Don’t close the book on VCU just yet
After some ugly defeats in the season’s first month, a number of people seemed to have already written off VCU. That may have been a mistake.
Everyone was ready to write off the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, and it seemed justified. They took a competitive first half against Villanova on Nov. 24 and turned it into a 24-point loss. Then they lost at Old Dominion and just barely beat Illinois State. Four days later, Virginia blew them out a home.
Now, just 14 days after that embarrassing loss to the Cavaliers, maybe it’s time to bring the Rams back into the national conversation.
Winners of three straight, VCU has spent the past week knocking off then-No. 23 Northern Iowa in double overtime, Belmont at home, then Cincinnati on the road by 21 points.
Now at 9-3, it’s fair to say the Rams are worth discussing again.
In its three losses, VCU’s problems were uncharacteristic of a Shaka Smart-coached team. It allowed Villanova, Old Dominion and Virginia to shoot a combined 55 percent, including an unconscious 68 percent performance from the Cavaliers.
To compound matters in that blowout against Villanova, VCU’s patented havoc press wasn’t having its typical impact. The same team that forced 18 turnovers a game last year was struggling to disrupt quality teams.
Offensively, things weren’t much better. Sure, star guard Treveon Graham racked up a team-high 17 points against Virginia, but he did so on 6-16 shooting. As a team, VCU shot only 26 percent from three in those losses and received little production from its bench.
So what has changed over the last three games? First off, yes Northern Iowa and Cincinnati are good teams, but they are hardly Villanova and Virginia. Still, there’s a lot to like now that wasn’t happening a few weeks ago.
The Rams are shooting the ball better, and are getting production from all over the court. Melvin Johnson has had his moments, including an 18-point performance with four threes against Cincinnati. Justin Tillman and JeQuan Lewis had big games off the bench against Belmont. The defense has also improved, with VCU forcing 16 turnovers against Northern Iowa, led by six steals from Briante Weber. Last season, Weber led the nation in total steals and steals per game.
Overall, the scoring is up as well. In the five games between the Villanova and Virginia losses, the Rams scored 64 points per game. Since, they’ve hung 93 and 78 on Northern Iowa and Belmont, respectively. Then they went into Fifth Third Arena, where no one scores, ever, and scratched out 68 against the Bearcats. Not a ton, but still the most Cincinnati has allowed in a game this season.
Things are looking up for VCU, there’s no question – even after losing big man sub Antravious Simmons to a transfer earlier in the week. But there’s still a long way to go. The Rams have several quality wins, including early-season games against Tennessee and Oregon, so their resume can still be solid come March. In-league, their biggest challenge may be George Washington, who they play twice. Dayton is also a contender, but since booting their two best players from the team, the Flyers probably won’t be nearly as dangerous as most thought.
With a struggling Atlantic 10, VCU will probably accumulate a gaudy record that may make it look even better. That doesn’t mean the Rams can be classified as a soft team unprepared against quality opponents. Just ask Cincinnati, which knocked off San Diego State before VCU throttled them on Saturday.
In fact, it appears we’re right back to where we were before the season began. The Rams, though flawed, are the team to beat in the Atlantic 10. Beyond that? There’s talent and room for more improvement. We’ll see where that leaves them in March.