recent matchup came just over a year ago, with VCU defeating Rhode Island 73-64 at the Siegel Center. KeShawn Curry led the Rams with 28 points on that night, with Hason Ward adding 13 points and 10 rebounds to secure the early February win.

VCU’s trip to Rhode Island is the first in two years. The last time the VCU Rams saw the Ryan Center, they walked away as 63-62 winners on the strength of double-digit scoring nights from Bones Hyland (23) and Levi Stockard III (15) respectively. Only three players who appeared in that game remain on the roster this season (Ace Baldwin, Jamir Watkins and Josh Banks).

Archie’s back!

VCU fans will see a familiar face on the opposing bench Wednesday night.

Last March, Rhode Island and head coach David Cox parted ways less than 12 hours after Rhode Island was eliminated from the A-10 tournament by Richmond. Cox left Rhode Island after four seasons, having earned a winning record in conference play just once.

In Cox’s place stepped another ghost of VCU’s past – former Dayton head coach Archie Miller.

Miller was hired by Rhode Island on March 18, 2022, just over a year after being fired by Indiana. Prior to coaching at Indiana, Miller helmed the Flyers for six seasons, earning two A-10 regular season titles and four NCAA Tournament berths.

Miller was already at Dayton when VCU joined the A-10, and it was under Miller when the budding VCU-Dayton rivalry began to flower as both teams fought at the top of the conference standings. VCU’s only A-10 Tournament title was earned in 2015 against Miller’s Flyers, as Shaka Smart coached the Rams to a 71-65 win in Brooklyn.

The two teams traded victories while Miller was at Dayton, with VCU holding a 4-3 all-time lead against Archie Miller-led teams. The last time Miller coached against the Rams was in March 2017, when he led the Flyers to a 79-72 win against Will Wade’s VCU team. Both teams earned NCAA Tournament bids that season, coincidentally along with the A-10 champion Rhode Island Rams.

Miller returns to the A-10 following an underwhelming four seasons at Indiana where he never finished above sixth in the Big Ten. He earned one postseason bid in three opportunities, leading the Hoosiers to the NIT Quarterfinals in 2019.

Last time out: Dayton 62, VCU 58

VCU returns to action on Wednesday night for the first time in eight days, following a 62-58 home loss to Dayton on Gold Out night.

The Rams trailed at the halftime break and at the final buzzer by four points, playing a tightly-contested game despite Dayton feeling in control for much of the game.

The story of the night was free throws. VCU shot 10-for-20 from the stripe on Feb. 7, in many cases forfeiting the second shot on 1-and-1 opportunities when Dayton was in the bonus. That season-worst night at the line, coupled with a 4-for-19 night from beyond the arc, doomed the Rams as they could not score aside from the paint and midrange.

The second half saw the wheels come off offensively, as VCU was held to 32.14% shooting from the floor and an 0-for-9 mark from deep. In sum, the Rams were outshot and outrebounded by the visiting Flyers, who took a road win roughly four weeks after giving up a multiple-possession lead to VCU at UD Arena in a Friday night showcase matchup.

Dayton’s Toumani Camara was the player of the game, scoring a 26-point, 15 rebound double-double in the win. VCU was led in scoring by Ace Baldwin, who scored 14 on a 6-for-21 night. Jalen DeLoach fell one rebound short of a double-double while scoring 11 points, and sophomore guard Jayden Nunn provided 10 points on similar efficiency to Baldwin.

Despite the loss, there were still positives to glean from the Feb. 7 game. VCU forced 17 turnovers on the night, leading to 20 points. VCU’s defense held the Flyers to under 45% from the floor and under 35% from deep, keeping the Rams in the game despite the offensive struggles.

VCU also remains in the driver’s seat in terms of earning the A-10 regular season title. Entering Wednesday, VCU sits at 9-3 in the conference, a half-game up on the Flyers and one game ahead of Fordham and Saint Louis. VCU holds the head-to-head advantage against Saint Louis and has split the head-to-head against Dayton. VCU has yet to play Fordham and has one more game to play against the Billikens.

