Will Wade kept the ball rolling in his first season at VCU and looks to do more of the same going forward. The Rams new coach danced in the black and gold’s sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament, advancing to the round of 32 before coming up just four points short against a Final 4-bound Oklahoma team led by the National Player of the Year just 20 minutes from OU’s campus. VCU will return a strong core from last year’s group and promises to once against be one of the A-10’s most dangerous teams.
The Rams lose two key pieces with the graduations of seniors Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury. They also saw the transfer of promising young forward, but rarely used, Michael Gilmore. Johnson and Billbury ranked No.1 and No.3 in last year’s team in both points and minutes, creating a 28.6-point scoring hole the Rams will look to fill with rising underclassmen and key returning seniors. The duo were also both dangerous three-point shooters, connecting on over 38% of their threes each, an area the Rams will have the most to make up this upcoming season.
The Rams will introduce a three-man freshman class to this year’s Atlantic 10 as well as the newly-eligible Samir Doughty, a freshman from last year’s class who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Three of these four newcomers bring big-time scoring mentalities to the Rams, Doughty being one of the city of Philadelphia’s all-time leading high school scorers (17th all-time with 1,766 points). Doughty has been described as a bucket-getter and a crafty guard who makes things happen in the lane. He’ll be joined by one of the A-10’s highest rated newcomers, freshman De’Riante Jenkins who was ranked 44th nationally in the 2017 class by 247Sports.com. A Hargrave post-grad product, Jenkins is VCU’s closest thing to the graduated Billbury but with more length and an NBA ceiling. He averaged over 14 points in VCU’s trip to Spain this summer. As promising as those two are it’s Malik Crowfield who could be VCU’s surprise player this year. A three-time state champ and a Louisiana State Player of the Year, Crowfield comes to VCU as a winner with the reputation of an elite shooter and has already been described by Will Wade as someone who is always where he needs to be, a review that could certainly earn him early minutes on a deep VCU roster. Canadian guard Marquell Fraser rounds out the group. Wade recently described Fraser as “yolked” (meaning a built, college ready body) and said the freshman is already giving VCU’s guards fits in practice.
VCU returns two of the leagues top seniors in point guard JeQuan Lewis (11.3 ppg, 5.1 apg) and Mo Alie-Cox (10.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg), a duo that combined for 33 points in VCU’s 2016 NCAA tournament win over the Oregon State Beavers. They are joined by two of VCU’s better defenders in Doug Brooks and Jordan Burgess. Brooks slumped offensively his junior year after 40% three-point shooting as a sophomore but ranked No.1 in the A-10 in steals percentage at 6.8% this past season. Burgess could best be described as a glue guy. He’s experienced and physical and while his offensive numbers haven’t made headlines, his team play and defensive abilities have made him a favorite of both Will Wade and Shaka Smart before him (Burgess has averaged over 20 minutes all three seasons at VCU). Juniors Jonathan Williams and Ahmed Hamdy have drawn rave reviews from VCU’s head coach this summer, Will Wade describing Hamdy as “lightyears better” than last season and as someone who now battles with Alie-Cox and Williams as someone who has made a jump similar to that of Ram great Darius Theus from his sophomore to junior year. While the hype around those two may be the highest at VCU this offseason it’s the numbers of junior Justin Tillman that could make him one of the A-10’s biggest breakout stars this season. Tillman torched the A-10 while on the floor last season, ranking No.1 in conference play in field goal percentage at 72.7%, No.1 in offensive rating at a ridiculous 136.6 and top-3 in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage, not to mention No.2 in turnover rate. Long story short, Tillman could post monster numbers and next to Mo Alie-Cox presents a nightmare scenario for most Atlantic 10 frontcourts.
VCU’s non-conference schedule is loaded with mid-major RPI games that are much tougher than the average fan realizes, as well as some high-major neutral court opportunity in this year’s Battle 4 Atlantis. The Rams will start there season with three relative cupcakes before hitting the Bahamas where they’ll face Baylor on ESPN2 on November 23rd. A win would set up a likely Thanksgiving matchup with Michigan State while a loss would likely line the Rams up for a game with St. John’s. The other side of the bracket includes Louisville, Wichita State, LSU and rival Old Dominion, so Atlantis will deliver some serious opportunity when it comes to resume building for this year’s Rams. Outside of that you can circle underrated matchups with Middle Tennessee State (who you will remember knocked Michigan State out of last year’s NCAA tournament), Princeton (a 22-win team from last season who returns everyone from a team that lost to VA Tech in OT of the NIT), a tough road game at rival Old Dominion and two P5 scalping opportunities, first in a neutral court game against Illinois, then a home contest against what’s supposed to be a severely depleted Georgia Tech team. VCU’s A-10 schedule got a boost when the conference decided to matchup the Rams and Dayton Flyers for a home-and-home this series. Other A-10 highlights include tough unreturned road matchups at Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure, as well as home-and-homes with the likes of Davidson, GW and Richmond. Overall it’s another tough schedule but one that will give VCU ample opportunity to dance for the seventh consecutive season.
VCU hasn’t missed an NCAA tournament since the 2010 season, Shaka Smart’s first on Broad Street. But what’s more, VCU has advanced to a Final 4 and has won NCAA tourney games in three more of those seasons, meaning it is now expected that the Rams not only make the tournament, but hopefully pick up a win as well. Will Wade exceeded expectations in his first year and if he can match his UT Chattanooga pattern, would mean year-two in the Atlantic 10 could be his best team yet. Expect this VCU group to be a better defensive unit and a tougher team overall, but one that may need to win early in rock fight fashion while the Rams adjust to the losses of scorers Johnson and Billbury. After four consecutive A-10 tournament final appearances, VCU should once again be a legit threat to win the league and hopefully make it back for another March Madness run.