On the morning of March 12, I walked in the cold down a Brooklyn sidewalk from my hotel to the Barclays Center. The mood in the city was strange, like the beginning of an apocalypse movie, as the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic was being unveiled. The night before, the NBA announced that their season was suspended indefinitely. As a student journalist covering my first Atlantic 10 tournament, I pushed any thoughts about COVID-19 to the back of my mind.
I watched the world, and college basketball, grind to a halt from press row at the Barclays Center. At the time, the idea that a 2020-21 season could happen seemed so far away.
As improbable as it may seem, the college basketball season tips off in less than two weeks. The VCU Rams will enter the year looking to rebound after going 1-7 to close last season. Year 4 of the Mike Rhoades era on Broad Street looks to be a make-or-break season for the head coach. Under Rhoades, VCU has only one NCAA tournament appearance (VCU would have likely needed to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament last March).
VCU fans, among the most passionate in the conference, care deeply about the players that don the Black and Gold. Each season represents a new relationship, with diehard fans welcoming the new players into the VCU family and (at least pre-COVID) traveling to away games throughout the conference.
So here is your 2020-21 VCU season preview, complete with the four good luck charms any new relationship must have. Will it be a successful relationship? Only time will tell.
SOMETHING OLD- Impact Returners
VCU lost five of its top six scorers from a year ago, with longtime stars De’Riante Jenkins, Marcus Evans and Issac Vann graduating along with sixth man Mike’L Simms. In addition, VCU’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, Marcus Santos-Silva, transferred to Texas Tech during the offseason.
So, what returning players can VCU rely on to fill this void? Look no further than the leading scorer amongst returning players, sophomore guard Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland.
A four-star recruit from Delaware, Hyland set the program record for most 3-point field goals by a freshman (63) and ranked third in the conference in 3-point percentage (.434). Hyland’s range at times seems limitless, with shots from the logo seeming as automatic as uncontested layups at times.
Despite not taking over the starting point guard role until late in the season, Hyland averaged 9.8 points per game last season. Hyland rarely turns the ball over, a trait that should only improve with time. Hyland, who was named to the all-conference third team last week, will lead VCU’s offensive attack.
VCU’s only returning senior is its best defender, forward Corey Douglas. Douglas has emerged as a shot blocker during his time at VCU, tallying a team-high 51 blocks in 2018-19. While Douglas’ lack of offense makes him a bench piece, he is a nightmare for opposing scorers, especially in the paint. Douglas will be a defensive menace for the Rams this season and will take some of the rebounds Santos-Silva’s transfer leaves available.
Aside from Douglas and Hyland, the returner most poised to make an impact is junior forward Vince Williams. The lefty Ohioan seems primed for a starting role this season, despite only tallying three career starts in his first two seasons. Williams has minimal weaknesses in his game, is a decent passer and makes 80% of his free throws. Williams is ready for a breakout and has earned the starting small forward role in Rhoades’ lineup.
SOMETHING NEW- Freshmen
With so many players graduating in 2020, the Rams welcome four freshmen to the team this season. Of the newcomers, the one gathering the most hype is four-star point guard Adrian “Ace” Baldwin.
Baldwin chose VCU over defending national champion Virginia and 2018 national champion Villanova, among others. Described on VCU’s website as a “true point guard and playmaker,” Baldwin took home many all-county awards during his high school years in Baltimore, Maryland.
Much preseason buzz surrounds Baldwin, with CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein hinting Saturday that Baldwin could start alongside Hyland at guard.
Well embedded moles in Richmond are high on two VCU freshmen: Ace Baldwin and Jamir Watkins. Baldwin is in line to start at PG.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 14, 2020
In addition to Baldwin, IMG Academy alumnus Mikeal Brown-Jones looks to make an immediate impact in the small forward position. Brown-Jones, rated by Rivals as a four-star recruit, is a talented defender and scorer. At IMG Academy, Brown-Jones shot 61% from the field as a senior and routinely tallied high rebound and block totals. His scoring ability is extremely versatile for a 6-foot-8 forward, as Brown-Jones shoots 3-pointers at nearly a 40% clip. If these totals transfer to the Division I college game, Brown-Jones could start some games by season’s end.
VCU’s remaining freshmen are Jamir Watkins, a versatile forward from New Jersey, and former North Carolina All-State guard Josh Banks.
SOMETHING BORROWED– Transfers
VCU picked up two transfers during the offseason, both of whom have been granted immediate eligibility for the upcoming season.
The most intriguing of the pair is senior center Brendan Medley-Bacon. Medley-Bacon, the only listed center on VCU’s roster, is the fifth player in program history to be 7 feet or taller. The 7-foot-1 Coppin State transfer was a Third Team All-MEAC player last season and was 31st in the country in blocks.
While Medley-Bacon is not a major offensive threat, his ability to block shots and rebound will allow VCU to gain extra possessions it otherwise would have lost. Look for Medley-Bacon to create defensive mismatches and allow Rhoades to experiment with lineups that include a true center.
Levi Stockard, a senior forward from Kansas State, enters this season as the most experienced player on the roster. Stockard has played in over 100 collegiate games, including Kansas State’s run to the Elite 8 in 2018.
Stockard’s stats are not exceptional, as he averaged 2.4 points and 1.9 rebounds in three seasons at Kansas State. However, his experience at a Power 5 school is unique and should allow him to play more than the 10 minutes he averaged at KSU. If nothing else, Stockard will be a valuable mentor and presence on a team among the A10’s youngest.
SOMETHING BLUE- The Non-Conference Schedule
VCU was ranked ninth in both the A10 preseason poll and the A10Talk power rankings. While there are signs of optimism, VCU fans should temper their expectations.
In a conference where George Mason head coach Dave Paulsen said “you want to be old as a team,” VCU bucks that trend. Only Douglas and Stockard are seniors, so much of this season will be spent laying the groundwork for future success.
VCU’s non-conference schedule, released by the team on Monday, will be especially tricky for the Rams. VCU will play three Power 5 teams, all on the road. The Rams will play Tennessee on Nov. 27 in Knoxville as part of a season-opening multi-team event. Tennessee was picked to finish first in the Southeastern Conference.
In addition, VCU will begin their home-and-home with Penn State when the Rams visit State College, Pennsylvania on Dec. 2. Penn State finished fifth in the Big 10 last season.
VCU closes out its non-conference schedule on Dec. 22 with a road trip to Louisiana to take on LSU. LSU, coached by former VCU head coach Will Wade, lost to the Rams at the Siegel Center last November. The LSU Tigers were picked to finish third in the SEC this season.
Additional December games of note include a home game against in-state rival Old Dominion on Dec. 12, the 96th edition of this rivalry. Three days before the Monarchs visit, VCU will welcome North Carolina A&T and former VCU guard Tyler Maye to the Siegel Center. The Aggies, who finished second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season, have never faced VCU.
The key to VCU’s success this season is successfully navigating the non-conference schedule. If VCU finds a way to upset Tennessee in the opening week, the Rams can build momentum into December. If the non-conference schedule proves difficult, it could be a challenging season for the Rams and their fans. While VCU certainly has the pieces to overachieve, it will all come down to building momentum early.
The Rams will open their season in Knoxville, Tennessee on Nov. 26 against Charlotte. The game is the first of two games VCU will play at the University of Tennessee’s multi-team event.