Coming off back-to-back losses to Villanova and Ole Miss, the Memphis Tigers look to bounce back in a road matchup against VCU. The Tigers will travel to Richmond, Virginia, to play the Rams at the Stuart C. Siegel Center on Wednesday, December 6. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., and ESPNU/ESPN+ will cover the matchup.
What can Memphis expect from VCU?
VCU Roster Preview
The VCU Rams head into this game possessing a 4-4 record on the young season. Their record features wins against Samford, Radford, Seattle, and Penn State. They have losses to McNeese, Iowa State, Boise State, and Norfolk State. In the first edition of the NCAA NET Rankings released this week, they slot in as the #138 team in the nation.
First-year head coach Ryan Odom leads the charge for the Rams. He joined the program after Mike Rhoades left for Penn State. Odom comes to Richmond after a brief stint at Utah State but is best known for his time at UMBC. He was the head coach of the Retrievers when they became the first-ever 16-seed to defeat a one-seed in the NCAA tournament.
Under Rhoades, they were known for their excellent defense. After his departure, VCU saw most of their roster depart, whether through the transfer portal or graduation. The Rams lost their seven leading scorers from last year, including defensive standouts Ace Baldwin Jr. (Penn State) and Jalen DeLoach (Georgia). This year, they’ve been decent on that end of the floor, slotting in as the #57 team in the nation in Adjusted Defense, per KenPom.
One aspect of the team’s slow start is the absence of seniors Joe Bamisile and Sean Bairstow. They were projected to be key contributors for Odom this season, with Bairstow projected to be a starter. Last week, the NCAA denied Bamisile’s appeal request for immediate eligibility. Bairstow, who followed Odom from Utah State, is out 6-8 weeks with a non-contact foot injury.
The Rams are led in scoring by the senior backcourt pairing of Max Shulga (16.0 PPG) and Zeb Jackson (14.9 PPG).
Shulga is a talented offensive player who followed Odom from Utah State this off-season. He has attempted a whopping 7.1 three-pointers per game this season and has connected on 2.5 of them a night, good for a 35.1% mark. At 6’4, he can’t be left alone from the perimeter. Shulga is more than just a shooter, though, as he functions as one of the better playmakers on the roster. He possesses an elite 28.1% assist rate and can put the ball on the deck and make plays in isolation.
Jackson is one of the few returning players on the roster. He’s in his second year with the program after transferring from Michigan. Jackson has made a huge leap in scoring this season, going from 5.2 PPG in 2022-23 to 14.9 PPG in his senior campaign. He’s a solid athlete and smooth lefty shotmaker who consistently makes plays for his teammates, averaging 4.0 assists per game.
Freshman wing Michael Belle starts alongside one of the A10’s top backcourt duos. Belle is an elite wing defender and will likely follow David Jones throughout the game. At 6’7, he possesses length and mobility to bother talented offensive players. Belle has averaged 5.9 points and 5.5 rebounds on the year.
While Ryan Odom only runs a nine-man rotation, VCU’s backcourt depth is substantial, thanks to Jason Nelson and Alphonzo “Fats” Billups III. Nelson is a 5’10 sophomore and local talent who’s third on the team in scoring at 8.9 points per game. He’s been an elite shooter from the outside this season, connecting on 11 of his 23 attempts from beyond the arc. Nelson has been a big spark plug for the Rams off the bench this season.
Billups is a former four-star recruit with elite potential as a versatile 6’7 wing. The redshirt freshman has averaged 6.3 points per game this season while shooting 10-24 from deep. Billups is a talented shotmaker with playmaking and defensive ability. He broke out against Penn State, scoring 23 points on 8-9 shooting from the floor and 5-6 shooting from three.
Starting in the frontcourt for VCU are sophomore Christian Fermin and senior Kuany Kuany.
Fermin is a defensive-oriented forward with elite defensive abilities. He’s been one of the A10’s best shot blockers early on, averaging an impressive 2.1 blocks per game. Fermin is a talented rebounder, averaging 5.5 rebounds per game, including 2.9 offensive rebounds. He’s also been efficient offensively, making 62.1% of his shots this season.
Kuany Kuany is a fifth-year senior who transferred to VCU after four years at Cal. He averaged 9.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game for the Golden Bears last season. The 6’9 forward possesses good physical tools but has played a limited role for VCU despite starting. He’s averaging 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game in just 13.5 minutes this season.
Sophomore Toibu Lawal has been really good for VCU off the bench this season. The 6’8 forward has averaged 8.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 73.0% from the floor. Lawal is a freakishly athletic player with long arms, using them on both ends of the court. He has an expanding perimeter arsenal and has even connected on three of four attempts from beyond the arc this season. Lawal possesses tremendous long-term upside and is a name in the A10 to look out for in the future.
Toibu Lawal & Alphonzo Billups are two sophomores whose development arcs I'm closely following.
Toibu is an incredible athlete who is a force around the basket on both ends
'Fats' Billups is a plus-sized guard with a knockdown jumper
Both key role players for VCU pic.twitter.com/TRdo60des8
— On The Clock (@OnThe_ClockBB) November 7, 2023
Louisville transfer Roosevelt Wheeler is the ninth man for the Rams, playing 5.4 minutes a game. The athletic 6’11 center transferred home this off-season after spending his first two collegiate seasons playing a limited role off the bench for the Cardinals. He’s averaging just 0.3 points and 0.9 rebounds this season on 50% shooting from the floor.
Memphis heads into yet another difficult road environment and will likely get the best VCU has to offer after their disappointing effort against Norfolk State last Friday. Expect a rowdy crowd that Memphis must overcome if they want to win.
The VCU offense isn’t anything to write home about, but their backcourt is talented. Shulga and Jackson can make plays off the dribble, and the Memphis defense can’t leave Shulga alone off the catch. Bench players Jason Nelson and Alphonzo Billups III are also perimeter threats who could get going in a hurry if the Tigers don’t pay attention to them. Nelson and Billups are spark plugs for a Rams offense that has struggled early in the season.
The Rams also have good length in the frontcourt and on the wings. The frontcourt is defensive-oriented, with the shot-blocking prowess of Christian Fermin and the leaping ability of Toibu Lawal leading the way. Michael Belle is a pesty lockdown defender who will look to annoy David Jones for 40 minutes. Memphis must get production from players like Jaykwon Walton, Jahvon Quinerly, and Caleb Mills if they want to come out of Richmond with a victory.
Memphis, however, has length on the defensive end as well, which should bother VCU’s perimeter creators. The Rams lack shooting in the frontcourt, something the Tigers will take advantage of to muck up the spacing of VCU’s offensive sets. Memphis has just enough offensive talent to overcome VCU and shouldn’t have much trouble slowing down the Rams offensively with their pressure defense. Expect the Tigers to bounce back and return home with a victory.
Final Score: Memphis 67, VCU 58.