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UMass Minutemen vs. VCU Rams preview: UMass looks to take down its first ranked opponent of the season

Despite losing Briante Weber, VCU has blown out its two last opponents.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Massachusetts Minutemen have a sour taste in their mouth after their loss against Rhode Island on Wednesday night. Things won't get easier for the Minutemen as they travel down to the Commonwealth of Virginia to take on Shaka Smart and his Virginia Commonwealth Rams. This is the end of a two game road trip for UMass and their last game against a team in the top four of the conference. ESPN recognizes the importance of this game and will air it on ESPN2 and WatchESPN at 12PM on Saturday.

Records and Rankings:

VCU 20-6 (10-3)

RPI: 14 BPI: 23

This team is very different since losing Briante Weber to a devastating knee injury against Richmond on January 31. Including that loss to Richmond, VCU is just 3-3 over their last six games including a bad 2OT home loss to La Salle, a team UMass has beaten twice. They have regrouped themselves over the past two games though with double digit wins over George Washington on the road and Saint Louis at home. Last year the Rams fell 80-75 to the Minutemen on ESPN2  so I'm sure Smart has reminded his team of that more than once.

UMass 16-10 (9-4)

RPI:38 BPI: 99

The Minutemen ended their six game winning streak losing to URI in disappointing fashion. Despite that loss UMass has still been very good on the road as that was just their second road loss in conference. The Ryan Center was very rowdy though and seemed to give UMass some trouble.

Players to watch:

Treveon Graham: The 6-6 senior combo guard is now the leader of the Rams since Weber's departure. While VCU has a very balanced attack, Graham is a do-it-all kind of player. Since missing VCU's two losses against St. Bonnies and La Salle, he has averaged 13 points, five rebounds and averaged 25 minutes in two blowout wins. For the season he is the leading scorer and rebounder with 15.9 and 6.3 respectively. Not only does UMass have to be weary of him inside but he is also a deadly 3-point shooter going 39.5 from beyond the arc as seen here:

Doug Brooks: Since Weber's injury Brooks has seen his minutes increase. He has played 20.6 minutes per game off the bench in the last five games. In those five games he has made 53.8 of his three point attempts including a 4-6 performance against the Bonnies. UMass has struggled against teams that shoot well from deep so if Brooks is on it could be a long day for the Minutemen.

Trey Davis: VCU is known for its "havoc" defense and Davis, being the primary ball handler, will be tasked with spearheading UMass' press break. If Davis has another sloppy day like against URI (4 turnovers) then it will be a looooooong day for UMass.

Jabarie Hinds: Hinds was one of the lone bright spots against URI with a season high 17 points. He is turnover prone though, so like Davis taking care of the ball will be of the utmost importance for him. The 5-11 sixth man is the fastest guy on the UMass roster and can break a press all by himself and set up easy baskets for the big men on the other end.

Game time:

VCU has one of the premier defenses in all the land. They average ten steals per game (#4) and steal the ball on 12.7 percent of the opponents plays (#2). Those turnovers lead them to give up just 65 points per game and they outscore their opponents by 8.7. UMass does like to push the ball and press as well but are far less effective than VCU. They average just 6.9 steals per game (#90) and average 1.8 more turnovers per game than their opposition. VCU on the other hand will force their competition to turn the ball over about once every five possessions. All those turnovers lead to easy buckets as this highlight clip demonstrates.

The only way UMass will have a chance is if their ball handlers are able to limit turnovers. They will turn the ball over but if they can only give it up 10 percent of the time that will affect VCU greatly as they generate a lot of their points this way. Hitting transition three's will also help and Donte Clark is very capable of pulling up and hitting the open jumper.

Before their loss to URI I didn't think the crowds had too much of an impact on the Minutemen. But after watching the Ryan Center rocking for the full 40 minutes I'm not so sure. One thing you can be sure about though is that the VCU fans will be ready to go way before tip. Cady Lalanne and Maxie Esho were visibly frustrated in that Rhode Island loss and this crowd and the style of play could create a repeat performance from them.

UMass only has one more road game after this and has a relatively weak remaining schedule. They have no reason to be anything other than up and ready to play on Saturday. But the havoc defense will prove to much for them as they falter to break the press. Shaka Smart proves why he is one of the best coaches in the land as VCU trumps UMass 73-68.