Spoiler: his tempo is best described as “frigging fast.”
Photos by Will Weaver
VCU won its 10th straight and moved to 7-0 in the A-10 after topping St. Bonaventure 84-76 in a snowy showdown in the Stuart C. Siegel Center Sunday afternoon. After an up-and-down-and-then-down-some-more start to the season, point guard JeQuan Lewis reeled off another impressive game that makes November and December seem like a different season and Lewis seem like a different player.
On Sunday, they needed him. VCU’s high-octane offense sputtered in the first half as fouls and timely SBU plays kept the Rams from ever settling down. Lewis was the difference. He had 16 points by intermission.
In the second half, VCU fell behind by nine points. Lewis turned distributor and immediately found Doug Brooks in the corner for a crucial 3-pointer. The Rams never looked back as they used a 51 point second half to turn that deficit into a double-figure lead. Lewis finished with 26 points, seven assists, zero turnovers, four rebounds, and two steals after playing 39 of 40 minutes. Over the last three games he’s averaging 22 PPG, and over the last two games he has 15 assists and one turnover.
Those numbers speak for themselves, but they need to be put into context to fully understand the importance of VCU’s starting point guard.
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On November 22nd, Lewis was benched after tallying three turnovers in nine minutes against Wisconsin in Madison Square Garden. Two weeks later, he turned the ball over 13 times and fouled seven times in 37 combined minutes against Florida State and Georgia Tech.
Talented as Lewis is, he has always been his own biggest critic, and little things were snowballing. This quote from Coach Smart on Around the Horns last season sums it up:
“I think he’s made a lot of progress. The hardest thing for him is how hard he is on himself. He’s somewhat of a perfectionist. A lot of times when he makes something he perceives to be a mistake, a lot of times he gets in a place where he’s very upset about that mistake and not necessarily in a very coachable place.
One week after the baker’s dozen of turnovers, VCU fell to 5-5 after losing to Cincinnati, but not before JeQuan Lewis scored six points in the final 45 seconds and something seemed to click. Lewis, and the offense he leads, has been sensational ever since.
|First 10 games||9.1||18-43 (.419)||6-18 (.333)||37-45 (.822)||1.2||4.3||3.4|
|Next 10 games||12.5||34-56 (.607)||11-27 (.407)||24-26 (.923)||2.7||5.6||2.5|
During VCU’s first ten games, Lewis seemed to be forcing his role as distributor. His intentions were good: get the rock to the big men. But sloppy entry passes were often stolen, which limited the offense to Melvin Johnson doing amazing stuff–and Melvin Johnson did some amazing stuff (!), but a team needs a point guard.
In the postgame presser after the Cincy loss, Coach Wade seemed to know something that in hindsight sounds a little less crazy than it did after three consecutive losses:
“I know what we’re doing now is going to work. We’ve got the right formula now. Now we just need to do it better.” Coach Wade
So far, the formula is working. First, the Rams found ways to take pressure off of Lewis. Sometimes Melvin Johnson will take over point guard responsibilities, which makes it tougher to prepare for VCU on each defensive possession and enables Lewis to find catch-and-shoot opportunities. Mo Alie-Cox has also been an effective distributor when he posts up and forces teams to either try to defend him one-on-one or double-team him, which enables him to pass to open shooters.
The Rams have also trotted out some devastating four-guard lineups. Earlier in the year, Coach Wade would only use Jordan Burgess, much like Smart would only use Treveon Graham or Bradford Burgess, as the undersized forward. With Burgess injured, he started experimenting with Brooks and Billbury defending much larger players. Putting four guys on the floor who can beat players off of the dribble and shoot 3-pointers has proven tough to defend.
Finally, VCU has figured how to involve Justin Tillman on offense which means he can now do more than just grab all of the rebounds. He’s discovered a knack for lurking along the baseline and catching dump-off passes when Lewis drives the lane. It’s resulted in a better shooting percentage for Lewis…and Tillman just never misses. He’s shooting 34-of-44 (.773) in conference play including 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting over the last two games and he boasts the second highest offensive rating in all of the A10.
And when all else fails, Lewis’s wicked-fast speed has punished defenses. His rebounds are as good as steals because of his ability to run the court and defenders just can’t keep Lewis in front of them when he gets low and turns on the after-burners.
I like playing at my tempo, which is fast. JeQuan Lewis
But Lewis’s play transcends Xs and Os or statistics. In the battle at Saint Joseph’s, he assisted two Mo Alie-Cox buckets, made a layup, hit two free-throws, and grabbed a rebound in the final 1:34 to seal the 13 point comeback and 85-82 victory.
With 1:40 remaining and the game out-of-reach at Richmond on 1/18, Lewis simply took the ball from ShawnDre’ Jones at mid-court and manufactured two points. The play helped force overtime.
On Sunday, Lewis found Brooks for that momentum-altering 3-pointer and again forced a turnover during a crucial stretch when his sticky defense drove Jaylen Adams out-of-bounds.
Simply put: During the Wisconsin game, Lewis couldn’t even make it on the court. Now, there’s no VCU player that has a stronger case for being on the court when VCU needs a timely stop, game-ending free-throws, or a momentum altering score.
Where this leaves VCU
VCU isn’t there yet. The Rams’ slow start to the season put a serious dent in their non-conference resume and continues to threaten their sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. And while their conference start is perfect, VCU still has to face some of the toughest teams in the A10. In fact, the Rams’ conference strength of schedule ranks dead last in the A10. Part of that is because they don’t have to play themselves, but the other part is VCU’s remaining games: @ Davidson, GW, URI, UR, @ GW, and @ Dayton.
That’s tough, but VCU can be a little more confident about those games than in November and December because JeQuan Lewis has found his tempo, and not only is it fast, it’s effective.