With a nod to “The West Wing,” the VCU men’s basketball team (10-4, 1-0 Atlantic 10) took to the skies on Tuesday night.
Destination: Pittsburgh and the improved Duquesne Dukes (11-4, 1-1 A-10).
“𝘠𝘰𝘶 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘧𝘭𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘴 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥?
𝘉𝘦𝘤𝘢𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘸𝘦 𝘤𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘩𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘣𝘶𝘳𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘱𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺.”
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) January 4, 2023
Historically, VCU has owned this matchup ever since joining the Atlantic 10 conference. Through nine matchups, VCU has lost just once to the Dukes: an 80-77 overtime loss in 2020 that saw a shorthanded VCU team play without De’Riante Jenkins and Marcus Evans, who were the second and third-leading scorers on that squad.
VCU will look to keep the winning ways going – and earn the first true road victory of the 2022-23 season – on Wednesday night in VCU’s first trip to the newly renovated UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.
The game will tip off at 7 p.m. from Pittsburgh and will be streamed live on ESPN+.
Last time out: Rams sink Explorers
The Rams opened the conference schedule on New Year’s Eve at home as double-digit favorites over the La Salle Explorers.
Early on, La Salle showed why games aren’t played on paper.
Led by an offensive onslaught by Josh Nickelberry, the Explorers led for much of the first half, as VCU struggled to build any offensive momentum early. Three minutes into the game, La Salle held a 7-0 lead.
Ultimately, Nickelberry scored a game-high 21 points, one of three Explorers to crack double figures. Joining Nickelberry in prolific scoring outputs were Jhamir Brickus and Khalil Brantley, who added 16 and 14 points, respectively. The trio accounted for 51 of La Salle’s 67 points, eight of its 10 made free throws and all five of its made 3-pointers.
A surge by VCU later in the first half gave the Rams its first lead of the game with 25 seconds to play, thanks to a Brandon Johns Jr. dunk. La Salle pulled ahead on the next possession before Zeb Jackson knocked down a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give VCU a 38-36 halftime lead.
Although La Salle pulled to as close as two points behind, the Rams never trailed throughout the rest of the game. The second half surge was powered by 51.5% shooting from the floor as a team, while outscoring the Explorers 42-31 during the second half.
Many VCU players had career days, most notably sophomore forward Jalen DeLoach. DeLoach, who broke his career high twice in the month of December, recorded his first career double-double with 14 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. The 14 points came on 6-for-8 from the floor, one of three VCU players to shoot above 50%.
The offense was led by VCU’s floor general, Ace Baldwin, who recorded a career-high five 3-pointers while leading the team in points (19), assists (six), and steals (four). Fifteen of Baldwin’s points came in the second half.
VCU’s two Michigan transfers also made their stamp on the game, with Zeb Jackson and Brandon Johns Jr. scoring 14 and 10 points, respectively. Johns returned to his full workload following a limited return from a back injury on Dec. 21 against Navy.
The win gave VCU its 13th consecutive win in conference openers, dating back to the university’s days in the Colonial Athletic Association. Additionally, the win extends VCU’s winning streak against La Salle to eight games and stretches the team’s active win streak to five games.
Meet your opponent
After consecutive seasons towards the bottom of the conference, including a last-place finish in the A-10 standings in 2021-22, Keith Dambrot has his Duquesne Dukes on the upswing heading into conference play.
At 11-4, Duquesne has already surpassed its win totals from 2022 (six) and 2021 (nine). A 72-61 New Year’s Eve home win over Rhode Island gave the Dukes their first A-10 conference win of the season and equaled last year’s conference win total, when Duquesne went 1-16 in A-10 play. The win snapped a 17-game losing skid in A-10 games.
The success has Duquesne ranked No. 129 in the NET rankings – just four spots behind VCU. This is despite a win record that is arguably bloated – seven of Duquesne’s 11 wins are in Quadrant 4 games, with a combined 0-3 record in Quadrants 1 and 2.
VCU’s resume is strikingly similar – 8-0 in Quadrant 4 games and a combined 1-2 in Quadrant 1 and 2 opportunities. A neutral site win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 17 during the Legends Classic represents the best on-paper win for either squad this season.
In a season where VCU has struggled to put away teams and has gotten out to slow starts offensively, Wednesday’s game could end up being an even contest. Bart Torvik gives Duquesne a four-point edge on paper, while Caesar’s Sportsbook lists Duquesne as 1.5-point favorites.
So far in conference play, Duquesne has split the early slate. On Dec. 28, Duquesne took a 12-point loss to Dayton before earning an 11-point victory at home over Rhode Island.
Leading the charge for Duquesne is newcomer Dae Dae Grant, a junior guard who transferred to Duquesne from Miami University (Ohio). This season, Grant leads the Dukes with 17 points per game, a mark that makes Grant among the top scorers in the A-10. He is also the team’s leading sharpshooter, making 3-pointers at a rate just north of 43%.
In addition to his scoring acumen, Grant is second on his team in total assists (35) and averages 4.4 rebounds per game.
Grant scored 14 points in the win against Rhode Island, second only to Joe Reece’s season-high 18 points. A senior forward, Reece previously played at Old Dominion and Bowling Green before making his way to Pittsburgh for his fifth season of college basketball. Reece began his career as a reserve at ODU before working his way into an everyday starting role. In his one season at Bowling Green, Reece had his highest scoring average of his career with 11.2 points per game while averaging just over five rebounds per game.
