It’s the end of December, which means it’s time to look both backward and forward and get introspective about VCU basketball. 2015 was easily the most consequential year for VCU since 2011.
Photos by Will Weaver
The Rams started the calendar year in the midst of a 12-game winning streak as they sprinted out to a 17-3 start and a #14 ranking. In the second week of the year, Treveon Graham hurt his ankle but still powered his way to 26 points and 8 rebounds in a 65-60 win at Rhode Island that should simply be remembered as “The Treveon Graham Game“.
The Rams also topped newcomer, and soon-to-be A10 champs, Davidson 71-65 and rocked the perpetually up-and-coming George Washington Colonials 72-48 at the Siegel Center. On January 31st, Briante Weber tallied 11 points, three rebounds, one assist, and six steals in 26 minutes before tearing his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in a loss to Richmond. He finished his career with a jaw-dropping 374 steals –just 12 short of the NCAA record. Ken Pomeroy did a better job than anyone else of putting Weber’s dominance in perspective by looking at the numbers. We tried to capture the Man of Steal’s aura here with a listicle and photoshop.
Without their starting point guard and one-man defensive wrecking crew, the Rams went from 7-0 in conference play to 12-6 –and it was brutal. St. Bonaventure hit a game-winner in Olean. La Salle won in double-overtime in the Siegel Center. Richmond won in double-overtime at the Robins Center, Dayton snuck-by 59-55 and Davidson rocked the Rams 82-55–all in the same eight days. VCU dropped three of the last four games of the regular season to fall to fifth in the Atlantic 10 heading to Brooklyn.
Forced to play on Thursday while the top four teams rested, VCU sneaked by Fordham 63-57. On Friday, they beat Richmond, who had just completed their first regular season-sweep of VCU since 2001, 70-67. On Saturday, they refaced Davidson, who nine days earlier had beaten them by 27 points. Davidson jumped out to a 16-4 lead and all seemed lost. As it is wont to do for VCU, the switch flipped and the Rams responded with a 40-12/15-0 run. The Rams won the game 93-73 completing a 47-point swing in nine days.
On Saturday, the Rams held a lead against Dayton, but Coach Archie Miller executed a near-perfect comeback strategy. With one minute remaining, Doug Brooks entered the game with zero points, three turnovers, and four fouls. On the next play, VCU showed meaningful 2-3 zone for the first time since the run to the 2011 Final Four, and Doug Brooks stole the ball and found JeQuan Lewis to give VCU a four-point lead and, ultimately, a 71-65 victory.
The Rams won four games in four days to capture the 2015 Atlantic 10 Tournament. Treveon Graham was named the most outstanding player of the tournament, and Mo Alie-Cox was named first team all-tournament.
VCU punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for a Virginia-record fifth consecutive year and travelled to Portland as a #7 seed to face #10 Ohio State–an underperforming, veteran team, with a monster back-court. The teams battled, often using five guard lineups, and eventually sent the game to overtime. But 28 points from first team All-American and current LA Laker D’Angelo Russell were simply too much to overcome and the Buckeyes won 75-72. For the second year in a row, the Rams were upset in overtime in the first game of the NCAA Tournament.
Days later, Coach Smart announced he was leaving for University of Texas. Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin wasted little time and hired Coach Will Wade. I think Coach Smart summed it up better than anyone else:
“There’s that saying, ‘Don’t work harder, work smarter.’ Well, Will works harder and smarter. He struck me as the hardest working guy I knew. His attention to detail is second to none, and he’s really good at developing relationships. I knew that Will was someone we had to have on staff here.” Shaka Smart
Briante Weber and Treveon Graham both graduated and found spots on NBA D-League teams1. Their much-needed replacements decided to look for opportunities elsewhere. All three members of VCU’s star-studded recruiting class abandoned ship, and Terry Larrier transferred to UConn. But Wade cobbled together a savvy recruiting class, and the Rams entered the 2016 with the talent to make some noise.
