Game PreviewsVCU

VCU to host Radford for first time in seven seasons

The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams (6-4) have had a bumpier-than-expected ride so far this season.

First, a right wrist fracture suffered by junior guard Ace Baldwin during the Nov. 12 win against Morgan State saw the Baltimore native sidelined for four games. Baldwin had surgery to insert two screws into his wrist and returned for the Nov. 30 home game against Vanderbilt, which saw him put up a career-high 28 points.

Three games later, Baldwin was again on the sidelines with a wrist injury – this time a sprain to the left wrist. Following the game, a 70-60 win against Howard on Sunday, head coach Mike Rhoades termed the injury as day-to-day.

Baldwin’s exit came as sophomore forward Jalen DeLoach returned from a one-game absence due to illness. The various absences have seen a variety of starting lineups throughout the non-conference schedule, including freshman Tobi Lawal’s first career start against Jacksonville on Dec. 7.

The Howard win snapped a two-game losing skid for VCU, both double-digit losses to Temple and Jacksonville, respectively.

VCU looks to continue to build momentum on Wednesday night, as the doors of the Stuart C. Siegel Center in downtown Richmond swing open for the Radford Highlanders (6-4) for the first time in seven seasons.

The game will tip off at 7 p.m. on Dec. 14 and will be available on ESPN+.

Radford history

Wednesday’s matchup marks the only time VCU will face a fellow Virginia team during the non-conference slate, as the traditional VCU-Old Dominion University rivalry has been paused for the first time since the 1970s.

In ODU’s place come the Highlanders, located about three and a half hours west of VCU’s Monroe Park campus. Originally founded in 1910 as State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Radford, Radford University was founded as an all-women’s college and eventually transitioned to a teacher’s college. Radford became a coeducational institution in 1972, four years after the merger of Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia created VCU.

As such, Radford’s basketball program is less than 50 years old. Radford entered Division I as an independent institution in 1984 before joining the Big South Conference the following year, where it remains today.

In recent years, Radford has become one of the top programs in the Big South, highlighted by a win in the NCAA Tournament First Four in 2018. Under head coach Mike Jones, the Highlanders won the Big South Tournament in 2018 and the conference regular season title in 2019 and 2020. When Jones left Radford after the 2020-21 season, the Highlanders had strung together four consecutive winning seasons.

The Rams and the Highlanders have met nine times in their histories, with VCU holding a 6-3 lead in the all-time series. The last time the two met was in November 2015, when Will Wade’s VCU team defeated Jones’ Highlanders at the Siegel Center, 92-74. VCU senior Melvin Johnson led the Rams with 24 points, while Korey Billbury and JeQuan Lewis added 15 and 13 points respectively. Johnson’s night included an electric 6-for-10 from behind the 3-point arc, to go with four steals.

Game preview

On Wednesday, second-year Radford head coach Darris Nichols will look to right the ship following a road loss to Virginia Military Institute on Saturday. On the season, Radford is just 1-4 in road games, with the win coming at Elon in late November.

As of Dec. 13, Radford is No. 193 in the NET rankings and No. 239 in KenPom. The Highlanders trail VCU in both metrics, with the Rams sitting at Nos. 172 and 125, respectively.

Key players to watch for Radford include top-scorer Kenyon Giles, a freshman guard from Chesapeake, Virginia who is averaging 12.2 points per game. Giles scored 21 points in the loss to VMI.

The team’s leading rebounder is starting forward Shaquan Jules, who is averaging 6.6 rebounds per game. At 6-foot-7, Jules is also the team’s leading shot-blocker despite being far from the tallest player on the roster.

Radford starting point guard Josiah Jeffers leads the team with 50 assists and will draw the matchup against Baldwin, depending on Baldwin’s availability.

In fact, the availability of Baldwin is the largest story entering this game. Two of VCU’s four losses came in games Baldwin did not play in. With Baldwin day-to-day, it will likely not be known until pregame shootaround if Baldwin will play.

If Baldwin is inactive, sophomore Jayden Nunn will inherit much of the ballhandling of the first team unit. Nunn has played well for the most part in Baldwin’s absence, with one or fewer turnovers in each of the last four games.

VCU’s strongest offensive weapon in recent games has been its leading scorer, fifth-year senior Brandon Johns Jr. Johns led VCU in scoring against Howard with 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, coming off of a 20-point effort in the loss against Jacksonville. In sum, Johns has shot 50% from the floor in three of the last four games and is averaging a career-high 12.3 points per game on the season.

DeLoach, who leads the team in rebounding, also enters the game with some injury concerns. After missing the Jacksonville game due to illness, he took a hard fall late in the first half of the Howard game and had to be helped to the locker room. DeLoach did play his normal minutes in the second half, scoring 11 points and tallying six steals on the night. The sophomore from Savannah, Georgia leads the Rams with 6.2 rebounds per game.

With the rotation altered frequently due to injury, some rotational pieces have played extended minutes. Perhaps no player has taken better advantage of the opportunity than junior guard Josh Banks, who scored a career-high 11 points against Howard. Banks is averaging career-highs across every category, shooting nearly 41% from deep and over 86% from the free throw line.

It is worth noting that as a freshman in the fall of 2020, Banks beat VCU stars Vince Williams and Bones Hyland in the intrasquad 3-point contest during the virtual Black and Gold Event. Williams and Hyland were both drafted in consecutive NBA Drafts, the first time that has happened at VCU in over a decade.

Quick Hits

Are free throws really free?

As of Dec. 13, VCU is tied for No. 230 in the nation in free throw percentage, making 68.9% of attempts from the line. The Rams are tied with St. Bonaventure for the fifth-lowest free throw percentage in the Atlantic 10 conference.

The struggle at the line continues a trend for VCU, which shot just above 70% from the stripe last season.

Performing better from the charity stripe must be a priority for the Rams as conference play looms at the end of the month. Per data compiled by Ryan Hammer, VCU has among the highest “adjusted free throw attempt rates” in the nation and could “win games purely off of [free throws]” with an improved percentage.

Baldwin named A-10 Player of the Week

For the first time in his career, Ace Baldwin received a weekly honor from the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Baldwin was named A-10 Conference Player of the Week on Dec. 5 for the week of Nov. 28 to Dec. 4. During that week, Baldwin averaged 22 points, 6.5 assists and 3.0 steals per game, including his career-high performance against Vanderbilt on Nov. 30 — done with two screws in his wrist.

Later that week, Baldwin scored 16 points and dished out nine assists in the Dec. 3 road loss to Temple.

Baldwin leads the team on a per game basis in points, assists and steals, but presently does not qualify to be the official team leader due to missing five of VCU’s 10 games.

Fair seas, Pirate

The college athletics world received shocking news this week with the death of Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach on Monday night.

Leach, who was 61 years old, never coached for an A-10 institution when the conference still sponsored football, but his impact on the game of football and his larger-than-life personality was felt throughout college athletics.

A moment of silence for Leach was held before Alabama’s basketball game on Tuesday night against Memphis.

In 21 seasons with Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State, Leach compiled a 158-107 career record. Leach will likely be remembered more for his quotable press conferences and his work as one of the architects of the “Air Raid offense,” which modernized passing offense at all levels of football.

Fair winds and following seas, Pirate.