So… a lot has changed since last season for the VCU Rams, huh?
Out goes head coach Mike Rhoades after six years at the helm of the Rams. Rhoades agreed to become the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions shortly after VCU’s first round NCAA Tournament loss to Saint Mary’s. Coincidentally, Rhoades’ VCU career began in 2017 after then-head coach Will Wade left for LSU after a first round NCAA tournament loss to Saint Mary’s.
Also taking the trip to Happy Valley were reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Ace Baldwin along with guard Nick Kern. Significant contributors Jamir Watkins and Jayden Nunn left for Florida State and Baylor, respectively, while starter Brandon Johns Jr. and sharpshooter David Shriver graduated.
All told, VCU returned just five players from last season’s roster, accounting for 11.8% of minutes and 9% of scoring from the 2022-23 team. Senior guard Zeb Jackson, who transferred to VCU in 2022 from Michigan, made up the bulk of both numbers.
Leading the new faces on this year’s squad is Ryan Odom, who was hired just days after Rhoades’ departure became official. A graduate of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, Odom joined the Rams on the heels of two successful seasons at Utah State, including an NCAA Tournament berth in 2023.
Odom’s greatest claim to fame came during his five seasons at the helm of the UMBC Retrievers. In 2018, Odom was the head whistle for the Retrievers when they completed the largest upset by seeding in the history of the NCAA Tournament, with #16 UMBC defeating #1 Virginia 74-54. The upset was the first time a #16 seed had ever defeated a #1 seed since the tournament expanded to its current 64-team format.
Odom reflects a departure from VCU’s recent history. He is the first coach hired from outside Shaka Smart’s coaching tree in more than a decade – including Smart himself. Odom is also an offensive-minded coach, meaning the likely end of the “Havoc” brand of defense that Smart, Wade and Rhoades made famous at the Siegel Center in the last decade-plus.
By way of the upset win over Virginia in 2018, Odom also becomes the first head coach hired by VCU to already have won an NCAA tournament game since Mack McCarthy, who took Chattanooga to the Sweet Sixteen in 1997 and was hired by VCU in 1998.
So, what is new, who is on the Rams, and how does this season look?
#2 Zeb Jackson (senior, guard)
#5 Fats Billups (redshirt freshman, guard)
#10 Tobi Lawal (sophomore, forward)
#21 Christian Fermin (sophomore, forward)
#34 Obinnaya Okafor (redshirt freshman, forward)
The five players who returned to VCU after the dust settled all joined the program in 2022, with all but Jackson being underclassmen.
Jackson is the star of the returning bunch. The Ohio native, who was named a team captain this summer, played in all 35 games last season for the Rams, averaging 5.2 points per game on just under 40% shooting. Jackson has taken an expanded role this season and has started the first two games for VCU.
London native Tobi Lawal turned heads during the offseason, recording a 49.5-inch vertical jump in preseason practice. The mark would break the NBA Combine record for vertical jump, set by Michael Jordan in the 1980s. Lawal appeared in 25 games for VCU last season and started once against Jacksonville on Dec. 7.
Fats Billups, a Richmond native, took a medical redshirt last season after sustaining a season-ending hand injury. Billups was a top-100 recruit in the high school class of 2022 and appeared in eight games before sustaining the injury. Through two games this season, Billups has averaged almost 20 minutes per game off the bench to go with 7.5 points per game.
Pennsylvania’s Christian Fermin changed his number to #21 this season and has been turning heads in 2023. After appearing in just 14 games last season, Fermin has earned a far expanded role in Odom’s system, starting the first two games of 2023. Thus far, Fermin has led the team in rebounding with eight per game.
Obinnaya Okafor, a Hampton, Virginia native, joined VCU as a walk-on last season but did not appear. This season, the redshirt freshman earned a scholarship and the prospect of an expanded role under Odom’s system. At Bethel High School in Hampton, Okafor set a school record with 11 blocks in a game.
#1 Jason Nelson (redshirt sophomore, guard, Richmond)
#4 Roosevelt Wheeler (junior, forward/center, Louisville)
#7 Sean Bairstow (graduate, guard/forward, Utah State)
#8 Michael Belle (freshman, guard/forward)
#11 Max Shulga (senior, guard, Utah State)
#13 Kuany Kuany (graduate, forward, Cal)
#14 Connor Odom (senior, guard, Utah State)
#22 Joe Bamisile (senior, guard, Oklahoma)
Aggies to Rams
Three players from last season’s Utah State team followed Odom to the East Coast.
Max Shulga averaged 11.9 points per game for the Aggies last season and started all 35 games. The Kyiv, Ukraine native transfers into VCU with two remaining years of eligibility. In 2023, Shulga was named Honorable Mention All-Mountain West after a season that saw him set a new career high in points (29) and assists (11) to go with four double-doubles.
Australia native Sean Bairstow enters VCU in his final year of eligibility coming off a season where he averaged 10.7 points per game. Like Shulga, Bairstow started all 35 games under Odom, while shooting 47.3% from the floor and 38.2% from deep.
Shulga and Bairstow earned preseason all-conference honors, with Shulga earning second team and Bairstow earning third team honors in October.
Also joining VCU from Utah State is walk-on senior guard Connor Odom. Odom, son of head coach Ryan Odom, appeared in four games in the 2022-23 season. He scored his first career points during the 2022 Mountain West Tournament, connecting on a 3-pointer against Air Force.
Moving across town
Intra-conference transfers are rare. Intra-city transfers, even more rare.
But both at the same time? Almost unheard of.
Welcome to the curious case of Jason Nelson.
Nelson, a native of Richmond who attended John Marshall High School, announced that he was transferring to VCU on April 18. That same day, Nelson was joined by Roosevelt Wheeler, a fellow John Marshall alum, in transferring to VCU.
