The VCU Rams entered Tuesday night’s game against the Saint Louis Billikens undermanned and as underdogs.
The Rams were without four of the guards they started the season with. Two of these absences were expected: Jarren McAllister suffered a season-ending injury within the first two weeks of the season and Tre Clark left the program in January.
One came as a tragic surprise: junior guard KeShawn Curry did not dress due to the death of his brother.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this grieving time for him,” head coach Mike Rhoades said before the game. As of late Friday, there has been no indication as to when Curry may return this season.
But the most impactful absence to most viewers was the absence of Atlantic 10 Player of the Year frontrunner Bones Hyland. Hyland suffered a “foot sprain” in the Feb. 20 loss to George Mason. Hyland, who was carried off the floor, was listed as “day-to-day” and ruled out of the Saint Louis game.
With minimal options, the remaining wings had to deliver without their teammates in one of the most crucial games of VCU’s season thus far. Fortunately for Ram fans, they did just that, upsetting the Billikens 67-65 on senior night. The Rams now have locked up a double-bye in next week’s Atlantic 10 tournament and stand a fighting chance at locking up the A10 regular season title, depending on how St. Bonaventure closes the season.
Junior forward Vince Williams continued his stellar season, hitting four 3-pointers and coming up one rebound shy of a double-double. However, it was the guard play that stole the show Tuesday night. If the Rams want to close out the season with a victory Saturday against the Davidson Wildcats, then their guards must continue the stellar play seen on Tuesday night.
Three guards played during the victory on Tuesday night, all of whom are freshmen. Playing the least number of minutes was North Carolina native Josh Banks, who recorded 19 minutes. Banks tallied career highs in minutes played, points (seven), assists (two) and field goals made (three). Banks is a good player that fits well in Rhoades’ system, but needs more time to develop. At his skill set and experience level presently, Banks played a solid game even though his stats do not leap off the page. This expanded workload should pay dividends in the seasons to come. Remember, Banks was recruited by schools like Temple and Virginia Tech for a reason.
With the absences of Curry and Hyland, the starting shooting guard duties fell to New Jersey native Jamir Watkins. In his first career start, Watkins exceeded all expectations. Watkins has built up an impressive freshman year resume, even turning the head of CBS Sports reporter Jon Rothstein.
Jamir Watkins. Buy Stock Now.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 18, 2021
Watkins added nine points to VCU’s total on Tuesday night, tied with senior Levi Stockard for third on the team. While Watkins had a poor shooting night (2-for-12), he made his impact known as a facilitator. Watkins’ three assists ranked second on the team for the game, and he only committed one turnover.
Perhaps the place Watkins is making the most impact is on the boards. Watkins grabbed four rebounds on the game, second only to Vince Williams. On the season, Watkins is averaging over two rebounds per game, which is excellent for a reserve guard. Just from the “eye test”, Watkins passes with flying colors, routinely making impact plays at crucial moments to keep hist team in contention. If Hyland misses Saturday’s game, look for Watkins to start again in his place.
What is there left to say about the star point guard from Baltimore? Here is a taste of the Twitter conversation after Baldwin’s 15-point, seven assist game Tuesday, mostly from VCU assistant athletic director Chris Kowalczyk:
Ace Baldwin has logged 41 and 40 minutes in the past two games, respectively. He's the first VCU freshman to log 40 or more in a game since Nick George on Jan. 18, 2003 at William & Mary. #LetsGoVCU
— Around The Horns (@VCUHorns) February 25, 2021
More Baldwin stuff: Ace has dished out 100 assists this year, most by a VCU freshman since Rod Ladd (108) in 1990-91. #LetsGoVCU
— Around The Horns (@VCUHorns) February 25, 2021
VCU Players Who Played 40/40 Minutes in a Game Since 2010-2011:
1. Melvin Johnson (@ Mason 2016)
2. JeQuan Lewis (vs. Oklahoma 2016)
3. JeQuan Lewis (vs. Baylor 2016)
4. JeQuan Lewis (@ Liberty 2016)
5. Bones Hyland (@ Dayton 2021)
6. Ace Baldwin (vs. SLU 2021)
— Iᴀɴ Rᴇɴɴɪɴɢᴇʀ (@VCUBRO) February 24, 2021
When the story is told of Ace Baldwin’s career as a VCU Ram, this game will be in the lede paragraph. Baldwin played the entire game, scoring 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting. As a facilitator, Baldwin continued a dazzling freshman campaign, tallying seven assists. For good measure, Baldwin added three rebounds of his own.
The most crucial part of the game for Baldwin came in the final minute. In the highest of high-pressure scenarios, Baldwin sank four free throws and drew the game-winning foul in the final five seconds of the game. With no rest, Baldwin did not play sloppy, causing only two turnovers. All in all, it is near-impossible to have a better game as a freshman point guard than the performance that Baldwin turned in against Saint Louis. VCU fans should be elated that Baldwin still has three more years of eligibility left to play out.
VCU (17-5, 10-3 A10) will end the regular season on the road against Davidson (11-7, 6-4 A10). The Wildcats are -3 favorites according to the guys in the desert and have a 60.9% chance of winning according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
Forget about that! VCU has shown to be a level above Davidson all season long. That win on Tuesday night against Saint Louis only solidified this point: the Rams can beat almost any team in this conference, even without Bones Hyland.
Davidson are not cupcakes. Kellan Grady is among the best guards in the conference, averaging 17 points per game. Team-leading rebounder Luka Brajkovic likely gives Rhoades fits when installing his game plan. Davidson looks to be about the fifth-best team in the conference; capable of making noise in the conference tournament next week.
With a regular season title potentially on the line, I am all the way in on a motivated VCU squad, especially if they get one or both of Curry and Hyland back (as of 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning, there has been no news on the status of either). Look for a barnburner of a close game but expect the Rams to leave Davidson with the win Saturday afternoon.
Jason’s Prediction: VCU 68, Davidson 66 (Jason’s Record: 2-1).
VCU vs Davidson will tip off at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be carried on ESPNU.