Meet your opponent: Rhode Island

Rhode Island has struggled in the first season of the Archie Miller era.

Entering Wednesday, Rhode Island sat 13th in the A-10 standings, continuing to backslide after three consecutive losses. In the last eight games, the Rams are 2-6, with both wins coming by five or fewer points.

The team took a further hit over the weekend, with the dismissal of Brayon Freeman from the team.

Freeman’s dismissal was announced on Monday afternoon, two days after Rhode Island’s 75-67 road loss to George Mason. Freeman scored 11 points in the loss, trailing only Jalen Carey for the team’s high on the day.

Miller confirmed Freeman’s departure on Monday afternoon in a press conference that was light on details on why the departure occurred. The Providence Journal reported Freeman is expected to remain enrolled at the school through the semester to complete his academic requirements and will likely enter the transfer portal for the second time in his career.

Freeman has appeared in all but one of Rhode Island’s games and is second on the team in points per game with 14.3. His 34% from 3-point range and 27 steals ranks him among the team leaders in both categories, while KenPom lists Freeman as having the highest usage rate on the team. His 64 total assists lead the Rams.

Moving forward, Rhode Island will likely continue to rely on redshirt sophomore Ishmael Leggett. The Maryland native is the only Rhode Island player to start every game and leads the team in points per game with 15.9. Leggett is second on the team in rebounds per game with 5.9 and is third in assists with 57 total.

Of the remaining players on the roster, Leggett is the only player with a usage rate above 24%. He has also been listed as KenPom “MVP” seven times during the season, including in Rhode Island’s most recent win against La Salle.

Other players of note for Rhode Island include leading rebounder Malik Martin and Jalen Carey, who is just under 10 points per game and is coming off a 21-point game in the loss to George Mason. Carey and Martin both started in the George Mason loss along with Alex Tcikou, who provided 10 points on the strength of a perfect night from the line.

A quick history lesson…

Have you ever wondered why VCU is the Rams? The reason has roots with the Rhode Island Rams.

Before becoming VCU, what is now the Monroe Park Campus of VCU was known as Richmond Professional Institute, which was an affiliate school of the College of William and Mary. When athletics began at the school, RPI’s sports teams were known as the Green Devils after a vote from the students, with a green color scheme to match.

In 1962, the Virginia General Assembly dissolved the William and Mary colleges system, making RPI an independent state university. With the newfound independence, the school took on a blue and grey color scheme following the recommendation of the RPI School of Art faculty, which was meant to symbolize a combination of north and south.

Since the color scheme no longer matched the Green Devils name, VCU needed a new mascot.

Tasked with the rebrand was Ed Allen, who served as RPI’s baseball coach, basketball coach and athletic director. Allen, a graduate of the University of Rhode Island, did not have to look far for RPI’s new mascot, and chose to honor his alma mater.

Beginning in 1963, RPI began to compete as the Rams, and the nickname persisted through the 1968 merger with the Medical College of Virginia and the accompanying change of the color scheme to the now-iconic black and gold.

Sixty years later, Rhode Island and VCU are two of four Division I schools known as the Rams.

Prediction: VCU 72, Rhode Island 58

As for present day, VCU looks poised to become the first team to hit 10 A-10 wins this season and should be in great shape for a double-digit win on Wednesday night.

Ace Baldwin had one of his worst shooting performances of the season on Feb. 7. The odds of him following up with another poor shooting night are slim. It is worth noting that Baldwin scored a career-high 37 points the last time the Rams hit the road.

Couple that with DeLoach’s constant double-double threat and a defense that consistently forces 15 or more turnovers, and you get a winning formula. That does not even include the fact that Miller will have to make major rotational adjustments following Freeman’s departure, with VCU being the guinea pigs for Rhode Island’s new starting lineup.

Anticipate VCU to win this one going away.