Game PreviewsNewsVCU

VCU hits the road against Vandy

After a disappointing loss to Wagner that saw the Rams put up their lowest point total in over 15 years, the Rams have hit the road to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The Rams (1-1) have had a tough go of things lately. VCU is not fielding its ideal roster with the injuries to guards Ace Baldwin and Jamir Watkins creating different rotations and roles than head coach Mike Rhoades originally intended when assembling this team.

However, VCU has seen some optimistic signs. KeShawn Curry and Hason Ward seem to be the guys to lead the Rams this season on the floor, while freshman guard Jayden Nunn has exceeded expectations thus far in the starting point guard role.

Nevertheless, the two games VCU has played do represent data points, and the points are not pretty. Look for VCU to continue to experiment and attempt to improve with the Battle 4 Atlantis looming next week.

Hosting the Rams are the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-0), playing the third of four consecutive home games. Vanderbilt enters the contest ranked 71st in KenPom, 46 spots ahead of VCU.

News and Notes

Baldwin looking to return soon?

On media day in October, Rhoades maintained the consistent messaging on his star point guard’s injury: sophomore guard Ace Baldwin is targeting a Jan. 1 return from an Achilles injury.

Earlier this week, VCU fans got an indication that things seem to be progressing on schedule for the Baltimore native.

Baldwin posted a workout video to his Instagram story of him passing the ball to himself off the backboard and dunking. Of course, it is just a workout video, but nothing seems abnormal in the video and Baldwin shows no signs of injury.

A Jan. 1 return would mean Baldwin will miss the entire nonconference schedule as well as the A-10 conference opener on Dec. 30 against George Mason. That would be approximately seven months after Baldwin ruptured his Achilles tendon.

A midseason return will also give the Rams much-needed reinforcements. VCU is shallow at the guard position due to Baldwin’s injury and the loss of Jamir Watkins for the season with a torn ACL.

It’s a block party

Junior forward Hason Ward is making a strong opening statement in his case for Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year.

On a per game basis, Ward sits tied for 14th in the country with 3.5 blocks per game. The mark ties him with Rhode Island’s Makhel Mitchell for second in the A-10 in blocks per game (St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi leads with 4.5 blocks per game.)

Ward’s ability to erase possessions has been great for a team that has thus far struggled to generate offense. Perhaps the formula early on for VCU involves low-scoring defensive grinds, which Ward seems especially equipped for.

One knock on Ward thus far extends to the entire team: lack of rebounding. Despite his ability to erase possessions via blocks, Ward does not rank in the top 100 nationally in rebounding. VCU’s struggles on the glass against Wagner saw the Seahawks outrebound the Rams 42-24 and was likely the biggest reason why the Rams fell behind so dramatically.

Ward overall has had an exceptional start to the season. He is second on the team in scoring (9 PPG), first in rebounds (7.5 RPG), first in blocks (3.5 BPG) and has the highest field goal percentage (66.7%).

Chef (KeShawn) Curry with the pot

Three of VCU’s top four scorers from 2020-21 are not with the team right now. Baldwin and Watkins are injured, while reigning A-10 Player of the Year Bones Hyland is getting rotational minutes with the Denver Nuggets.

In that scoring vacuum, there was much debate over whom among the veterans could elevate their game to take on the scoring load.

Thus far, that challenger has been senior guard KeShawn Curry.

Through two games, Curry is averaging a team-high 12 points per game, which more than doubles his scoring average from a year ago. In fact, Curry is on pace to set career highs in all five major statistical categories while also playing over 30 minutes a game.

The Jacksonville, Florida native is making up for lost time from a 2020-21 season that saw him miss extended time due to injury. Curry also missed the last five games of the season after the death of his brother.

Here in his senior season, Curry is elevating his game by building on the strengths he exhibited in his three years as a bench player. He is an above-average slasher that excels at taking contact and finishing difficult layups. Because of this, Curry also showed to be a surprisingly effective rebounder, and has parlayed his extended minutes into improved rebounding numbers thus far this year.

With senior forward Vince Williams starting the season a little cold on the scoring end, Curry has shown to be capable of taking the reins of the offense early on. While not a huge threat from deep like Williams, Curry can score effectively in the midrange and in the paint and will look to continue to improve his range as the season wears on.

