Entering the last day of the Atlantic 10 regular season, the VCU Rams (23-7, 14-3 A-10) have some pressure taken off of them.
For just the second time since joining the Atlantic 10, VCU has won the outright regular-season championship in the conference, clinching the honor after a 78-67 home finale win over Saint Louis on Tuesday night.
The Rams will head up Interstate 95 to take the victory lap of their regular season on Saturday, against a resurgent George Washington (16-14, 10-7 A-10) team with A-10 Player of the Year candidate James Bishop looming.
The game will tip off at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday from the Charles E. Smith Center in Washington, D.C. The game will be televised on USA Network.
The ‘Rhoade’ to success
Following a double-digit home loss to the Jacksonville Dolphins on Dec. 7, VCU sat at 5-4 on the season with a NET ranking of #142.
The Rams have been surging ever since, climbing to a season-high and conference-leading #66 NET ranking entering the final day of A-10 regular season play.
Much of that is due to VCU’s 18-3 record since that Dec. 7 upset, with the three losses coming by a total of 16 points – and none by double-digits.
With a win Saturday over George Washington, VCU would win the conference by three games over Dayton and Saint Louis (and maybe Fordham, depending on the outcome of its game against Duquesne).
Potentially winning the conference by three games would be the cherry on top of the job head coach Mike Rhoades has done in the latter part of the season, after a vocal minority of VCU fans wanted Rhoades out as head coach earlier this season.
This season marks Rhoades’ second outright regular-season conference title of his six-season VCU career. His two predecessors, Shaka Smart and Will Wade, combined for zero outright conference titles in eight seasons. Smart, now at Marquette, coincidentally secured the first outright regular-season conference title of his career in the Big East on the same night as VCU’s clincher.
VCU was ranked third by the conference in its preseason poll, receiving no first-place votes and trailing Saint Louis and Dayton. VCU went 3-1 against the Flyers and Billikens. The Rams also lead the conference in NET (66) and trails Dayton by one spot for the conference lead in KenPom (73).
With respect to the jobs Keith Urgo and Keith Dambrot have done at Fordham and Duquesne respectively, it appears Rhoades has the inside track to earn his second A10 Coach of the Year award.
The conference’s top coaching honor has gone to the coach who won at least a share of the regular-season title for the last 12 seasons. While Urgo and Dambrot have strong cases, history and momentum appear to be swinging towards Rhoades for this honor.
What lies ahead for Rhoades and the Rams is VCU’s greatest recent hurdle – the postseason. In the four A-10 tournaments VCU has participated in under Rhoades, the Rams are just 3-4, with two upsets in the quarterfinals as a double-bye team.
The last time VCU earned the top seed was in 2019, when VCU was upset by Rhode Island in the A-10 quarterfinals. The Rams also went one-and-done last season, with a loss to crosstown rivals Richmond as the Spiders marched to a Cinderella run for the A-10 title and an NCAA Tournament victory over Iowa.
NCAA Tournament success has also been hard to come by for VCU, which has not won an NCAA Tournament game since Will Wade’s first season in 2016. The Rams have made the tournament twice under Rhoades, losing by double-digits to UCF in 2019 and being forced to withdraw due to COVID-19 issues in 2021 shortly before a scheduled game against Oregon.
Will postseason success shine on Rhoades and VCU this year? Time will tell, but for now the Rams can enjoy a successful regular season.
Meet your opponent: The George Washington Colonials
Saturday’s game is historically notable regardless of outcome.
That’s because it will be the final time George Washington hits the floor of the Smith Center with the Colonials moniker.
Starting next season, the program will have a new team name for its sports after announcing the retirement of the Colonials name last summer. A list of frontrunners has emerged, with A10Talk previously reporting on the finalists.
The Colonials have been enjoying a successful season under first-year head coach Chris Caputo. The Colonials have secured their first winning record in A-10 play since the 2016-17 season and are on track for their first winning record overall since that year.
The Colonials finished sixth in the conference in 2017. Entering Saturday, George Washington is seventh in the conference and on track for, again, its best season since 2017.
Leading the charge on the floor is one of the premier players in the conference, senior guard James Bishop.
The Baltimore native is the conference leader in points per game (21.7), third in assists per game (5.2), and first in field goals made per game (7.5) and usage (31.7%).
Bishop’s incredible season has produced a rarity: the potential for a player outside of the top-four teams to win Player of the Year. While Bishop has tough competition for the award, including VCU point guard Ace Baldwin, look for Bishop to generate some buzz for the award and earn a few votes.
Apart from Bishop, three other Colonials are averaging double figures, led by Brendan Adams’ 17.6 points per game. Veteran Ricky Lindo Jr. is averaging 10.2 points per game while leading the team in rebounds, steals and blocks. Bishop, Adams and Lindo have started all 30 games for George Washington.
