VCU: A case for optimism

Hope for VCU fans, because that’s all they want for Christmas, and Aaron Williams is a generous guy.

Photo by blmoregon.

23 Cincinnati topped VCU 69-63 in the Stuart C. Siegel Saturday. It was the Rams’ third consecutive loss and they are now 5-5 for the first time in a decade. It may feel like the sky is falling on Broad Street, but here’s a case for optimism.


For starters, VCU went blow-for-blow with a top-25 team and was in it ’til the final minute, despite Jordan Burgess being sidelined with a concussion and the lack of a back-up point guard.

At times this season, the Rams have looked like they should be more aptly called the Fightin’ Melvin Johnsons. Despite plenty of talent, they’ve played one-dimensionally, desperately needing some support around its leading scorer. Cincinnati entered Saturday with a defensive strategy called “Loading the Box on Melvin” which amounted to “Don’t Let Melvin Shoot.” The Bearcats limited him to just 2 points on 0-of-11 shooting. But other Rams stepped up.

Korey Billbury finished with 22 points (3-7 2PFG, 4-8 3PFG), 9 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Michael Gilmore added 9 points including two smooth 3-pointers. Cincy’s two centers and a power forward combined for 14 fouls mostly because they couldn’t handle the physical presence of Mo Alie-Cox who finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds.

Finally, JeQuan Lewis, who turned the ball over 13 times in 42 minutes against Florida St. and Georgia Tech, finished with 13 points, 4 assists, and just one turnover. VCU trailed by 10 points with under four minutes remaining but Lewis scored six points in 45 seconds to spark a near comeback. All game, he showed a level of poise not seen by him since last season’s run in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Most teams lack the individual perimeter defenders and mobile big men to effectively run that defensive game plan against Melvin Johnson–he’ll be back to his scoring ways starting Tuesday against Buffalo in the Siegel Center. If Billbury and Lewis can use Saturday as a springboard for future success, then VCU will improve. The Lewis-Johnson-Billbury triple-threat has been reason #1 to be bullish on VCU, it may be a little late to arrive, but its potential is not lost.


He’s done a tremendous job. I know you say, “Hold on, look, they’re five and five,” but I told him he better get control of the schedule. Scheduling and recruiting are one and one in this business, and they obviously scheduled extremely tough. He’s gonna be coaching for a long time. His guys play hard for him. It’s tough when you lose [Treveon Graham] and [Briante Weber] and then come in in your first year and play against that type of schedule. Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin

Month Smart

VCU is no stranger to tough schedules, but this season is different. Usually the Rams stumble during an impossible November before recovering against much easier opponents in December. Only this season, the opponents didn’t get easier as Christmas approached. At MTSU, vs. FSU, at Georgia Tech, and vs. #23 Cincinnati is simply a level of schedule not imaginable even five years ago at VCU.

Team Record Ken Pom Rank Top 100 Games Top 50 Games
Dayton 8–2 35 7 3
GW 10–1 40 4 2
URI 7–4 54 4 3
VCU 5–5 58 6 4
UR 7–3 65 5 2
Davidson 7–2 75 2 2
SJU 8–2 78 3 2
SBU 7–2 100 1 1
Fordham 9–1 109 1 1
UMass 6–4 121 3 0
Duquesne 10–2 135 1 1
GMU 5–7 189 4 1
SLU 5–5 208 2 2
La Salle 4–4 241 1 1

There are lots of different ways to be 5-5 and lots of ways to be 10-2. I don’t think any fan of VCU basketball would trade VCU’s season so far for Duquesne. This is why former coach Shaka Smart constantly advocated for process-based evaluation over outcome-based evaluation. VCU will improve and their opponents will get a little easier, which is why I’m still buying VCU to finish well above .500.

This isn’t to sugarcoat reality. VCU has inconsistent point guard play, they foul way too much, they don’t take enough free throws, and they hit too few free-throws when they get to the line. But to pretend that any of Smart’s teams didn’t have glaring weaknesses is to look at the past with rose-colored glasses. As Coach Wade put it on Saturday, “Even with Burgess, we’ve got warts.”

But the typically candid coach is still bullish on VCU. “I know what we’re doing now is going to work. We’ve got the right formula now,” says Wade. “Now we just need to do it better.”

When a team returns a coach and lots of players, it’s tough to see paths for dramatic improvement after about ten games spent holding the roster constant. Usually, there just isn’t a enough low-hanging fruit. But VCU is working on replacing Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, and Terry Larrier while adjusting to a system that is more different than Smart’s version of HAVOC! than anyone could have anticipated. For example, VCU played half-court defense for the first 36 minutes on Saturday. That at least leaves more chances than in years past for mid-season improvement.

At the very least, Wade was on to something when he said, “Moving forward, there’s no one else we’ll play that has the type of length that those guys have.” This will make the biggest difference for Mo Alie-Cox whose emergence last season fueled VCU’s improvement after losing Briante Weber. Like a home-run hitter removing the doughnut before stepping to the plate, Mo Alie-Cox is about to return to a world where players simply lack the physical tools to deal with his imposing size. This will force teams into the unenviable problem of letting him score one-on-one or double-teaming and letting him pass the ball to shooters waiting at the 3-point line.

A moment of pessimism

VCU swung and missed on its non-conference schedule, which could threaten its attempt at a state-record sixth-consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Unless the Rams absolutely clean up the conference schedule to the tune of 15+ wins, their only ticket to the Big Dance will be repeating as A10 Tournament Champions–a steep challenge considering the conference’s depth this season.

Your final words of reality

Teams are always better than they seem after losses and worse than they seem after victories. For a program not accustomed to losing, it’s easy to let pessimism snowball during an agonizing three-game losing streak. VCU won’t run every team out of the gym this season and they’ll certainly still take a few blows, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. At the very least, fans have twelve more opportunities to visit the Stu and hear the Peppas play “Africa”–and that is more than can be said for most basketball programs in the entire nation.

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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