This season hasn’t been perfect. The Rams started 5-5, but their losses were to Duke, Wisconsin, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Cincinnati. Their chances for an at-large bid are threatened, but they seem to be righting the ship before conference play, which starts January 2nd against George Mason. 2016 may not be as consequential as 2015, but it guarantees to be just as entertaining. Here’s how the Rams can take it to the next level.
The Atlantic 10 boasts six teams ranked between 42 and 68, according to KenPom.com. The league has a lot of talent, but no favorite. Dayton is 9-2 but recently lost to Chattanooga (Will Wade’s former employer) at home. George Washington was off to an impressive start, but lost to DePaul 82-61 right before Christmas. Despite a rocky start, the VCU Rams are still contenders. But what would a New Year’s piece be without resolutions?
Guards, guards, guards
JeQuan Lewis, Melvin Johnson, and Korey Billbury are turning into a formidable backcourt. Lewis is doing a much better job protecting the ball, Billbury’s outside shot is complementing his toughness under the basket, and Melvin Johnson is simply on fire. Since going 0-of-11 against Cincinnati, he has 37 points (3-3 2PFG, 9-14 3PFG, 4-4 FT) in 41 minutes of action. He and Billbury are 59-of-132 (.447) from 3-point range. The synergy between the three is cause for hope after a 5-5 start–but they need to find consistency.
Feed the BIG dog
Mo Alie-Cox is playing well, but he’s still far from his ceiling.2 He finished with 18 points and eight rebounds against Davidson in the A10 Tournament before scoring 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting in the finals against Dayton. He’s fallen short of that output this season.
The good news is, there’s reason to think great things are about to happen. Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Cincinnati have some of the biggest and longest front courts in the country. In the two games since VCU’s three-game skid, Alie-Cox has 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting in 38 minutes of action. The Rams need to get him more looks–because they regularly result in easy buckets when opponents single-team him and catch-and-shoot opportunities for teammates when opponents double-team him.
Doug Brooks hit four straight 3-pointers and put together a strong half of defense against Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Dougie “Buckets” looked primed to be VCU’s 3&D star off of the bench during the 2016 season–but his shots just haven’t started falling. Last season he went 31-of-76 (.408) from 3-point range. This season he’s 12-of-46 (.261). Brooks turns the ball over less on offense and steals the ball more on defense than any other Ram, if his shots start falling it could elevate VCU’s second unit and the entire team.
Fans love to complain about VCU’s free-throw shooting, but the Rams actually shoot slightly above-average from the charity stripe. Their biggest problem is getting to the line and keeping opponents off of the line.
VCU ranks 252nd in free-throws attempted per field goal attempt on offense. They rank 266th in the same stat on defense. Opponents are taking 9.3 more free-throws per 100 field goal attempts than VCU–and that’s not a winning formula for a grueling conference schedule that will boast many, many one possession games. Guards other than JeQuan Lewis need to draw more fouls, something they have not done well since the graduation of Treveon Graham, and the Rams need to limit shooting fouls. If they do that, it could make the entire difference in three or four conference games.
- Both could have earned more money playing international basketball, but have chosen to follow in the steps of Troy Daniels. Daniels worked tirelessly in the NBA D-League in 2014 before getting called up and hitting a game-winning 3-pointer in game 3 of the play-offs for the Houston Rockets. This season, his minutes have been limited but he’s shooting .529 from 3-point range. ↩
- Some may be concerned about Mo Alie-Cox’s rebounding, but I think that’s more of a story about the team than VCU’s center. Korey Billbury is an absolute menace on the defensive glass and Justin Tillman has the potential to be one of VCU’s best rebounders ever. There simply aren’t enough missed shots for Alie-Cox to pad his numbers and Billbury has the added advantage of pushing the ball on the break. Overall, this is one of VCU’s best rebounding teams in a long, long time. ↩