#21 Rhode Island Rams @ Valparaiso Crusaders
November 29, 2016 7 PM CT
Tuesday night will be the first time since 2010 that a nationally ranked program has travelled to Valparaiso to play the Crusaders. Rhode Island came into the 2016-17 season with high expectations as they returned a majority of players from last year’s team. The Rams are 5-1 to start the year with their only loss coming to previously ranked No. 1 Duke by 10 on November 20. Valpo is fresh off a 79-73 home win against instate rival Ball State. The Ball State game was considered by many to be a trap game for the Crusaders as they picked up a solid win against BYU Wednesday night/Thursday morning in the MGM Grand Main Event Tournament Championship in Las Vegas.
Match-Up to Watch
The Rams best player is junior guard E.C. Matthews. After tearing his ACL in the first game of last season, Matthews is playing at a high level averaging 15.5 points per game which is good for second on the team behind senior forward Hassan Martin (16.5). Valpo also has a junior guard of their own coming off an ACL tear. Lexus Williams has been the x-factor for the Crusaders the past couple games on both sides of the ball. Against BYU, Williams put up 12 points which included his own 7-0 run at one point in the second half which proved to be a difference maker in the game. In the Ball State game, Williams was responsible for six of his team’s 17 steals and was 3-3 from beyond the arc finishing with 14 points. While Matthews (6-5, 200 lbs) has the physical advantage over Williams (6-0, 165 lbs), this matchup will be one to keep an eye on as both guards are very quick and key playmakers for their respective teams.
X-Factor for Rhode Island: Limit the Fouls
According to Kenpom, Valparaiso has the second best team free throw shooting percentage in the country at 83.6% and get 28.2% of their points from the charity stripe. If the Rams want to win this game, their defense is going to have to play with their feet instead of their hands while trying not to foul. In addition, the starters for the Rams will need to stay out of foul trouble as coach Dan Hurley only plays his bench 33% of his team’s minutes on the floor and will not want to rely on his role players during this true road game.
X-Factor for Valparaiso: Alec Peters
While the 6-9 Peters is averaging 25.1 points per game this season, his offensive numbers have decreased significantly from last year. Peters is shooting 21.9% this year on 32 attempts from the 3 point line which is a little over 21% lower than the 43% he finished with last year. With that being said, Valpo is at it’s best when Peters is at his best and in order for a victory tonight, Peters is going to have to knock down a couple 3’s along with finishing around the basket. While Peters may be struggling from the perimeter, he has been very effective from the free throw line converting on 53 of his 56 attempts (94.6%) this season. Don’t be surprised if this is a break out game for Peters. When the lights are the brightest, that’s when the best come to play.
Key Stat and Prediction
In his first six games as a Crusader, 7-2 freshman redshirt center Derrik Smits had not scored a single point in the 30 minutes he played throughout that span of games. In the win against Ball State on Sunday, Smits scored his first points in his college career and ended with nine and was the sparkplug off the bench that Valpo needed to earn the victory.
With this being their first game against a ranked opponent on their home floor since 2010, I expect first-year coach Matt Lottich and his squad to come out with fire and prove to the college basketball world that Valpo is for real this year. Alec Peters and Shane Hammink will lead the Crusaders to a victory with key contributions from bench players such as Smits and fellow freshman Micah Bradford.
Valparaiso 78 Rhode Island 74
Photo via Chicago Tribune