VCU Non-Conference Superlatives

The last game before Christmas at the Stuart C. Siegel Center carries a merry atmosphere.

Such was the case on a bitter cold Dec. 21 night in Richmond, when the VCU men’s basketball team (9-4) knocked off Navy (7-5) in a contest where VCU both trailed by double-digits in the first half and later cruised to a 22-point victory.

The win, witnessed by just over 7,000 fans dressed in their holiday sweaters, capped the Rams’ non-conference schedule with a four-game winning streak and gave VCU momentum entering the 10-day Christmas break.

With conference play beginning on New Year’s Eve, it is time to dissect the first half of the season, open up the stat sheets, and award VCU Non-Conference Superlatives for 2022!

Best win: Navy (Dec. 21), Vanderbilt (Nov. 30) (Tie)

As of Dec. 27, the only Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 win that VCU has is the neutral site 71-67 victory the Rams earned over Pittsburgh in the first game of November’s Legends Classic.

While a solid resume piece, a pair of Quadrant 3 victories take the prize for best win.

Perhaps it is recency bias, but the Dec. 21 win over Navy felt much larger than it may initially appear on paper. Early on, the Rams trailed the Midshipmen 20-7 before going on a massive offensive run to give VCU plenty of breathing space down the stretch.

Sophomore forward Jalen DeLoach led the charge with a career-high 18 points, putting a Christmas bow on an impressive offensive stretch for one of VCU’s best young players. Four days earlier, he tied his previous career-high of 16 points in a dominant win over Northern Illinois.

Jamir Watkins continued his offensive renaissance as well, adding 18 points of his own to the winning effort. The total is the second-highest of his career, trailing only the 22 points the New Jersey native dropped on Northern Illinois four days prior.

The win also accomplished multiple goals for the Rams. First, the team established momentum by closing out back-to-back dominant wins and building momentum – something that has been a struggle in the season’s early months. Per Bart Torvik, VCU earned a game score of 87 in the Navy game – once again trailing only the Northern Illinois game for tops on the season.

The roster decisions by head coach Mike Rhoades in the game also deserve a look. VCU – known for years for its bench depth, played only nine players during the dominant win. This was even with Brandon Johns Jr. facing limited minutes on return from a back injury that sidelined the graduate senior from the Northern Illinois game.

The four bench players used – David Shriver, Nick Kern, Josh Banks and Zeb Jackson – appear to be cornerstones of VCU’s second unit. Look for the quartet, especially Shriver, to have large roles once conference play tips off.

And of course, who could forget the highlight of the night, brought to you by Jackson:

Also deserving of mention is VCU’s 70-65 win against Vanderbilt on Nov. 30, giving the Rams a home-and-home sweep against Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores.

It was Stackhouse himself, a 19-year NBA veteran in his fourth year as Vanderbilt’s head coach, who produced the night’s most memorable moment. After arguing a technical foul, Stackhouse ran onto the court to confront a referee and was ejected from the game and escorted off the Siegel Center floor.

Aside from being a key win against a power conference opponent, the game produced one of the best individual performances in the Atlantic 10 this season. Junior guard Ace Baldwin returned from a wrist fracture to score a career-high 28 points on 50% shooting – a performance that led to his first conference player of the week award. Watkins joined Baldwin in double figures with 13, while 11 players recorded minutes in the close contest.

Worst Loss: Jacksonville (Dec. 7)

VCU entered the game against Jacksonville coming off a tough road loss to Temple, but as 8.5-point favorites against the Dolphins.

The Rams left the game on a two-game losing streak, losing by double-digits in a buy game on the worst offensive night of VCU’s season. In sum, VCU led for just over four minutes, while the Dolphins led for just under 32 minutes.

One key difference in the game was 3-point shooting. VCU shot a season-low 5-for-28 from deep, while Jacksonville made 50% of its attempts from beyond the arc. The Dolphins also shot 90% from the free throw line, about 25 percentage points better than the Rams.

VCU was without DeLoach during the game due to illness, giving freshman Tobi Lawal his first career start. He had a solid performance, scoring 10 points on a perfect 3-for-3 shooting. Johns led VCU with 20 points and sophomore Jayden Nunn provided 14 points, but bright spots were limited beyond the trio.

The loss was the only loss taken during conference play to a team outside of the Power 5 or American conferences. With a game score of 18, Bart Torvik rates the loss as VCU’s worst team performance of the season so far.

The losing skid represents a significant blip on VCU’s resume – back-to-back Quadrant 3 losses. With the A-10 experiencing a downward trend this season that makes quality conference wins difficult to find, the losses could be the nail in the coffin of NCAA Tournament at-large hopes.

MVP: Ace Baldwin

Who else could be team MVP so far than Baltimore native and starting point guard Ace Baldwin?

Name a preseason First Team All-Atlantic 10 selection, Baldwin has answered the call. On a per game basis, Baldwin leads VCU in points (12.3) and assists (6.6), while shooting 43.5% from the floor and 50% from deep. Baldwin also leads VCU with 22 total steals, despite missing five games due to a pair of wrist injuries.

The injuries are the only blemish on Baldwin’s resume so far this season and the only thing keeping him out of A-10 Player of the Year contention presently. If he qualified, Baldwin would be second in the A-10 in assists per game and first in steals per game.

Baldwin further leads the team this season with an offensive rating of 116.2. The mark is approximately what former VCU stars Justin Tillman and Troy Daniels averaged for their entire VCU careers.

Beyond the stat sheet, the team simply looks better and plays better with Baldwin on the floor. VCU is 3-2 in games without Baldwin – 6-2 in games he has played.

Four games of eight or more assists, a seven-steal night against Morgan State, 28 points against Vanderbilt… what more is there to write? Baldwin looks to continue his career year into conference play.

