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Saint Louis shrugs off VCU’s pressure defense to assume role of Atlantic 10 favorite

Troy Daniels (AP)

One stat typically dictates whether VCU wins or loses more than any other this season: How many turnovers the Rams force.

In VCU's nine Atlantic 10 wins, its swarming "Havoc" defense forces opponents to turn the ball over an average of 21 times per game. In the Rams' three league losses, that number is merely 11.

The importance of turnovers to the Rams' success was on display again Tuesday night in a matchup against Saint Louis with first place in the Atlantic 10 on the line. The Billikens zoomed to a 21-point first-half lead and held on for a 76-62 victory in large part because they only turned the ball over eight times.

It's no surprise Saint Louis withstood VCU's pressure better than most considering the Billikens turn the ball over less frequently this season than any other Atlantic 10 team. It also helped the Billikens that their stingy, physical defense forced VCU into modest 44.4 percent shooting as the Rams rushed shot attempts in their fervor to try to get back into the game.

Unable to set up its press as often as usual or to force as high a percentage of turnovers on the rare occasions it could, VCU struggled to get defensive stops – a recurring problem for the Rams this season in games like this. Saint Louis shot an impressive 55.3 percent from the field, thanks to 16 points off the bench from guard Jordair Jett, 15 from guard Mike McCall Jr. and 14 from forward Dwayne Evans.

Saint Louis' victory provides some much-needed clarity in a topsy-turvy Atlantic 10 season.

A Billikens team that lost to middling Santa Clara and Washington without starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell in November now has reemerged as the Atlantic 10's premier team in league play. Saint Louis (20-5, 9-2) has won eight straight including a pair of convincing wins at home against second-place Butler and VCU.

The half-game lead the Billikens hold is far from insurmountable, though, considering the remaining schedule. Up next for Saint Louis is a visit to Butler, with a road trip to Xavier and a home game against La Salle also looming.

Nonetheless, Saint Louis is in significantly better position than VCU despite the narrow gap between the two teams in the Atlantic 10 standings.

The Rams (21-6, 9-3) could use another quality win or two to make sure they don't slip toward the bubble entering the Atlantic 10 tournament. Victories over Memphis, Belmont and Alabama in non-league play boost VCU's stock, but the best conference foe the Rams have beaten is probably Charlotte or UMass, though opportunities remain against Butler, Xavier and Temple.

VCU needs to win at least one of those games. And that means, the Rams will probably have to force more than eight turnovers to do it.

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