Saint Joseph's-VCU Preview

The Associated Press

Making its first nationally ranked appearance since 1984-85, Virginia Commonwealth plans to make an extended stay in the AP Top 25.

First, the Rams will have to get past one of the preseason favorites in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

VCU will try to extend the nation's third-longest winning streak and capture its third straight victory in its inaugural Atlantic 10 season on Thursday night when it hosts Saint Joseph's.

The 22nd-ranked Rams (14-3, 2-0) reached the NCAA Final Four in 2011, but hadn't been ranked in 28 years before defeating Dayton and St. Bonaventure last week to open conference play. During the 1984-85 season, VCU spent eight weeks in the Top 20 and finished the season ranked 11th.

"We have to make sure we're focused on what's going to bring us success moving forward,'' coach Shaka Smart said. "For our guys, it's a test of their maturity and their focus and for us as a program."

Following a 3-3 start, VCU has put together an 11-game winning streak for the second consecutive season. Nine of the team's 11 victories during the streak have been by double digits.

With their constant defensive pressure, the Rams have averaged 15.9 steals over their last seven contests and lead the nation with 13.2 per game.

Sophomore Briante Weber tops the country with 3.6 steals per game, while classmate Darius Theus ranks 10th with 2.7.

"You can see what we do on film, but it's different when you're out there playing against it," Theus said.

The Rams have also forced the most turnovers in the nation (21.4 per game) and haven't allowed an opponent to score more than 70 points in a game.

Their defense could be put to the test against a Saint Joseph's team that has the second-fewest turnovers per game (11.4) among Atlantic 10 teams.

The Hawks (9-5, 1-1) have averaged 73.8 points while winning four of their last five, and they've made 21 of 50 (42.0 percent) from 3-point range in their last two contests.

Guards Langston Galloway and Carl Jones, who lead Saint Joseph's in scoring at 14.8 points per game apiece, combined for 31 in a 74-66 victory at Duquesne on Saturday.

Junior C.J. Aiken has given the team an intimidating presence defensively. The 6-foot-9 center ranks seventh in the nation with 3.4 blocks per game after swatting a season-high seven against the Dukes.

Saint Joseph's has limited opponents to an average of 61.8 points on 37.0 percent shooting - including 20-of-71 (28.2 percent) shooting from beyond the arc - in its last four games.

The Hawks, however, will have to find a way contain VCU's leading scorer Treveon Graham, who has averaged 19.3 points over his last four games.

Senior Troy Daniels has scored 19.7 points per game and made 36-of-73 (49.3 percent) 3-pointers over his last six. He leads the nation with 4.1 3-pointers per game.

The Rams, though, look to get their offense back on track after averaging 68.3 points and shooting 15 for 64 (23.8 percent) from beyond the arc in their last three games. They had scored 99.3 per game and hit 43-of-96 (44.8 percent) from 3-point range in their previous three.

The teams split their only previous meetings in the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons. The Hawks are 1-2 against ranked opponents, beating No. 20 Notre Dame 79-70 in overtime Nov. 20 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic semifinals, and have lost to Creighton and Butler.

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