At Duquesne, Reece has averaged 9.2 points per game on 46.8% shooting, but has missed four games this season. At 6-foot-8, Reece will likely be matched up with DeLoach and Johns on Wednesday night.
But the player VCU fans are likely most interested in seeing is former VCU guard Jimmy Clark III. Clark, who was known as “Tre” during his time at VCU, spent his first two collegiate seasons on Broad Street, appearing in 33 games off the bench.
In February 2021, Clark was dismissed from VCU’s team during the conference schedule for still-undisclosed reasons. To that point, Clark was ranked sixth in the A-10 in steals per game with 1.8 and was the defensive heart of VCU’s bench unit.
After leaving VCU, Clark played for Northwest Florida State College, helping lead the team to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship in 2022. He led the team in scoring and steals and was second on the team in assists and blocks, earning a spot on the NCJAA All-Tournament Team.
In his return to the NCAA, Clark has become one of Duquesne’s best players and a regular starter. So far this season, he is averaging 11.7 points per game while leading the team in steals with 30 total. In fact, his rate of two steals per game leads the conference, with Davidson’s Foster Loyer and St. Bonaventure’s Kyrell Luc just behind.
VCU will look to deny Clark an opportunity at a win against his former team Wednesday night. While VCU hasn’t played at Duquesne since their arena underwent major renovations, the Rams are 4-0 all-time in road games against the Dukes.
DeLoach on the rise
No player on VCU’s roster brings as much momentum into Wednesday night’s matchup as sophomore Jalen DeLoach.
The Georgia native, fresh off the heels of his first-career double-double, has had a December to remember.
In December, DeLoach averaged 15 points per game in six appearances, missing the Dec. 7 loss to Jacksonville due to illness. He also averaged 7.6 rebounds per game during the month, including three games with nine or more boards.
His shooting also became more consistent from the foul line during the month, shooting over 60% four times. In the prior month, DeLoach shot above 60% just once. His foul shot skill was best showcased during the win against Northern Illinois on Dec. 17, where DeLoach went a perfect 6-for-6 from the charity stripe.
Perhaps the best mark to show DeLoach’s December improvement is in made baskets. In November, DeLoach did not make more than three baskets in a game. In December, DeLoach’s low in made shots was four, during the Dec. 11 win over Howard.
DeLoach’s sophomore leap has elevated DeLoach to 10.1 points per game on the season – one of four Rams averaging double figures. He is also VCU’s commanding leader in rebounds per game, averaging just over seven.
DeLoach’s December has also drawn comparisons to forwards of yesteryear like Justin Tillman, who was a consistent double-double threat during the second half of his career and also underwent a similar year-to-year leap as he developed at VCU.
Jalen DeLoach is having one hell of a sophomore campaign. You can look through recent VCU history & there aren't too many 2nd year bigs that have had this kind of season:
DeLoach: 9.8p 6.7r
Sanders: 4.9 5.2
Skeen (Wake): 5.6 4
Reddick: 10.3 6.6
Cox: 7.4 5.7
Tillman: 7.2 6.1
— Richmond Good Life (@RichmondGL) December 22, 2022
DeLoach will look to improve on his performance from last year’s Duquesne game, where he scored four points and secured five rebounds off the bench before entering foul trouble.
Sad news struck the VCU community over the New Year’s holiday, as VCU basketball announced the death of VCU great Willie Taylor.
We are saddened by the passing Rams’ great Willie Taylor (’00-’03). In three years as a Ram he poured in 1,367 points and earned two All-CAA awards. pic.twitter.com/xxbkQ4euic
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) January 1, 2023
Taylor began his VCU career in the 2000-01 season, transferring out of Georgetown following the departure of legendary head coach John Thompson. During his three seasons at VCU, Taylor averaged 15.7 points per game, good for the sixth-highest scoring average in VCU history. Despite only playing for VCU for three seasons, he ranks ninth in total free throws made in program history with 335.
Taylor’s 1,367 total career points rank the Tennessee native 21st in program history, while his 41.3% 3-point shooting percentage made him among the program’s best sharpshooters.
Taylor is best remembered for an explosive 41-point outing against Evansville in December 2000. The mark is the third-highest single game scoring performance in VCU history, one point behind Chris Cheeks’ 42-point outing against ODU in 1989 for second. Cheeks, who spent two years with the Rams in the late 1980s, died in April 2022.
In 2003, Taylor was named to the All-CAA Tournament Team and the All-CAA First Team, capping a stellar senior season where he averaged 17.3 points per game. One year before, Taylor led the program to its first 20-win season in six years while averaging 17.1 points per game.
In a release, VCU Basketball said Taylor “sparked a revival in the VCU program” after arriving in 2000.
“He led the Rams to a 16-14 mark in 2000-01, which kicked off a streak of 22 straight winning seasons that is active to this day,” the release said.
Taylor was 42 years old. No cause of death has been released.
Current VCU head coach Mike Rhoades, who was the head coach at nearby Randolph-Macon College during Taylor’s VCU tenure, remembered watching the 6-foot-6 guard as a fan in the Siegel Center stands.
I remember watching Willie Taylor as a VCU fan. Wow! He was electric & had great joy playing. May he rest in eternal peace. Our VCU Family sends our thoughts & prayers to his family, teammates & friends. pic.twitter.com/7gzH4jhbCB
— Mike Rhoades (@CoachRhoades) January 1, 2023
Photo: Jason Boleman/A10Talk