Sure, the annual Black and Gold Game is meaningless in the grand scheme of things – a glorified practice run like what we might see at the Basketball Development Center down the street.
Do not tell the VCU faithful that. When the doors to the Siegel Center swung open in downtown Richmond on Saturday evening, fans filed in to get their first glimpse at the revamped VCU Rams lineup.
The format, too, was revamped: rather than playing two halves, the intersquad scrimmage was divided into three periods of eight minutes apiece, capped with an Elam Ending at the end of the deciding third period.
The shakeups continued with team selection. For the first time ever, the Black and Gold rosters were set via a draft, with junior guard Ace Baldwin captaining the Black team and sophomore guard Jayden Nunn helming the Gold team. The pair earned preseason all-conference selections from the Atlantic 10 on Thursday.
𝘽𝙡𝙖𝙘𝙠 & 𝙂𝙤𝙡𝙙 teams are set 🐐◼️🔶#Unlimited #LetsGoVCU pic.twitter.com/eadLMxv3av
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) October 12, 2022
The pair’s rosters were unveiled in a video tweeted by the team on Oct. 12. There is no word on who was drafted first overall, but Nunn’s squad ultimately had the last laugh by securing the 55-50 win for the Gold team on Saturday. Nunn himself sealed the win with a pair of free throws, hitting the target score at the line.
With the season mere weeks away, here are some takeaways from the Rams’ intersquad scrimmage:
Zeb or Marcus?
At first glimpse, fans might have thought they were seeing images of years past on Saturday.
With No. 2 on the back of his gold practice jersey, newcomer Zeb Jackson looked like former VCU star Marcus Evans in play style and build. Listed at 6-5 and 190 pounds, the transfer from Michigan stands three inches taller than the Rams’ former starting point guard but exhibited similar styles in how he brought the ball up the floor.
In 20 minutes of action, Jackson registered 10 points and shot 50% from the floor and from 3-point range. On defense, Jackson tacked on three steals to help carve his name into VCU’s deep backcourt rotation.
The Evans comparisons could prove promising – Evans is perhaps the most prototypical Mike Rhoades player who spent his entire Division I career with Rhoades as his head coach. Evans, who scored more than 2,000 points in his collegiate career, was the only player to follow Rhoades to VCU from Rice after Rhoades was hired in 2017.
While the Rams will likely start Baldwin and Nunn at the 1 and 2 spots, look for Jackson to carve a significant role in the rotation, either as a sixth-man or even as a starter if Rhoades elects to use a smaller lineup.
Watkins returns from injury
Sporting a large brace on his right knee, redshirt sophomore Jamir Watkins returned to the Siegel Center floor for the first time since tearing his right ACL 13 months ago.
It was technically Watkins’ first game at the Siegel Center in front of fans – his freshman year was spent in empty arenas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watkins did not seem to be slowed down or be on a minutes restriction. The New Jersey native played the entire game, one of only two members of the Gold team to do so, and secured a game-high seven rebounds.
The only blemish on Watkins’ night was two missed free throws, the only misses from the charity stripe on the night for either team (more on that later). But it appears it is full steam ahead for one of VCU’s most promising young players as the season approaches.
A versatile Michigan man
One of the players carrying the most hype following Saturday’s scrimmage is Michigan transfer Brandon Johns Jr. The graduate transfer and veteran of three NCAA Tournaments dazzled with a display of versatility across phases of the game.
Johns opened the scoring for the victorious Gold team with a corner 3-pointer, showing off remarkable range for a 6-8 forward. While that was Johns’ only made 3-pointer, he led the Gold team with 13 points in 21 minutes of action, including a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line.
As a junior, Johns started the final five games of Michigan’s season due to an injury to Isaiah Livers. The stretch included four games in the NCAA Tournament, helping lead the Wolverines to the Elite Eight. When coupled with his ability to score on all levels, Johns’ experience makes him an asset to VCU’s roster and a prime candidate for breakout transfer of the year in the A-10.
Do not be surprised if Johns is in VCU’s opening night starting lineup.
Of VCU’s newcomers, perhaps the least was known about freshman Toibu “Tobi” Lawal.
Soon, the A-10 will know all about the London native.
