ST. LOUIS — The VCU Rams won’t be the best team the 12th-ranked Saint Louis Billikens have played this season. But the only two SLU opponents considered superior to the Rams are responsible for the Billikens’ only losses.
Neither Wisconsin nor Wichita State plays any harder or faster than VCU. The Rams employ a full-court pressure so ferociously and famously that it has earned their style a nickname, the havoc defense.
VCU leads the nation in forcing turnovers for the third straight season, with this year’s 19.2 average just less than last year’s 19.7. The Rams don’t quite match the experience of SLU but with two seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, they will not be sending a novice team into sold-out Chaifetz Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Not only do the Rams play a unique defense, their offense also is different from most approaches. "They have a ton of fast things," SLU coach Jim Crews said. "They get a lot of momentum and they come at you fast even in the half court. Guys are going at you full speed. Not just with the ball but without the ball, they’re going very quickly so you’re tested."
VCU’s four-guard lineup also presents matchup challenges for a bigger team such as the Billikens. The Rams (20-5), the preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10, also will arrive on a roll, having won seven of eight to gain sole possession of second place in the conference.
SLU has to deal with more than the Rams, too. As the 22-2 Billikens’ winning streak has reached a school-record 16 and they’ve gained notoriety as one of the country’s top teams, rising expectations will bring another layer of pressure. And since they haven’t played since last Saturday, no one can be sure if the Billikens will avoid buying into the hype and be able to maintain their one-game-at-a-time focus.
Now combine all these factors and you can see why VCU is supposed to provide SLU its biggest test of the conference season, with an excellent chance of putting a snag in SLU’s storybook season.
Just don’t count on it.
If SLU plays its typical game, there’s as much chance the nationally televised contest will result more like its beatdown of Richmond than an overtime squeaker over George Mason.
The reasons to like SLU’s chances start with VCU’s vaunted press. If the Billikens can get past the pressure, they will put the Rams at a decided disadvantage in half-court defense.
With senior guards Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. leading the charge, SLU should be able to handle the full-court pressure. They’ve handled it well enough to win the past three meetings between the teams.
"It’s a mental thing," Jett says. "I love it. I embrace the challenge. You have to be ready to face their havoc defense and not turn the ball over. Play strong with the ball."
No player in the land is playing stronger with the ball than Jett these days. After his game-winning drive against La Salle last Saturday, Explorers coach Dr. John Giannini said the 6-2 senior could have a future in the NFL if basketball didn’t work out.
The Billikens don’t have to beat the press on the bounce, either. They are such good — i.e, willing — passers that double-teaming the ball could become a frustrating endeavor for the relentless Rams.
"They’re strong on passing because they understand the value of the ball," Crews said of his team. "It’s like shooting. Take good shots and your shooting percentage goes up. Make good passes, you’re a better passer. Our guys do a good job of making the extra pass. The ball doesn’t stick, which is a great thing."
Another point about the press: The Rams need to score to have time to set it up at full efficiency. Scoring against SLU this season has been as difficult as trying to fit a beach ball through the hoop. The Billikens lead the conference in all the key defensive categories while VCU’s 42.1 shooting percentage ranks near the bottom.
Given the maturity that goes with starting five seniors as do the Billikens, the week between games is more likely to help than hurt them. They turned in probably their most dominant performance of the season when they had a week off before playing Richmond.
The Billikens aren’t likely to come out flat or rusty because of the time off. The way they have bought into Crews’ process of striving to improve every time out, the Billikens haven’t had any time for complacency. This is a team that has thrived on taking care of business one game at a time.
Don’t expect anything different against VCU, even if the Rams will present the type of test the Billikens haven’t passed all season.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.