VCU-Rhode Island Preview

It’s well known that VCU coach Shaka Smart employs his "Havoc" defense to force turnovers.

Upstart Rhode Island is playing some impressive defense of its own to kick-start its major turnaround.

First place in the Atlantic 10 is on the line in this matchup of teams nicknamed the Rams, with No. 17 VCU a winner of eight in a row and Rhode Island six straight.

VCU (13-3, 3-0) is enjoying its longest run since reeling off 13 consecutive wins from Nov. 28, 2012-Jan. 19, 2013.

Rhode Island (11-3, 3-0) is one of the nation’s most improved teams as it seeks to move to 8-0 at home, where it won 66-62 in overtime over then-No. 21 Nebraska on Nov. 22 to end a 26-game slide against ranked teams.

Coach Dan Hurley won eight games in his first season in 2012-13 and went 14-18 a season ago before guiding this club to its longest win streak since an eight-game run Dec. 5, 2009-Jan. 5, 2010.

These teams are tied atop the conference standings with Dayton.

"We’ve played ourselves and worked ourselves to the opportunity to play a big conference game," Hurley said. "There hasn’t been a big conference game around here in a long time."

VCU is rolling behind its "Havoc" defense, which forces an average of 17.9 turnovers to rank sixth nationally. That figure is at 21.0 in conference play.

"Obviously they’re so unique in the way that they attack you at both ends of the court," Hurley said. "You literally won’t play another team like that the entire year in terms of their pressure."

Rhode Island, meanwhile, is forcing 15.8 turnovers per game to rank second in the A-10. It is yielding 57.4 points per game for the conference’s best mark and ranks eighth nationally in limiting foes to 27.0 percent on 3-pointers.

Smart said that Rhode Island’s halfcourt defense is better than his own club’s.

"I think the biggest thing that sticks out about Rhode Island is just how good their defense has been over the course of the season," Smart said. "They’ve just really defended at a high level and it stands out on tape, it stands out when you look at the statistics."

VCU forced 20 turnovers in Saturday’s 89-74 home win over Saint Joseph’s. Melvin Johnson scored 20 points and Treveon Graham added 19.

Briante Weber was unsurprisingly a major factor with five of VCU’s 12 steals. He leads the nation with 4.1 per game and needs 27 to tie former Providence star John Linehan’s NCAA career record of 385.

E.C. Matthews scored 13 of his 18 points after halftime to help Rhode Island rally from a 13-point second-half deficit in Saturday’s 61-60 win over Duquesne. Matthews was named A-10 co-player of the week after scoring 24 in Wednesday’s 68-65 victory over Fordham.

"E.C. Matthews, I think he’s gotten to the point where he’s certainly in the conversation for the best player in the league," Smart said. "He’s certainly explosive in a lot of ways."

VCU built a 20-point halftime lead and forced 20 turnovers overall in a 68-52 rout the last time these teams met Feb. 6.