The hype around Lawal began when he reportedly recorded a 46-inch vertical in the offseason.
Per Mike Rhoades at A10 Media Field of 68 interview, Tobi has a 46* inch vertical
— Mr. Stuntman Marvin (@StuntmanMarvin) October 13, 2022
That athleticism was on display Saturday, with Lawal recording multiple blocks in the paint and dunking the ball with authority. In 14 minutes of action, Lawal recorded 10 points on 60% shooting, along with three rebounds.
Lawal could be the most athletic freshman of the Rhoades era, complete with a defensive skillset that is sure to have fans at the Siegel Center on their feet with every block (think about the “Mo Says No!” chants of the mid-2010’s).
Although playing time will likely be limited during his freshman season, one thing is certain: British Airways won’t be the only thing taking off from London this fall.
Call him JJ
Sophomore forward Jalen DeLoach had a solid Black and Gold Game, recording a game-high 18 points and leading the Black team with six rebounds.
However, it was the call from the public address announcer that caught the attention of some fans.
DeLoach now goes by “JJ DeLoach” at the Siegel Center, a nickname VCU fans quickly got accustomed to as the Georgia native lit up the scrimmage scoreboard.
Whether you call him JJ or Jalen, DeLoach is primed to once again be a key contributor to the Rams and is looking to improve on a freshman season that saw him earn key rotational minutes and a start against Richmond in February.
It is a minor detail, but fans at the Siegel Center may have noticed that the walls around the upper concourse at the arena are now painted black, rather than the primer-ish gray that they had been for many years.
The change is small, but the arena looks much sleeker than it did before. While the Siegel Center remains one of the toughest road venues in the conference, jokes on social media and among opposing fans over the basic look of the Stu are common online.
The change is small but brings the arena more in line with VCU’s overall athletic branding and improves the overall look of the Siegel Center.
The new paint is not the only change VCU’s home arena saw: the banners have been updated to reflect the 2022 postseason appearances for VCU’s men’s and women’s basketball programs.
Good defense or poor offense?
Last season, VCU was one of the best teams in the conference on defense but struggled to put up points, especially while Baldwin was recovering from an Achilles tendon injury suffered during the summer of 2021.
While fans were treated to a great defensive show on Saturday, the question remains as to whether that was due to good defense or poor offense.
On the night, each team shot approximately 45% from the floor, but the Gold team outshot the Black team from 3-point range, 42% to 20%. Combined, both teams shot 8-for-27 from deep and 31-for-68 from the floor.
VCU has made moves to attempt to shore up the offensive side of the ball, notably bringing in 3-point specialist David Shriver from Hartford to improve an offense that ranked 316th nationally in made 3-pointers per game last season.
The Rams will look to gain more clarity on this question as the preseason continues.
It was almost a perfect day for VCU in one respect.
On the night, the Rams shot 35-37 from the charity stripe, a free throw make rate of 94.5%. The Black team shot a perfect 15-for-15, while the Gold team only missed twice.
In the past, missed free throws have frustrated VCU fans and have arguably cost VCU games dating back to Will Wade’s brief tenure at the helm of the program. Again, it is only a scrimmage, but the near-perfect day from the line had to be a welcome sight for the fans in attendance.
VCU has two remaining exhibitions before the season kicks off officially in November.
Per Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, VCU will play a closed-door scrimmage against Villanova in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. The game will be an A-10 reunion of sorts, with former Fordham head coach Kyle Neptune taking the reins of the Villanova program from legendary head coach Jay Wright. Wright surprised the basketball world with his retirement over the offseason following more than 20 years and two national championships at Villanova.
The Rams will return to the Siegel Center on Oct. 29 for a final exhibition game against Shippensburg, a Division II university located in Pennsylvania.
VCU has some surprising ties to Shippensburg. The university sits in Rhoades’ home state, approximately one hour from Rhoades’ alma mater Lebanon Valley College.
Additionally, VCU Director of Player Development Clay Connor graduated from Shippensburg University in 2018 and helped lead the school to a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament as a senior. Connor’s brother, Timmy, is currently a freshman guard at Shippensburg.
The exhibition against Shippensburg will tip off at 7 p.m. on Oct. 29 at the Siegel Center and is open to the public.