They’re tied for first in the A-10, but a recent loss dampened spirits somewhat. Will it all be back in time to shrivel the Spiders tonight?
Photo by Will Weaver
VCU hosts Richmond in the Stuart C. Siegel Center on Friday night at 7:00 PM in round two of RVA’s cross-town rivalry. When these two teams met about a month ago, the game unravelled after Richmond’s careless technical foul for having six players on the court. The Rams seized on the mistake and stole victory from jaws of defeat.1 A lot has happened to VCU since that game, the most important being that they’ve learned a few lessons about accountability and improvement.
Getting over it and getting better
VCU’s 12-game winning streak after starting 5-5 was an emotional ride that abruptly ended with back-to-back losses last week to a good George Washington team and a not-so-good Massachusetts team.
The five stages of grief are a popular concept: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. After losing to the Minutemen, the Rams had plenty of reasons to go through all five stages, but instead they went through an abbreviated two-step program of accountability and improvement. They got over it and got better. Both were showcased on Saturday night.
VCU’s players usually attend press conferences before Coach Wade. On Saturday, Coach Wade exemplified accountability when he attended the press conference before the players and delivered an emphatic monologue.
The improvement was exemplified by their 33-point dismantling of St. Louis and 16-point victory over sneaky-good Rhode Island. I gave the Rams four New Year’s resolutions earlier this season. After enigmatic play in their two losses, the Rams have doubled down and improved on at least three of the four.
Guards, guards, guards
The three-headed monster of JeQuan Lewis, Melvin Johnson, and Korey Billbury is tough to defend. After the UMass loss, Coach Wade had the interesting idea to add Jonathan Williams to the starting lineup. The results on offense have been sensational. VCU scored 1.19 points per possession over the last two games and the starting lineup has been on fire. Against St. Louis they scored 16 points before the first timeout and against Rhode Island they started 5-of-5 from the field.
Williams gives VCU another driver, but more importantly he enables Lewis, Johnson, and Billbury to space out behind the 3-point line. The small ball won’t always work, especially on defense, but it gives the league’s most efficient offense another high octane scoring dimension.
Feed the BIG Dog
Mo Alie-Cox has turned into an absolute machine. He ranks 7th in the A-10 in offensive rating, 1st in effective field goal percentage, 8th in block percentage, and 1st in free-throw rate. He finished with 21 points (10-12 FG) and five rebounds in 22 minutes against Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin, one of the best defenders in the league.
He played plenty of minutes in the Rams’ two losses, but they were his 3rd and 4th least used games in conference play on a possession-by-possession basis. The more he touches the ball, the better.
Doug Brooks struggled in the non-conference schedule, but is turning into a force off of the bench and is the Rams’ X-factor moving forward. He is shooting 16-of-47 (.340) from 3-point range and stealing the ball on 8.9 percent of possessions in conference play. On Tuesday, he stole the ball seven times in 20 minutes (!) while doling out four assists. His somersault going to halftime exemplified his role as VCU’s eternal sparkplug. Brooks isn’t expected to carry the load, but he is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He is the marginal contribution that pushes VCU to the next level.
OK, this is one area where the Rams still have work to do. They still foul too much but foul a little less than earlier in the season, they get fouled too little but get fouled a little more than earlier in the season, and they miss way too many free throws–something they’ve just done all season. It is beyond me why a program that has relied on guard-heavy rosters for years has always struggled with free throws. Hopefully moving forward, they miss when it doesn’t matter and make when it does matter.
VCU forfeited its one game lead in the conference and is now in a three-way tie with #15 Dayton and St. Joseph’s, but the Rams learned a few things along the way. The losses forced them to add another dimension with four true guards. It forced them to deal with losing after not losing for a ridiculously long time. Add in their experience in close games from earlier in the season and the fact that they are now in their natural habitat of being the hunter instead of the hunted, and the Rams aren’t going to be a fun team to play come March–or Friday for that matter.
I chronicled Richmond’s bizarre roster before the first matchup. The tl;dr version is simple: the Spiders can score in bunches but their defense isn’t worth much. They’re coming off a tough loss to Davidson–a game where the Wildcats only had seven scholarship players and were missing scoring sensation Jack Gibbs.
But rivalries are rivalries. ODU and Richmond have always had a way of defying gravity against VCU during seasons when the Monarchs and Spiders have otherwise struggled. Motivation won’t be in short supply: The Spiders blew it at home against the Rams this season. The game will be on ESPN2. The aforementioned tough loss to a middling Davidson squad.
Forget stats, records, and ratings. Friday will be about two quality teams in the midst of a golden age of their rivalry battling it out for crosstown bragging rights. After the game, hopefully VCU will have fewer reasons to be accountable and more reasons to applaud improvement than they did a week ago.
- Or Richmond stole defeat from the jaws of victory. It depends on how much you embrace Richmondfreude. ↩