VCU-Saint Louis Preview
VCU proved it can win without leading scorer Treveon Graham but would rather not have to do so for a second straight contest.
It's uncertain if the senior guard will be available when the visiting No. 16 Rams look for an 11th consecutive victory Friday night against rebuilding Saint Louis.
Graham appeared ready for Saturday's 70-64 victory at Duquesne, but ended up sitting out a game for the first time in his four-year VCU career after his sprained ankle was still too sore during warmups.
"One thing I know about Tre, he'll play if he can play," coach Shaka Smart said. "We're hopeful he can play."
Graham, injured while scoring 26 in a 65-60 win at Rhode Island on Jan. 13, is among the Atlantic 10's top five in scoring (17.1 points per game), field-goal percentage (47.1) and 3-point percentage (45.6). He also averages a team-high 6.9 rebounds for VCU, which is in the midst of its longest winning streak since a 13-game run from the 2012-13 season.
He's averaged 16.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in four games versus Saint Louis.
Minus Graham, the Rams (15-3, 5-0) nearly blew a 14-point halftime lead by shooting 33.3 percent in the second half against a Duquesne team which is among the A-10's worst. Though VCU notched its best league start since opening 11-0 in the Colonial Athletic Conference in 2006-07, Smart blamed himself for not having his squad better prepared to play without its leader.
"I need to do a better job," he said. "I just like that kid so much. I was upset that he wasn't going to be able to be out there. You've got to be able to move on."
The Rams gutted out the victory thanks to a season-high 16 points from reserve JeQuan Lewis and 14 from Melvin Johnson, whose 3-pointer with 57 seconds left increased their lead to five. Johnson, averaging 13.9 points, is the only VCU player besides Graham scoring more than 8.0 per game.
Key reserve Doug Brooks scored 10 points in nine minutes, but his status also remains uncertain after suffering a knee injury.
"We've got some guys who are banged up," Smart said. "The focus now for our program needs to be on growth as a team and individually so that we can play our best basketball when it matters most."
The Rams hope to improve on their 40.5 percent shooting on the road, where they've compensated by allowing no more than 64 points while winning five straight.
VCU has dropped two in a row at Saint Louis (9-9, 1-4), but the Billikens are scoring a conference-worst 61.0 points per game and were held to a season low in Saturday's 61-45 loss at Dayton. Prior to that defeat, Saint Louis snapped a four-game skid with a 78-69 win over Duquesne on Jan. 14.
Though the Billikens are trying to find their form after graduating their entire starting lineup from last season's team that won a second consecutive A-10 regular-season title and reached a third straight NCAA tournament, Smart expects his group to be in for a challenge.
"They've got a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys," he said. "They are gaining confidence. Their home court is a tough place to play."
Freshman leading scorer Milik Yarbrough (10.3 ppg) averaged 17.4 points on 58.3 percent shooting in five games before he was held to two versus Dayton.