Opening week woes

With the departure of Hyland coupled with major offseason injuries, it is no surprise that VCU has gotten out to such a slow start.

At 1-1, VCU survived a late charge from Saint Peter’s on opening night before losing by double digits to Wagner. In that time, the Rams have tumbled down metrics, including our very own A10 Talk power rankings, which find the Rams ranked 7th in the conference through one week of action.

The upcoming stretch of games gets no easier for the Rams, who have four Power 5 opponents to play in the nonconference schedule.

The key for VCU, as for any team really, is rebounding and scoring. VCU is averaging 50.5 points per game as a team, which is far below what is needed to regularly win NCAA Division 1 games. Williams will surely get back to averaging double digits, but it is crucial for another scorer off the bench to fill the Watkins/Curry role from years past.

Rebounding has been awful for the Rams, who are being outrebounded 80-55 thus far on the season. Aside from Ward, the next biggest rebounding threat is graduate student Levi Stockard III, who has struggled in his starting role thus far to generate offense.

It is not obvious what the best way to improve rebounding is for the Rams, but the key to victory moving forward has to involve being able to generate more second-chance opportunities as well as extending possessions via the offensive rebound.

Vandy: Ones to watch, odds, picks

The last time VCU and Vanderbilt met, VCU was in the Sun Belt, Vanderbilt was one of 10 schools in the SEC and the number-one song in America was the enduring 1980s ballad “Human” by The Human League.

Oh, and box scores were kept by hand.

The opening game of the 1986 Maui Invitational Basketball Tournament saw Vanderbilt defeat the Rams 75-67. VCU took a one-point lead into the locker room, but a 46-point second half by the Commodores doomed the Rams.

VCU senior guard Bruce Allen led all scorers with 25 points and junior forward Phil Stinnie added 11 of his own, but it proved to not be enough. Junior center Will Perdue led the Commodores with 22 points, shooting 8-for-13 from the floor.

Vanderbilt went on to win the Maui Invitational in 1986, while Perdue was honored as the tournament’s MVP.

Perdue went on to a successful NBA career, winning three titles with the Chicago Bulls during the franchise’s first three-peat in the 1990s.

Thirty-five years later, Perdue’s Bulls teammate, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, will watch his son Scotty lead the Commodores against the current Rams roster.

Scotty Pippen Jr. stands out on this Vanderbilt squad, even without his famous name. Pippen leads the Commodores with 22.5 points per game through the team’s first two games. The junior was named First-team All SEC last season and subsequently declared for the NBA Draft before electing to return to school.

Pippen’s accolades are too numerous to mention, but he was named the Preseason SEC Player of the Year for 2022, among other awards watch lists and honors. It is highly likely that Pippen is the best individual player the Rams could face in 2021-22. Look for Pippen to impact the game in virtually every way.

Vanderbilt has two other scorers averaging double digits: junior Jordan Wright (16 PPG) and sophomore Myles Stute (12.5 PPG).

The team is also astute at rebounding, with Jamaine Mann leading the way with 7.5 boards per game. The Commodores are outrebounding their opponents by four rebounds per game on average thus far this season.

The team’s leading passer is Quentin Millora-Brown, who is averaging just 2.5 points per game despite playing the fourth-most minutes on the team. His eight total assists leas a team that averages 15 assists per game.

Also of note is ex-Dayton Flyer Rodney Chatman, who is listed on the roster as a graduate transfer. Chatman has not recorded any minutes thus far this season but played 12 games for the Flyers last year.

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook place the Rams as 4.5-point underdogs tonight and the over/under at 133.

It is honestly a surprise, given Vanderbilt’s strengths and VCU’s most recent game, that the spread is that close across sportsbooks. A VCU team on the road still feeling out its identity against a strong-looking SEC team seems ripe for a blowout.

However, Vanderbilt appears to lack depth at scoring past Pippen and Wright. In theory, if Pippen can be slowed down and VCU wins the rebounding battle, then the Rams could stand a chance of keeping it close, if not winning outright.

How likely is that? Well…

Jason’s Picks: Vanderbilt 65, VCU 52. (Jason’s record: 1-0, 0-1 ATS).

VCU and Vanderbilt will tip off at 8 p.m. from Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville on ESPN+.