One of the beauties (or headaches) of college basketball is the four-year cycle of attrition that almost always results in your best players moving on to bigger and better things, via graduation or in the rare case at VCU, early NBA draft entry — only one player up to this point has been in that position at VCU, Larry Sanders in 2010. Each and every season teams lose a key point guard, a deadeye shooter or dominating big man, leaving fans to wonder how will next year’s team survive without them. Yet somehow they do.
There was perhaps no better example of this than VCU’s 2011-12 team. Gone were Jamie Skeen, Ed Nixon, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell, the heart and soul of VCU’s one and only Final 4 squad. In their place, a snot-nosed group of relatively unproven commodities: little used rising junior guards, Darius Theus and Troy Daniels, rising sophomores Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg and fresh out of high school versions of Briante Weber and Treveon Graham, two under-the-radar recruits who came to Broad St. without even 1/4th of the internet hype of this season’s incoming class.
That team not only made it back to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season, but set a VCU record of 29 wins in the process, advancing to the round of 32 where they held a 3-point lead over 5th-seeded Indiana in the final minute of play before falling in heart-breaking fashion. But that killer minute at the end couldn’t erase the impressive season that young group put together. Despite losing 62% of their scoring from the previous season, the young Rams proved they had the pieces in line to replace the valuable production from the previous season.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what VCU loses this season, and what exactly we have to fill in the gaps.
Juvonte Reddic - 27.9 MIN, 11.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 0.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.7 TPG, 50.9 FG%
Rob Brandenberg - 26.6 MIN, 9.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 0.9 TPG, 39.8 FG%, 36.9 3P%
Reddic and Brandenberg leave VCU as the only two Rams to ever play in an NCAA tournament in each of their four seasons on Broad St. In short, they were winners, and talented players who played valuable minutes as far back as their freshmen seasons. Everyone remembers Brandenberg blocking a shot to send VCU to the Elite 8. I repeat, Rob Brandenberg, a freshman at the time, blocked FSU’s Chris Singleton (the No.18 pick in the NBA draft just months later) to advance VCU to our one and only Elite 8. When you’re on the floor during the final play of an Elite 8 game, and you’re a freshman, odds are you’ve got talent. Brandenberg’s partner in crime, Juvonte Reddic, played 19 minutes in that game, just a game after scoring 12 points in 10 minutes of play to defeat the No.3 seed in VCU’s bracket that season, Purdue (94-76).
The two totaled 2,657 points at VCU and accounted for just under 29% of the Rams scoring this past season.
Before listing two players who mirror VCU’s graduating seniors in some ways remember that that’s not exactly how it works. Teams play to their personnel meaning each season you aren’t simply replacing a guard with a guard, a center with a center, and so forth. HOWEVER, in this particular case the Rams actually have two young guys who you could easily look to to play the roles of the exiting seniors, all-be-it with their own particular flavor.
Mo Alie-Cox – 14.4 MIN, 3.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.3 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 0.5 TPG, 51.9 FG%
JeQuan Lewis – 16.1 MIN, 5.9 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 2 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0 BPG, 1.8 TPG, 42.4 FG%, 35.8 3P%
Like Reddic and Brandenberg, Alie-Cox and Lewis give you a capable physical big and a speedy guard who can defend, handle the ball and shoot. Alie-Cox doesn’t have Reddic’s finesse but what he lacks in beauty he attempts to make up in brute force. Reddic saw a ton of double coverage in the post this past season, so early on Alie-Cox may benefit from his unestablished reputation as a scorer, allowing him to overwhelm opposing 1-on-1s with his strength and athleticism.
Cox’s ability to hit Reddic’s 12′ jump shot has yet to be seen, but the freshman did lead the team this past season in field goal and effective field goal percentage at 51.9% and 52.5%. He played a smart brand of front court hoops, was active on the block and often found the open shooters when he didn’t get good looks down low. The biggest question for Alie-Cox heading into this season is how he’ll be able to maintain those percentages with a higher volume of attempts (he averaged seven fewer per game than Reddic). One thing that’s not a question is Alie-Cox’s ability to defend the paint, an area VCU struggled with this past season (48.8% 2-point defense ranked 174th nationally). Big Mo’s 10.3% blocks percentage was tops among all A-10 players, and with increased minutes could make VCU’s already stingy defense that much more of a nightmare.
Lewis’ guard play adds to that nightmare with a 3.8% steals percentage that was second to only Briante Weber this past season. On offense, Lewis displayed an ability to score from anywhere on the court, with a true shooting percentage of 56.3% that led the team as a freshman. His assist rate of 22.9% was second to only Briante Weber this past season. Unfortunately his turnover rate of 28.6% led the team, just not in the way you’d want. Lewis played at a speed that was sometimes even too fast for his own hand-eye coordination, quite unlike senior Brandenberg who’s 10.9% turnover rate was the best on the team. Lewis’ ability to sync his brain to both his hands and his teammates awareness may determine his potential as an all-around player this upcoming season, as well as his ability to most effectively use the minutes vacated by a graduated Brandenberg.
Melvin Johnson also stands to benefit from Brandenberg’s graduation. The rising junior has made a name for himself as a potentially deadly scorer in his two seasons on broad street, so expect a decent percentage of Brandenberg’s attempts to be turned into potential “Melvins”.
ON THE RISE
Jordan Burgess - Burgess started a number of games as a freshmen and was often on the court during crunch time. Unfortunately his field goal percentage (30.7%) was far too close to his minutes averaged (21.6), helping contribute to VCU’s 244th-ranked effective field goal percentage this past season. I fully expect Burgess to make a jump this upcoming season. Anything less may result in a reduction of minutes with the talented Terry Larrier ready to gobble those up.
Terry Larrier - As mentioned, Larrier has the talent to crack next year’s starting lineup from day-1. At 6’8 205 lbs with guard skills, Larrier can be VCU’s point forward and should (like Burgess as a freshman) average 20+ minutes for the black and gold next season.
Justin Tillman - The graduation of Reddic opens up an opportunity for a scorer in the paint, and Tillman could be that guy (or one of those guys, by committee) sooner rather than later. Tillman is an incredibly active big with Reddic’s athleticism and touch, but with a motor closer to that of Briante Weber. He may be a nice compliment to the defensive-minded Alie-Cox at the 4 while he bulks up early in his career.
Mike Gilmore – Reddic and Alie-Cox combined for 42.3 minutes played per game this past season, 27.9 of which have just graduated. I believe Alie-Cox is the main beneficiary of Reddic’s vacated minutes but combined with Jarred Guest’s 9 per game this past season will most likely leave some 23.4 available for some combination of Gilmore, Antravious Simmons and Guest. Gilmore comes to VCU with the experience disadvantage among those bigs but is 6’9 and ranked 77th nationally in his high school class by ESPN. Don’t be surprised if the talented freshman contributes early for the Rams.
Jonathan Williams – Williams comes to VCU as a true point guard out of a very good Saint Benedict’s Prep program (former teammate of Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis). He’s a disruptive defensive player and lightning quick on offense. Like Gilmore, don’t be surprised if he wastes little time creating a role for himself on next year’s squad.