For starters let me apologize for my absence. This is typically one of the craziest times of the year with hoops, holidays and well…life, but throw in a weekend move that started on Black Friday followed by a mid-move Saturday loss to ODU and my world has officially spun into full-on chaos. So with that in mind, I’ll use the following 943 words to recap ODU, preview Illinois State and offer up some other thoughts in one easy-to-digest blog post.
ODU: WHA’ HAPPEN’
Saturday was a rough day in Ram Nation. After bouncing back from a second half Villanova woodshedding against Oregon, VCU took the first half off against an Old Dominion team that simply couldn’t miss against their bitter rival (to be specific, the first quarter of the game). Old Dirty opened the game on a 23-8 run, a run that proved too large for the slow-starting Rams to overcome. After scoring just 18 points in the first half, the Rams dumped 49 on the Monarchs in the second despite missing nine free throws that half, but gave up 41 themselves using a defense that kenpom.com literally describes as “inconclusive”. Treveon Graham scored over half VCU’s points, dropping 34 of the Rams 67 in the loss, but had little help from anyone else. Melvin Johnson scored 14 of his own but was a very un-Melvin 4-14 from the field. The ‘Narchs hit 52.7% from deep while turning the ball over just 12 times, a recipe for a VCU loss. The 73 points were ODU’s second most scored on the season.
IT DOESN’T GET MUCH EASIER
Credit to ODU, they are a much improved team since winning just five games two seasons ago. Jeff Jones g0t the Monarchs to .500 last season at 18-18 and has them poised to be a tough team this year, boasting wins over the likes of Richmond, LSU and now VCU. Their one loss on the season? A 19-point neutral court drubbing to the team VCU will take on next: Illinois State. The Redbirds host the Rams in a return game from last year’s 38-point throttling at VCU that opened their season in the most negative fashion possible. ISU finished that season 18-16 with nice wins over eventual Elite 8 participant and fellow A-10 member, Dayton, as well as an 11-point home win over a Northern Iowa squad that defeated VCU earlier that season, but for the most part lost against the top competition on their schedule (3-6 against Kenpom top-100). This season’s version is somewhat hard to figure out after the aforementioned drubbing of ODU followed by a tight loss to a very good Seton Hall team followed by an overtime escape of Youngstown State (kenpom No.244). Illinois State is led by the experienced trio of DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Bobby Hunter (12.4 ppg, 55.6% 3p%) and Daishon Knight (12 ppg) and add some serious size to that group. What do they do really well? Rebound. Illinois State has out-rebounded all but one opponent with relative ease including a 21-rebound advantage over YSU. VCU hammered ISU early last season, jumping out to a 30-point halftime lead before coasting to victory. Three of VCU’s double-digit scorers in that game have moved on however. Terrance Shannon led VCU with 14 points, Juvonte Reddic chipped in 13 while Rob Brandenberg added 12. Moral of the story?: This is a very different VCU squad. Kenpom.com predicts a 1-point VCU win in that one with a 57% chance of a VCU victory. VCU follows that up with four consecutive games against top-100 teams: v UVA, v Northern Iowa, v Belmont and at Cincinnati. Those four are a combined 25-2, so plenty of opportunity to improve the resume but it will be far from easy.
BACK TO ODU
Ram fans hate losing to Old Dominion. Once upon a time however it was expected, at Norfolk in particular. VCU’s bitter rival was every bit “legit” before falling off the Earth during the 2012-13 season. The problem is, VCU fans seemed to bury the Monarchs then, assuming they were dead for good as VCU headed off to the A-10 while the Monarchs chased football and went to whatever is left of Conference USA. The newly-led Jeff Jones squad was well off the radar. We saw them just once a year and assumed they were dead and buried while we continued to stock our pantry full of top-100 recruits. VCU fans want very badly (myself included) to feel like we have “truly arrived”. We see our team ranked and hope for that special season. A loss to No.12 Villanova after playing one bad loss? Sure. But a loss against rebuilding ODU? NEVER! That’s the thought process at least, but one that’s probably out of touch with reality. That said, it’s certainly a very bitter pill to swallow to see your team fall below expectations. The Rams entered the season as a top-15 team and moved up to No.14 in the AP poll before recently plummeting out of the rankings. We are the only team to have gone from top-15 to unranked so far this season. There’s no way to sugercoat just how much that sucks. But I will throw out the names of some other programs that have dropped out of the top-25 at one point or another this season: Florida, UCLA, UConn and Syracuse. That’s a list that includes programs who can easily and consistently land McDonald’s All-Americans. Point being it’s damn hard to get ranked and stay ranked, even with some of the most talented players in the country. The good news is we have four months of hoops season left to play. Believe it or not, VCU is a young team that will need time to round into form (just four upperclassmen). It may not be what we want to hear, but it’s the reality. The Rams have started 4-2 or worse since starting 5-1 during VCU’s 2009-2010 season that ended in a CBI Championship. The other seasons they had to settle for four consecutive NCAA tournaments and a Final 4.