The transfer saw Nelson move less than seven miles, as he was a starting point guard on the Richmond Spiders. In the 2022-23 season, Nelson started 26 games, averaging eight points and two assists.
For his efforts as a redshirt freshman, Nelson was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year by HoopsHD. The A-10 twice named Nelson the conference’s rookie of the week.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nelson is the first player ever to play for both VCU and Richmond. The two institutions have a rich cross-town rivalry that dates back decades, well before both programs joined the A-10 conference.
After a slow start against McNeese State, Nelson returned to form on Nov. 10 against Samford, scoring 11 points on 40% shooting in 31 minutes off the bench. He also tacked on six steals, shattering his career high.
Nelson will get two opportunities the squish the Spiders this year: Feb. 3 at the Siegel Center and March 2 in his return to the Robins Center.
Where in the world is Joe Bamisile?
Perhaps the biggest story at the outset of VCU’s campaign is the eligibility status of senior guard Joe Bamisile.
Bamisile, a native of nearby Chesterfield, transferred to VCU from Oklahoma over the summer. VCU is Bamisile’s fourth school, including fellow A-10 member school George Washington.
Bamisile saw his transfer waiver denied by the NCAA, meaning Bamisile cannot play this season for the Rams. VCU announced after the NCAA’s decision that the university would be appealing the decision.
After the NCAA denied his waiver, Bamisile issued a statement laying out his case, noting that he had struggled with “severe anxiety and self-isolation, and I needed a new environment to address my mental health challenges.” Bamisile also noted his father had “survived two major life-threatening scares” and that he desired to live closer to his family.
On the floor, the loss was significant to VCU, which had projected Bamisile as a likely starter.
In the annual Black & Gold Game intrasquad scrimmage in October, Bamisile shined brightly. He scored a game-high 17 points and visibly looked like the most aggressive player on the floor.
As of Nov. 15, the NCAA has yet to rule on Bamisile’s appeal.
VCU announced on Oct. 21 that graduate Sean Bairstow, a preseason All-A-10 Third Team selection, sustained a non-contact fracture in his right foot during practice. He had surgery from VCU Athletics chief medical officer Dr. Seth Cheatham on Oct. 20 and was projected to miss six to eight weeks.
In the Black & Gold Game, Bairstow scored 13 points and recorded a game-high five assists.
The loss meant that VCU is without both Bamisile and Bairstow likely for the duration of non-conference play. If Bairstow is available on the shorter end of his injury timeline, the first game he would be available for is the Dec. 6 home matchup against Memphis.
The injury, on top of Bamisile’s eligibility issues, means that for the moment VCU is playing a much shorter rotation than anticipated when this roster was constructed.
A-10 Twitter, we hear the jokes.
The Siegel Center is like a cafeteria, it’s bland, it’s boring, it’s square.
The Siegel Center first opened in 1999 for VCU basketball, and has quickly become one of the most intimidating road venues in the conference – no matter which conference VCU is in.
But its looks? Some have said it leaves much to be desired.
Recent upgrades look to bring the home of VCU basketball into the future and elevate the arena, beginning with 12×40 video screens on each end zone of the arena.
The $1.7 million upgrade also extended the ribbon video board to now run around the entire arena, which also necessitated a redesign of the banners noting VCU’s accomplishments on the West Marshall Street side of the arena.
The upgrades, paired with the recent repainting of the Siegel Center accents to black, have made the Siegel Center look sleeker and more modern – up to par with the arena’s reputation as a tough place to play for opposing teams.
Up next: Radford
VCU started the season on a sour note with a 76-65 loss to McNeese State on opening night in a game VCU trailed in for the majority.
Three days later, VCU rallied back in the second half to defeat Samford by double-digits after trailing for the majority of the contest.
The Rams appear to be facing growing pains as a team that has not spent significant minutes together and skews on the younger side in the A-10. Visibly, it looked as if the Rams began to build momentum in the second half, playing with chemistry and a fluidity that appeared to be missing for the first one and a half games of the season.
Shulga led VCU with 17 points against Samford, while Fermin secured his first career double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) to go with five blocks.
Next on the schedule for VCU is a Wednesday night tilt against in-state rivals Radford. The Highlanders have faced the Rams 10 times, with VCU holding a 7-3 edge in the all-time series.
The two teams met at the Stuart C. Siegel Center in downtown Richmond 11 months ago, with VCU securing a 70-62 win. Brandon Johns Jr. led the Rams with 18 points on that night, with Jalen Deloach and Ace Baldwin adding 15 and 10 points, respectively.
Jackson and Lawal are the only players on this year’s VCU squad that appeared in last season’s matchup with the Highlanders. Jackson scored six points, all from the free throw line, and added three rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes from the bench. Lawal scored one point in seven minutes, to pair with three rebounds and an assist.
Radford enters Richmond this season with a 2-1 record, coming off a narrow win against Marshall and a blowout win over Eastern Mennonite. The Highlanders’ only loss came on opening night at North Carolina.
Thus far this season, the Highlander offense is being paced by Chesapeake, Virginia native Kenyon Giles, who is averaging 17.7 points per game. Giles, a sophomore guard who scored 13 points against the Rams last season, also leads the Highlanders in assists per game in 2023-24.
Junior forward Justin Archer has emerged as the team’s top rebounder, averaging 9.3 boards per game through the first three games of the season. Archer had six points and six rebounds in last year’s meeting with VCU.
Radford placed second in the Big South Conference preseason poll, with guards DaQuan Smith and Bryan Antoine earning preseason Big South First Team honors.
Radford and VCU tip off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday from the Siegel Center in downtown Richmond. The game will be streamed live on ESPN+. VCU are 5.5-point favorites, per ESPN BET.
Photo: Jason Boleman/A10Talk