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An optimist’s guide to VCU’s injury-plagued season

As we inch closer to hoops season with scrimmages getting underway, preseason predictions are flying from every which direction, many of which aren’t quite sure what to make of this year’s VCU Rams. The black and gold were predicted to finish ninth in last year’s A-10 preseason standings, only to finish second in the regular season prior to making a run to the A-10 Championship game where they would eventually fall to a St. Bonaventure team who looks poised for a historic upcoming season themselves.

While the general consensus doesn’t seem to have VCU anywhere near as low as they were predicted to finish in last year’s preseason polls, many people have their doubts on how good the Rams can be. I have several reasons why I would caution betting against Mike Rhoades and Co. this upcoming season.

CONSISTENT RECRUITING VIRTUALLY UNMATCHED IN THE A-10

Mike Rhoades and his staff haven’t exactly reached Shaka Smart recruiting levels since taking over on Broad St. yet, but they haven’t been far off. VCU has had a top-2 conference recruiting class the past three seasons (and another on the way in 2022). No other conference team has remained in the top-5 in each of those seasons.

This is partly how the Rams were able to punch an NCAA tournament ticket this past season with a freshman point guard, a sophomore star and one of the nation’s least experienced rosters (No.305 nationally). Some detractors are pointing to the losses of Ace Baldwin (potentially back for conference play) and Jamir Watkins (out for the season with an ACL tear) as to why VCU might struggle, missing the point that they were just freshman this past season. Who is to say the Rams haven’t found another Ace Baldwin (Jayden Nunn?…who is getting rave reviews from VCU’s offseason workouts) and Jamir Watkins (Nick Kern?) in the A-10’s second best 2021 class on paper?

CAN THEY WIN WITHOUT HYLAND?

VCU’s somewhat unexpected loss of Bones Hyland to the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft was a bittersweet offseason development for VCU fans.

There is no arguing Bones Hyland’s departure to the NBA — who looks right at home there — is a huge loss to the Rams. Still, it was only nine months ago a Bones-less Rams defeated Saint Louis, a fringe top-50 team this past year, 67-65 at the Siegel Center. This was a SLU team that got a combined 37 points out of seniors Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French. Then-freshman Jamir Watkins went just 2-12 from the field for the Rams, yet VCU managed to figure out a way to win against a very good Billikens squad.

How many of this year’s A-10 teams will be as good as last year’s SLU team with Goodwin (now with the NBA’s Washington Wizards) and Hasahn French? It was just one game and a game coming off a road loss at Davidson, but a reason to believe VCU is capable of figuring out life without Bones just as they did that evening in Richmond.

SNEAKY GOOD ADDITIONS

Speaking of Bones, VCU lost a high-volume scorer — Hyland took 31.8% of VCU’s shots while on the floor this past season — to the NBA. That won’t hurt recruiting for the black and gold, but it’s inarguably a serious production loss.

Washington transfer, Marcus Tsohonis, brings a 10 ppg knockdown shooter to VCU’s roster.

But the Rams’ addition of Washington transfer, Marcus Tsohonis, is flying somewhat under the radar.

While on the court this past year, Tsohonis accounted for 30.1% of Washington’s attempts, scored over 20 points five times last season and is a 38.7% career three-point shooter. He ranked second on last year’s Huskies squad in overall box plus/minus at +3.2, which is even more impressive considering half the team finished below +1 (with four contributors in the red). Tsohonis is much more quiet than the outspoken Hyland, but Ram fans will hope his game speaks volumes this upcoming season in replacing the largest hole left from last year’s team.

VCU also added Providence transfer, Jimmy Nichols Jr. Nichols is a bit of a stretch four who hopes to have his best year yet after leaving the Big East. He hit 30.4% of his career threes (40.9% last season) and blocked almost 9% of his opponents shots his freshman year. That is an interesting combination of skills you don’t see all that often in the Atlantic 10. Nichols posted an impressive 109 sophomore offensive rating before getting injured against a 16-game schedule that included 11 top-100 matchups, plus four more against teams in the top-150.

 

The Rams will look different no doubt and injuries have taken a cut to VCU’s depth for this upcoming year, but there is a lot there to win with still and the Rams’ staff has done an incredibly good job this offseason of plugging the holes that were both left by their graduating and drafted players as well as landing some good pieces that could do a surprisingly good job of filling some gaps created by injuries. Getting older shouldn’t hurt either.

I am of the opinion that there is no team in this league that can challenge what St. Bonaventure is returning to this conference over a full conference schedule, but I wouldn’t bury VCU just yet either, they may just surprise you.