The Black & Gold scrimmage gave everyone a good preview for what’s to come.
Photos by Will Weaver
“We have a lot to work on, but a lot to work with.” Shaka Smart
It seems wrong to start the Will Wade era with a Shaka Smart quote, but I’m not sure those words have ever been any truer than now.
For years, it looked like Smart’s Rams would stock up on recruits until they could just talent their way to a conference title, but the ceiling this season will have more to do with how those pieces fit together than the specific talents of any one player. At Saturday’s Black & Gold Game–the annual scrimmage–the Rams showed the ability to put it together two or three men at a time, but the five man effort that will win games is still a work in progress.
Not since the Final Four has VCU had a backcourt as offensively skilled as the three-headed monster that is junior JeQuan Lewis, senior Melvin Johnson, and senior transfer Korey Billbury. It’s still unclear if they have a player who can create opportunities in the half-court like Treveon Graham once did, but the Rams boast a few symbiotic relationships that clearly exceed the sum of their parts. What those three may lack in individual, night-in-and-night-out bucket gettin’, they more than make up for with balance and complementary skills.
Johnson is a proven shooter who can score in bunches but his 1,000 point career is peppered with single-digit performances. There are a lot of ways to average double figure scoring. His senior campaign will have a lot more W’s if he can be counted on for 14 points every night instead of 24 every other night.
Billbury is a physical graduate transfer who scored more than 1,000 points during his time on the court at Oral Roberts. He can catch and shoot, but his bread and butter is driving and drawing fouls. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds he’s tough to defend and averaged 7.4 rebounds per game last season. He joins Jordan Burgess as the only other Ram who could fight a grizzly bear and win.
Lewis should be able to avoid the forced drives of his sophomore campaign that too often resulted in turnovers and contested shots in favor of focusing on distributing the ball and catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. After Briante Weber’s career ending injury, Lewis led the conference in steal percentage and scored 11.9 points per game. Together those three should be able to work the ball around the perimeter, slash their way to 400 free-throws over the course of the season, and force teams into some unenviable two-on-ones.
“Justin Tillman dunks everything and I love that.” Will Wade
Sophomore Justin Tillman and junior Mo Alie-Cox will likely round out the starting five. Tillman, who entertained leaving the team after the departure of Smart was clearly Saturday’s best player. He finished with 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, and so many dunks that the Siegel staff went on Amazon and ordered a few more rims for the season during halftime.
It was never clear how power forwards like Tillman and sophomore Michael Gilmore would have fit into Coach Smart’s “small ball” philosophy. Under Wade, there is no doubt how they will fit in. Both will be relied upon to shoot, set screens, pass, and attack the offensive glass for 50 combined minutes per game.
Alie-Cox needs no introduction. The “Mo Says No!” chants that echo through the Siegel Center will be golden details in the stories parents tell their children one day. He’s coming off of a memorable Atlantic 10 Tournament with 18 & 8 against top-seeded Davidson and perfect 6-of-6 shooting in the championship against Dayton. Like Tim Duncan discovering he has arms, Alie-Cox discovered that he is 6-foot-7, 250 pounds and never looked back.
But as good as Tillman and Alie-Cox looked individually, Saturday showcased unexpected chemistry. Alie-Cox finished with four assists including a few beautiful passes to Tillman. Their two man game on offense showed flashes of something never before seen in the Siegel Center. And with Alie-Cox holding down the paint on defense, Tillman will have opportunities to sneak up and block shots that he lacked as an undersized center last season.
But maybe VCU’s greatest assets are the guys that start the game riding the pine. Jordan Burgess, Doug Brooks, Michael Gilmore, and Jonathan Williams could all carve out starting roles around the conference, but will spend most of their season as the second and third ranks in a ceaseless attack meant to wear down opponents. After “Dougie Bucket’s” 14-point game against Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament, that should be a scary prospect.
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The number of points per 100 possessions score by and against VCU after adjusting for the quality of the opponent. A higher value for offense is better and a lower value for defense is better. Source: KenPom.com
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Percentile ranking for VCU’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies. The Rams boasted the sixth best defense in the country in 2014 but struggled to put together a great offense and defense in the same season. Source: KenPom.com
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Wade has no illusions. Huddled up in the frigid media room after the scrimmage, he thought the team was half a step slow on defense and the ball was stuck on offense. And remember, teams play themselves in scrimmages so every great play exposed a VCU weakness. The Black Squad’s 14 offensive rebounds on 23 missed shots was the result of some poor boxing-out by the Gold Squad. And the Gold Squad’s 14 steals were cued by mistakes from the Black Squad.
VCU’s defense has the potential to be more consistent than the past four years, but probably won’t have the same ceiling as when Briante Weber was single-handidly doing what maybe no one in the history of college basketball has ever done.1 Fewer steals are bad, but fewer fouls and fewer allowed layups could make up the difference.
The 2015-16 Rams look poised to put together the most efficient offense in Richmond since Will Wade was an assistant coach at VCU in 2012-13. Saturday showed flashes of half-court offense not seen since Joey Rodriguez was passing to Rozzell, Burgess, and Skeen which means VCU will be less reliant on the feast-and-famine transition points that make for highlight reels but not conference titles.
Maybe the most promising aspects of Saturday’s scrimmage were the things unseen. Rule changes this offseason similar to the first half of the 2013-14 season meant to limit hand-checks and promote “freedom of movement” promise whistles a-plenty. HAVOC! struggled that season2 especially in a 25 foul loss to FSU and and a 29 foul loss to Georgetown. Saturday, Wade’s carefully calculated defenses limited the Rams to 23 fouls–combined. The new 30 second shot-clock wasn’t even noticeable due to the Rams’ blistering pace, but it should be a weapon on defense when the Rams turn it to 11 and opponents sense the sand falling through the even smaller hourglass.
In order to succeed this season, VCU needs to focus on turning the two and three man songs into a five man symphony. Saturday showed that they have plenty to work on before taking the court against Prairie View A&M on November 13th, but no shortage of talent to work with.
- Treveon Graham was one of the best to ever wear the Black & Gold, but his skills and production can be replaced by committee. Weber on the other hand is the most unique player to ever play in Richmond. His loss will be felt, but the Rams won four games in four days in Brooklyn without him in their March run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament. ↩
- Well, at least the half of the season the rules were enforced. It will be interesting to see if the refs and NCAA officials can tolerate ugly basketball and complaining fans long enough to establish their credibility and permanently change the game. Last time was not a success. ↩