Most Improved Player: Josh Banks

In the fall of 2020, VCU reimagined its traditional Black and Gold Game scrimmage, as the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered arenas and forced college athletics to adapt.

The resulting Black and Gold event contained a bracket style 3-point contest, pitting VCU’s men’s and women’s basketball players in a bracket to determine the university’s best 3-point shooter.

On that night, then-freshman Josh Banks turned heads before recording a single collegiate stat.

The North Carolina native beat Vince Williams in the opening round and upset Bones Hyland in the men’s finals in a 16-15 squeaker. Hyland, who would be named A-10 Player of the Year that season, was the pre-contest favorite.

In the final against VCU women’s basketball star Taya Robinson, Banks scored 21 points and clinched the win, prompting VCU radio announcer Robby Robinson to say he was shooting so hot that “you can measure his temperature in Kelvin.”

Two seasons later, the junior guard is bringing that heat to the floor.

Banks has earned an expanded role this season, appearing in all but one of VCU’s 13 games. Through the non-conference schedule, Banks is averaging career-highs in virtually every per game statistic, including minutes (13.6), points (5), and rebounds (1.1).

His rate stats have also improved, with a sizeable jump in 3-point percentage. On the season, Banks is shooting 39.3% from deep, up from 21.2% last season. He is also shooting career high percentages from the floor (42.9%) and from the charity stripe (86.7%). Banks leads the team in free throw percentage, having missed just twice this season.

Moving forward, Banks has carved a role as an integral piece in the second unit, along with fellow guards Jackson and Nick Kern, and looks to wreak havoc on the A-10 with his smooth 3-point jumper.

Most Impactful Newcomer: Brandon Johns Jr.

Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Johns Jr. has made an impact on VCU since arriving on campus, absorbing minutes left by the departures of forwards Vince Williams, Hason Ward and Levi Stockard.

The void in size made Johns a slam-dunk target for Rhoades, who previously recruited Johns when he was in high school. In his year at VCU, Johns has started in all 12 of his appearances, missing the Northern Illinois game with a back injury.

Johns led the team in scoring for much of the non-conference schedule and still boasts a solid 11.9 points per game rate, trailing only Baldwin. Johns is also the team’s second-leading rebounder, grabbing an average of 5.4 boards per game.

His arrival at VCU has also been a bit of a personal renaissance for Johns. He is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks per game as a full-time starter for the first time in his collegiate career.

Johns tied his career-high with 20 points in the Jacksonville loss, but has flirted with a double-double multiple times this season. His team-high nine rebounds in the win against Pittsburgh in the Legends Classic helped power VCU to one of its best wins of the season.

As VCU’s most experienced player, Johns’ impact on the team will continue to be seen both on and off the floor. As the calendar flips towards March, Johns’ postseason experience could be another edge VCU possesses over other A-10 programs.

Biggest Disappointment: The injury bug

Through 13 games, only two of VCU’s five regular starters have appeared in and started every game.

Starters Ace Baldwin, Brandon Johns Jr. and Jalen DeLoach have missed a total of seven games this season – five of which due to a pair of wrist injuries sustained by Baldwin.

Additionally, forward Jarren McAllister is missing the 2022-23 season with an ACL tear sustained during the summer. The ACL tear, McAllister’s third, has led to a third consecutive lost season. The redshirt junior last appeared in a VCU game on March 6, 2020 against Davidson – the last game VCU played before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down collegiate sports in 2020.

While all teams deal with their share of injuries, VCU has a trend in recent years of impact players missing key games. Baldwin himself missed several games early in the 2021-22 season recovering from an Achilles tear, while star players Vince Williams, Bones Hyland and Marcus Evans missed multiple games due to injuries in the last three seasons at VCU.

Fortunately for VCU and its fans, the injury report entering conference play, sans McAllister, is clean. In order for VCU to compete in the A-10, the regular starting lineup of Baldwin-Nunn-Watkins-DeLoach-Johns must remain intact for as many games as possible.

Comeback Player of the Year: Jamir Watkins

In September 2021, guard Jamir Watkins suffered a torn right ACL and was ruled out for the entire 2021-22 season.

The loss of Watkins hurt, as he was anticipated to take a major leap following a successful freshman campaign where he averaged 7.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in 26 games.

Although delayed, the major leap has officially arrived.

Through conference play, Watkins is third on the team in points per game with 10.7, while adding 5.3 rebounds per night. He is also one of four Rams shooting above 30% from deep.

Watkins has been most impactful during VCU’s four-game winning streak, highlighted by a career-high 22 points against Northern Illinois on Dec. 17. The New Jersey native entered Christmas break averaging 20 points and 7.5 made baskets in the last two games.

And he has brought the highlight reel plays:

Best Individual Performance: Ace Baldwin v. Vanderbilt (Nov. 30)

When Ace Baldwin was ruled out with a wrist fracture just before the Nov. 16 game against Arizona State, it was anticipated he would miss about three weeks.

Fourteen days later, with pins in his wrist, Baldwin put on a career performance.

In what became the highest-energy game at the Siegel Center so far this season, Baldwin scored a career-high 28 points on 7-for-14 shooting. He gave VCU a late lead with a pair of free throws inside the final four minutes and VCU hung on for a 70-65 win.

Baldwin added a career-high-tying four 3-pointers, a career-high 10 free throws and four assists to cap the incredible performance.

After the game, Rhoades described Baldwin as “a competitive freak.”

“You’ve got to kill him to beat him. He loves competition. He’s not afraid of the spotlight, he’s not afraid of pressure situations,” Rhoades said.

Photo: Jason Boleman/A10Talk