Aside from that trio, George Washington lacks depth. Aside from Maximus Edwards and Hunter Dean, the remaining players on George Washington all average under four points per game. While the matchup of first teams will be close, look for VCU to use its depth to attempt to gain an edge in Foggy Bottom.
He’s an Ace
Entering the final regular-season game, it is worth noting where junior point guard Ace Baldwin stands in the conference player of the year conversation.
Baldwin, who missed five games earlier in the season due to wrist injuries, is second in the conference in assists per game (5.8) and leads the A-10 in steals per game (2.5). Both of those marks puts the Baltimore native in the top 15 in the country.
Additionally, Baldwin leads the team in scoring, averaging just under 13 points per game. In fact, despite missing five games, Baldwin sits just 17 points behind Brandon Johns for the team lead in total points this season.
Perhaps more notably, VCU is just 3-2 in games without Baldwin – 20-5 with him.
Baldwin also boasts the high watermark in individual points for VCU this season, following a 37-point explosion on the road against Saint Louis. A few weeks later, Jayden Nunn nearly equaled Baldwin with an impressively-efficient 31-point outing against Saint Joseph’s on the road.
As VCU basketball’s own Twitter account put it, Baldwin is the best player on the conference’s best team. Don’t be surprised if Rhoades and Baldwin both take hardware home next week.
The 𝘽𝙀𝙎𝙏 player on the @A10MBB Regular Season 𝘾𝙃𝘼𝙈𝙋𝙄𝙊𝙉𝙎 🏆#UNLIMITED #LetsGoVCU pic.twitter.com/othEeiXvog
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) March 2, 2023
A look at VCU’s seniors
Saturday marks the final regular-season game for VCU’s seniors.
Two of VCU’s seniors are graduate transfers exercising their additional fifth year of eligibility, and both have delivered and endeared themselves to VCU fans in their one year on Broad Street.
Johns has started all but one of VCU’s 30 games and leads the team in total points while serving as an experienced big man with range. On the season, Johns is shooting above 50% from the floor and has the most free throw makes and attempts of anyone on the team. His 11.7 points per game mark is second on the team, behind only Baldwin.
Joining the Michigan transfer this offseason was David Shriver, the 3-point sharpshooter from Hartford, by way of Alderson Broaddus University.
Shriver, nicknamed “Threebird” by VCU fans, has endeared himself quickly as VCU’s best 3-point threat. With looks that would make Shriver at home in games at Franklin Street Gym in the 1970s and a skillset that gels well with modern, 3-point basketball, Shriver has been a joy for VCU fans to watch and has gotten the Siegel Center on its feet with clutch 3-pointers.
In a three-game stretch in early January, Shriver shot 15-of-19 from deep, including two games with six made 3-pointers, against Davidson and Dayton respectively. Following a nine-point loss to Duquesne, the stretch served as a shot in the arm for VCU’s offense, which went on to win six games in a row.
Shriver leads the team in made 3-pointers made and is just a hair behind Nunn for the team lead 3-point percentage. Additionally, Shriver has shown his ability to guard inside the paint, often spelling big man and leading rebounder Jalen DeLoach in the role.
Having made the most of his graduate season, Shriver is one of just five Rams to appear in all 30 games.
This season also marks the final year of traditional eligibility for preferred walk-on Arnold Henderson VI, who started his VCU career as a child when he served as a ball boy for the team. A fan favorite, the guard from Mechanicsville has appeared in four games this season, recording four minutes of total action.
In mid-February, VCU ended back-to-back games on Henderson touches. Henderson dribbled out VCU’s dominant senior day win over Fordham on Feb. 18 and dished out his second career assist in the final possession against Saint Joseph’s – leading to a Shriver 3-pointer.
Henderson has not attempted a field goal this season, but went 1-of-2 from the free throw line against Northern Illinois on Dec. 17. For his career, Henderson has played 20 games, shooting 4-of-12 from the floor. He has also tallied three rebounds, two assists and one steal to go along with 10 total points.
Also honored on senior night was forward Jarren McAllister, who had unfortunate injury luck following a promising freshman campaign in 2019-20.
In his freshman season, McAllister saw his play time increase throughout the season and shot over 50% from the floor, with a season-high of eight points against St. Bonaventure in January 2020. In sum, McAllister played in 16 games – 13 during the conference schedule.
Since then, the three-star recruit has sustained three ACL tears – two to the right knee and one to the left knee. The ACL tears have held McAllister out for the past three seasons, with his last appearance coming in VCU’s 2020 regular season finale at Davidson on March 6, 2020.