Mike Rhoades’ third edition VCU Rams headed into the season with a brand new grading curve. No longer underrated like last season’s group picked seventh preseason before a 16-2 first place regular season run, instead the A-10’s preseason top dog with serious expectations that included a November top-25 national ranking.
There are good wins in the eyes of the committee, GREAT wins in the eyes of the fan base and then occasionally a team picks up one that satisfies both. That’s exactly what VCU got when “welcoming” short-term head coach, Will Wade, back to the Siegel Center on November 13.
Fresh off a Sweet 16 run followed by an FBI probe summer, Wade’s LSU group became the second former VCU head coach in as many seasons to fall to Mike Rhoades’ Rams in a contract-dictated home-and-home series. VCU looked prepared to blowout the Tigers before hanging on in the 84-82 win, their best of the season so far. LSU came into the season as the SEC’s preseason No.3, a nice place to be from a conference that sent seven teams dancing in 2019, but have seen the wind taken out of their sails a bit thanks to a few unexpected losses, namely at home to East Tennessee State. Still, LSU will have plenty of opportunities to build their profile and with that, become an even better win for the Rams. Regardless, it’s a W the black and gold faithful won’t soon forget.
That victory over the Tigers is VCU’s only top-100 win at the moment, but currently ranks as the third best of the A-10 as of right now in OOC play. The Rams could see their road W over CAA title contender, Charleston, look better and better as the year goes on, the Cougars currently sitting just outside of the kenpom top-100 at No.127 and a home win over Missouri Valley favorite, Missouri State (kenpom No.140), has similar potential.
The Rams had no bad losses in the non-conference, taking all three of their Ls to current kenpom top-50 squads. VCU lost two three-point contests in Florida to Purdue (No.12) and Tennessee (No.45), then lost one of their two true road games of the non-conference by 10 to Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State Shockers (No.32). That leaves just three legit “bad loss” opportunities remaining on the Rams schedule if going by kenpom’s current rankings: Thursday against Fordham in Richmond, January 21 at Saint Joseph’s and Sat, February 29 at home against George Washington.
Looking Ahead to Conference Play
The beauty of this year’s VCU team is while they’ve put together a respectable showing thus far, it still feels as though they are yet to really reach their potential. In fact, their numbers are almost identical to last season’s team that finished 16-2.
The Rams are currently ranked 42nd on kenpom, exactly where they finished last season, but down from their promising No.23 start. They boast an adjusted offensive efficiency of 105.3 (73rd nationally), just a tad up from last season’s 104.3. Their defense has taking the slightest of steps back on paper, from an adjusted defensive efficiency of 89.5 last season to 90.1 as of this very moment, which when combined with their offensive numbers results in a adjusted efficiency margin (+15.12) that’s ever so slightly better than last season’s squad (14.89).
In short, VCU is playing just as good as last year, but haven’t really improved.
Can they improve? Will they? The league has more than doubled it’s amount of top-100 teams, meaning simply playing as well as last year likely won’t be enough to raise any hardware, particularly with Dayton making the nuclear leap.
VCU massively upgraded their backup point guard position with the addition of Bones Hyland, a freshman guard that of this very moment, has lately been more efficient offensively than A10 POY candidate and 2019 First Team selection, Marcus Evans. Hyland has started to see time next to Evans, which when eventually combined with an Evans snap back to his normal level of productivity (he’s posted five sub-90 offensive ratings over VCU’s last seven games…but the snap back is coming, he’s got the history and is just too good), could be fun for Ram fans.
VCU will also eventually get leading three-point shooter, Malik Crowfield (50%), back from injury and will no doubt be one of the top contenders in this year’s Atlantic 10.
Non-Conference Grade: B
Again, we’re now grading the Rams on the curve they set for themselves by doing so well last year. Simply playing the same won’t earn an A like last season, improvement is now expected — the bar has been risen. VCU was perhaps one additional win from a possible A (a road W at Wichita State would’ve been monumental, or simply just eeking out one of those close ones in the Emerald Coast). They have the talent and potential to still put together an A+ season, but only if they take a step they’ve yet to really show at all so far this year.