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VCU 78, UMass 72: With JQ and MAC, VCU Is Gonna’ Be OK…

That was an important one, the nooner tip victory over a very talented UMass team on Saturday. The 78-72 win allowed our Rams to remain tied in first with those Rams from Rhode Island for first place in the A10 at 11-3. The win gave VCU the tiebreaker advantage over both UMass and Rhode Island, all but assuring a top four seed in the A10 tournament. That allows VCU to sit on Thursday and wait to play on Friday in Brooklyn.

That’s check box number one. Next up: the regular season title, which begins with a 1-0 performance on Wednesday against Richmond.

Personal side note: if your program has a bald analyst and your nickname is Rams, you are 40-12 overall and 22-6 in the A10.

Second personal side note: check with Dayton fans for perspective about VCUs close victory at Duquesne, without Treveon Graham in the lineup. The Flyers went to PGH and were shot back west with a loss.

There are plaudits.

The Freight Train poured in a 24/10 double-double despite being noticeably gimpier (more gimpy?) than against Saint Louis. Mo Alie-Cox again proved to the world that you can talk about the supposed-great big men in this league, but you’d better include him in the conversation. Cady Lalanne’s 13/8 afternoon was more like cotton candy. Very hollow.

Alie-Cox and his 12 points and three blocks were far more a turkey leg. Impactful, and stuck with you. Jordan Burgess was the only starter who didn’t reach double figures, but he was sonofabitchness personified. He also buried, dare I say, a Big Shot three when VCU was teetering. And then he blocked a Maxie Esho shot attempt that UMass coach Derek Kellogg called the turning point in the game.

And on a day when the bench–so darned good in many spots this season–was not quite up to snuff, the starters took care of business. Think about that…the starters can TCB, and the bench can also join the fun. Shaka Smart has options. Velvet steamroller stuff.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I did. UMass went on its big 12-0 run and took a 48-47 lead. Shaka Smart did not call timeout. The players were nonplussed, looking like they were waiting in line at the grocery store. The moment was not bigger than they could handle. Smart did call a timeout after a UMass turnover, and–well what do you know–Burgess was open in the corner and buried his only three of the game.

Then it was Mo Alie-Cox time.

***

And while all that is true, I want to talk about JeQuan Lewis for a moment. Here’s what the sophomore has faced since the last Richmond game:

“Hey JeQuan, a program-defining player hurt his knee and we need you to step in for him. Oh, by the way, the guy who will probably finish his career the second leading scorer in program history will play hobbled, and then miss two games while you try to run the show. We’re trying to win the conference, and it’s mid-February. You’ve been playing about 20 minutes a game and we need you to play 30. The ball will be in your hands.

Have fun!”

This kid has been up to the task, and then some. It hasn’t been perfect, but nobody expected perfection. I’ll say this: when you set your expectations after the devastating Richmond loss on the final day of January, they did not include JeQuan playing this well, leading and growing this much. Don’t lie. You didn’t. You hoped, but this has been an amazing three weeks for JeQuan Lewis.

This is the ultimate in Lewis embracing the opportunity. He didn’t have to play 30 minutes and run the show. He gets to play 30 minutes and run the show. There’s a big difference, and it shows.

How good is he when he bounces into a 15-foot jumper? Lewis had six field goals made against UMass, the most of any Rams player on Saturday. He scored 15 points, because that’s what the team needed. On the road at GW, Lewis had four assists and one turnover.

Lewis has embraced this mantle, and I think it was the best thing for him. He’s a good kid, a nice kid, and deferred to his upperclassmen. That is the kind of thing that leads to spotty performances like we saw earlier this season–you are unsure of just how much you are supposed to do, and the indecision causes uneven play.

But Lewis has been thrown into the breach. He has to be the man, and that’s what he’s wanted. He doesn’t have to defer. He has to lead, and that’s what he is doing.

Let’s hope for continued growth, because “I hope JeQuan…” has paid off so far.

And there’s this that I don’t want to escape you. We know Briante Weber led the nation in steal percentage when he was injured. But what you may not know is Lewis is ranked 17th. That’s right; there’s only 15 players in the nation who create a steal more often when they are on the floor than Lewis.

What’s more, VCU is leading the A10 in field goal percentage defense (40.8%), and is also tops in turnover percentage (24.2%). The halfcourt defense we’ve seen is no joke. And neither is JeQuan Lewis.