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VCU set to take on Saint Peter’s in season opener

It has been 240 days since the VCU Rams men’s basketball team has played a game – 234 since the program’s season was halted by a COVID-19 outbreak within the team.

Tonight, VCU opens the doors of the Siegel Center for the first time since early March 2020, as the Rams take on the Saint Peter’s University Peacocks.

Tipoff, scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight, brings to an end a topsy-turvy offseason for the Rams. Injuries, plus the departure of reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Bones Hyland, leaves a lot of questions at the guard positions for Mike Rhoades’ team. With a good mix of youth and experience, Rhoades and his squad will look to repeat last year’s runner-up performance, if not continue to exceed expectations.

Remember, it always seems like VCU is at its best when people begin to underrate them.

With the 2021-22 season just hours away, check out the things you need to know before VCU opens the non-conference portion of the schedule.

Coach Rhoades or Coach Lasso?

“Ted Lasso” has quickly become a hit, award-winning TV show for its nontraditional portrayal of leadership, namely in a locker room setting. For those who haven’t seen the show, Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso is a leader who wields kindness rather than aggression, shows care for the team and the community and (perhaps to his fault) cares more about the young men he coaches than the numbers in the win column.

“For me, success is not about the wins and losses,” Lasso says in an early episode. “It’s about helping these young fellas be the best version of themselves on and off the field.”

During A-10 media days in late October, Rhoades gave some quotes that brought images of the fictional AFC Richmond manager to mind.

The most glaring absence on Broad Street heading into the season is Hyland, who decided to forego his remaining two years of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft this summer. Hyland was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the 26th overall pick and has seen his minutes steadily increase in the early weeks of the season.

Asked about losing Hyland, Rhoades was quick to say that Hyland’s departure was not “a blessing and a curse.”

“There’s no curse in losing Bones, right? We’re so proud of him and so happy for him,” Rhoades said. “We talk about being dream chasers all the time. I make our guys write it down and share it with me and then make them put it on their walls and see it every day. What are your dreams and do your choices every day match your dreams that you want to get to? That’s really important to me.”

Rhoades continued, “There’s no curse, when guys become really good players and the next level wants them. I think that’s a blessing for all of us, and we cherish that. But we also challenge these guys to be the best version of themselves on and off the court so they can get to those dreams. And to me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Of all the quotes Rhoades gave during an informative media session, those remarks on Hyland were what stood out the most. More than issues of lineups, injuries and conditioning, Rhoades spoke to what he has built entering his fifth season on Broad Street: a culture that encourages success and fosters growth among student-athletes that fully buy in.

Rhoades, like the fictional Lasso, outwardly appears to lead with the blunt hammer of kindness and support. As a media member who has covered Rhoades since his arrival, I can speak to how he has always been friendly to the press, often learning the names of the local beat reporters. When COVID shut down the A-10 Tournament and the world in March 2020, Rhoades was quick to speak to caring for the safety of his players and us media in attendance, rather than the loss of the chance to play basketball.

Through four years, Rhoades has built a culture of long-term success that Ram fans can be proud of. His quotes on the human element of the game, beyond the X’s and O’s, perfectly encapsulate what has drawn multiple competitive recruits to campus in recent years.

Rest assured, even with the loss of Hyland, VCU remains in good hands heading into 2021-2022.

Injuries, injuries, injuries

The Rams enter the season with major injury concerns, namely at the point guard position. Expect the early season games to be a “tune up” period where Rhoades feels out what guard combinations work the best.

Star sophomore point guard Ace Baldwin suffered an Achilles injury over the summer, which will hold him out until at least January. Baldwin suffered the ruptured Achilles tendon in late May and had it surgically repaired just after Memorial Day.

During A-10 media days, Rhoades said Jan. 1 remains the “target date” for Baldwin’s return.

“He’s doing great in his rehab and he’s on the court shooting and moving around right now,” Rhoades said. Rhoades added that the team will be cautious with Baldwin, as an Achilles injury is an injury “you don’t mess with.”

In addition to Baldwin, the Rams have lost two other players for the season. Sophomore guard Jamir Watkins tore his right ACL in practice in late September. Rhoades said during media days that Watkins would likely have started for the Rams this season.

“I think he developed his game, certain parts of his game got better and better. And then the month before his injury, he was playing at a high level, and we were like ‘he’s a different cat from last year,’” Rhoades said.

One week later, Jarren McAllister also tore his right ACL, ending his season. McAllister tore his left ACL last season and missed the entire campaign, meaning McAllister will have lost two whole seasons to knee injuries. In his freshman season, McAllister averaged 2.7 points in 16 games played.

VCU, traditionally known for its depth, suddenly finds itself a bit shallower than normal. It will be interesting to see how the team experiments with lineups and who lines up as the primary ballhandler in Baldwin’s absence.

Last game, next game

VCU knocked the rust off on Nov. 1 in an exhibition game against Virginia State, a Division II school roughly 20 minutes away from VCU. The teams played their first matchup in 1970, with VCU winning 96-92 in overtime. Before Nov. 1, the last meeting of the two schools came in a 2019 exhibition that VCU won 90-53.

On Nov. 1, the Rams won 74-55 on the strength of seniors Vince Williams and KeShawn Curry. Curry shot 66% from the floor and added seven rebounds and three steals, while Williams continued his 3-pointer renaissance, draining three from beyond the arc.

More important than the result is the starting lineup. Rhoades showed that at least early on, he will be leaning on his seniors in the starting lineup while allowing one of his young guards to handle point guard duties.

Getting the first crack at starting point guard duties will likely be Washington transfer Marcus Tsohonis. In the exhibition, Tsohonis tallied a team-high six assists while adding three rebounds. His offensive statistics were not stellar, but as a true facilitator he seems to fit the bill early.

The other player Rhoades could look to is freshman Jayden Nunn. A former Iowa State recruit, Nunn started the exhibition against Virginia State, but did not produce eye-popping statistics. In 21 minutes, Nunn tallied two assists and a turnover, while shooting 0-for-4 from the floor.

VCU’s other four starters can be carved into concrete: Williams, Curry, Hason Ward and Levi Stockard III. They are the most experienced guys on the roster and are simply prepared to perform from the jump.

Williams is on the preseason All A-10 Second Team, while Ward is a likely candidate for conference defensive player of the year.

As for tonight’s game, the Rams will face Saint Peter’s as 9.5-point home favorites. The Peacocks enter the season ranked 171st in the MAAC, second only to Rick Pitino’s Iona team in the conference. Saint Peter’s was also selected to finish second in the MAAC coach’s poll, again only trailing Iona.

The Peacocks also returned both of their double-digit scorers from last season: senior forward KC Ndefo and junior guard Daryl Banks III. Simply put, the Peacocks are not to be taken lightly as VCU has again built a challenging non-conference schedule.

While a challenging opener, look for VCU to cruise on the scoring strength of Williams and Curry. The success of this season largely depends on Williams becoming “the guy” on offense and continuing to grow his game, which is a challenge the senior forward is well-equipped to take.

Jason’s Picks: VCU 72, Saint Peter’s 56.

The Rams will tip off the 2021-2022 season at 6 p.m. tonight against the Saint Peter’s Peacocks. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+ and MASN2.