Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – it is mid-January, and the VCU Rams men’s basketball team are on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Thanks to a hot start coming out of a three-week COVID-19 pause, that is exactly where VCU finds itself as Atlantic 10 conference play begins to hit full song. The Rams (9-4, 2-0 A-10) now return to the Siegel Center with a six-game winning streak as they prepare to host the George Washington Colonials (4-9, 0-1 A-10).
The game will tip off at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, with live coverage on ESPN+ (fans in the Maryland/Virginia area can also see the game on MASN2).
A blowout and a squeaker
Following a three-week pause that saw two games canceled and two A-10 matchups postponed, VCU picked up right where it left off by extending the winning streak with a pair of road victories.
The games could not have been more different in their makeup: one was a one-point win with scores in the 50’s, while the other saw VCU put up its highest point total in over a calendar year.
VCU returned to action at UD Arena on Jan. 5 with a key road contest against the Dayton Flyers. The Rams led going into halftime, 28-24, but never seemed to fully be in control as the game remained tight throughout.
As the second half progressed, Dayton and VCU remained close, with R.J. Blakney knocking down a pair of go-ahead free throws with less than 25 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing VCU possession, sophomore point guard Ace Baldwin hit a pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key with 6.6 seconds remaining, while a Blakney floater narrowly missed as time expired, securing the 53-52 VCU win.
Baldwin (more on him in a moment) had a great night, finishing with 12 points and seven assists. He shot nearly 50% from the floor and knocked down two 3-pointers, both in the game’s final three minutes.
Ohio native Vince Williams also had a strong night in his return to his home state, recording his first career double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds). Junior forward Hason Ward continued his season-long block party by adding a pair of blocks to his four point, five rebound performance.
The key stat from the game was free throw attempts, which Dayton led 27-2. VCU went over 35 minutes without a free throw attempt, with two Williams free throws after a foul on a layup attempt representing VCU’s team total.
VCU’s hallmark defense was on display again, holding a strong Flyers team to 39% shooting and 20% from beyond the arc.
On Jan. 8, the Rams took a road trip to the iconic Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia, as the La Salle Explorers played host. VCU had what felt like its most dominating offensive performance of the year, as the Rams cruised to an 85-66 victory. The 85 points VCU scored were the most points the Rams have scored in a game since a 93-68 win against Western Carolina on Dec. 15, 2020.
The Rams led by double figures at the half and maintained that lead for nearly the entire second half, thanks to contributions from the bench unit. Junior guard Marcus Tsohonis, a transfer from Washington, had his best game as a Ram so far, hitting five 3-pointers in just 13 minutes of action.
Williams again tallied a triple-nickel (hat-tip to our friends at 3 Bid League Pod), recording 16 points, six rebounds and five assists on 5-for-7 shooting. Baldwin continued his excellent month by dishing out a team-high six assists. Williams and Baldwin recorded three steals each.
In a game where VCU only trailed for 106 seconds, all 10 players that entered the game scored.
La Salle fought hard in the contest, at one point trimming the lead to nine points in the second half before VCU pulled away. Clifton Moore led all scorers in the contest, leading the La Salle scoring attack with 21 points.
With the win, VCU improved to 4-0 in true road games. It is the first time VCU has won its first four road contests since the 2016-17 season, when VCU won at Liberty, Old Dominion, George Mason and Duquesne. VCU ultimately went 7-4 in road games that season.
Baldwin continues to shine
The story of the season is the near-miraculous return of Ace Baldwin, who came back well ahead of schedule from an Achilles injury suffered during the spring. The Baltimore native, who was an A-10 All-Rookie selection last season, has quickly regained the reins on an offense that was frankly lost before his return.
Since returning from injury on Dec. 8 against Jacksonville State, the Rams are 5-0. With the exception of the one-point win against Dayton, every win has been by nine or more points.
Perhaps more importantly, VCU has scored 65 or more points in four of the five games since Baldwin’s return. While Baldwin was out, VCU scored 65 or more points just twice and had a season-high of 67 (Nov. 24 against Syracuse).
Through five games, Baldwin has averaged nearly 10 points per game to go with 5.4 assists per contest. His 2.8 steals per game, while done with a smaller sample size, would rank second in the conference. His stealing ability pairs well with Williams and freshman guard Jayden Nunn, who are both among the top ten in steals in the A-10.
As the season continues, VCU appears comfortable giving Baldwin the keys to the offense with little hesitation: after a 19-minute debut, Baldwin has seen his minutes steadily tick up to over 30 per night. VCU’s offense, which deservedly took some criticism early on, will go as far as Baldwin can carry them.
Rankings and what to watch
As of Jan. 10, here is where the VCU Rams rank in several important metrics:
- A-10 standings: T-1st, 2-0 (due to a better conference record, Davidson would hold the tiebreaker)
- NCAA NET Rankings: 52nd (second in the A-10, trailing Davidson)
- KenPom: 68th (third in the A-10, trailing Davidson and St. Bonaventure)
- A10Talk.com Power Rankings: 4th (for the record, they were 3rd on my ballot)
The Rams will look to improve these metrics on Tuesday night against George Washington. All conference games are tough, but for the Rams this game represents a landmine of sorts. George Washington, in nearly every relevant metric, is graded as the worst team in the conference.
After suffering a COVID pause of similar duration to VCU’s, the Colonials returned to action with a home game against Dayton on Jan. 8. Dayton won the game in an 83-58 landslide, snapping a two-game winning streak for George Washington.
The overall stats are not pretty for the Colonials: they sit 292nd in the NET rankings, 272nd on KenPom, and have yet to win a true road game. George Washington has also not won a game outside of Quadrant 4 so far this season, going 0-2 in Quadrant 2 opportunities and 0-5 in Quadrant 3 games. For the Colonials, Tuesday night’s game represents the first Quadrant 1 game on its schedule, and VCU the highest-ranked opponent they have played so far.
For VCU, Tuesday night’s game is a Quadrant 4 game. VCU has gone 4-0 in such contests so far this season, with the most recent one coming in the La Salle game on Jan. 8. George Washington represents the lowest-ranked opponent the Rams have faced so far this season.
This has all the makings of a VCU runaway. Writing off a conference opponent, no matter what the metrics say, comes at your own peril. George Washington still has talented players on the roster, with sophomore transfer Joe Bamisile averaging 14 points per game. Bamisile is coming off a career performance against Dayton, tallying 25 points on 10-for-18 from the floor. Leading scorer James Bishop added 12 points of his own in 34 minutes of game action. Look for the pair to represent a dangerous scoring duo that could threaten VCU’s defense.
Of course, with two teams still recovering from a lengthy COVID outbreak, some question marks remain about what players will be available. As of Saturday, VCU had one player (graduate student Levi Stockard III) still in COVID protocols, while Jimmy Nichols returned from protocols on Jan. 8. Additionally, players returning from the COVID protocols may not be at full strength – Nunn was held out of the Dayton game for that reason, according to VCU head coach Mike Rhoades.
Jayden Nunn warmed up tonight for VCU, but wound up not playing. Mike Rhoades said that Nunn had been in COVID-19 protocol with symptoms, and had nothing in the tank.
"He practiced yesterday, he just had nothing in the tank. He didn't recover from practice yesterday."
— Wayne Epps Jr. (@wayneeppsjr) January 6, 2022
All in all, while all indications point to a VCU blowout, don’t call it until the final buzzer sounds at the Stu on Tuesday night.
VCU is favored by 17 points, according to ESPN. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Rams a 93.3% chance of winning.