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Reaction: VCU v Cal U (PA) [INSIDER]

Jordan Burgess led VCU's offense early, finishing with 16 points on the evening.
Jordan Burgess led VCU’s offense early, finishing with 16 points on the evening.

VCU hosted their one and only exhibition of the season last night, tipping it up against the Cal U Vulcans for the third consecutive year and there was a very similar result: a 90-plus point night in a blowout win.

There were many noticeable differences however, including a new head coach and a ton of new faces. Early on it felt like that newness came with some confusion, as the two teams sat all knotted up at 20 points with just under nine minutes to play in the first.

Tons of time left? Of course. But a far cry from last year’s 19-point lead at the same point in last year’s game. VCU looked very much like a team who was missing their go-to scorer (thanks to the graduation of Treveon Graham) as this year’s leader Melvin Johnson struggled from distance early while the Vulcans were able to stifle VCU’s dynamic frontcourt duo of Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox, a tandem I believe needs to become a major difference between this year’s and last year’s team. The two combined for just 6 first half points and neither filled the highlight reels with the SportsCenter-worthy dunks they had demonstrated against the same team last year.

Things just felt different.

But as expected, the second half saw some shots fall, particularly from a then hot-handed Johnson who caught fire late, scoring 19 of his 21 points in the second stanza as VCU would pull away to make the box score resemble a dominating performance that didn’t always feel like one while taking in the game.

Will Wade’s post-game vibe did not resemble one you’d expect from a team that just beat someone by 36 points, reinforcing my belief that that guy is destined for big things at VCU and will work tirelessly until he gets his VCU teams to reach their full potential.

COMPARING THIS YEAR’S RESULT WITH LAST YEAR’S

Offense

One of my favorite stats of the night comes on the offensive end: 96 points. It didn’t “feel” like VCU was lighting it up on offense, perhaps because the Rams shot almost 10% worse from the field than they did last season, yet they still managed to score more points than last year’s team with Treveon Graham, Terry Larrier, etc.

Last year’s team hit twice as many threes (12 versus 6 this year) and connected on four more field goals altogether. The difference? Free throws. This year’s team got to the line for 32 free throw attempts, 28 more than last year, hitting 20 of those.

I can assure you Will Wade isn’t happy with 62.5% free throw shooting, or 27.3% three-point shooting, but you have to feel pretty happy that the Rams were able to post 96 points in an off shooting night. There were more possessions overall so a shortened shot clock has to get some credit, but still. 96 points on sub-50% shooting. I’ll take it.

Defense

Last year’s Rams held last year’s Vulcans to 17 fewer points, forcing two more turnovers in the process. Once again, considering the shot clock and the added possessions, advantage 2014-15 Rams. However, this year’s version did hold Cal U to just 27% shooting from the field, a slight improvement on last year’s 29.1%. What killed VCU last night however were the 22 fouls called on the Rams, a full 15 more than VCU racked up last season. Different officials can have an effect on that and I thought overall last night’s group seemed a little too eager to blow the whistle, but still, four of VCU’s starters each finished with three fouls in under 25 minutes each while backup big Ahmed Hamdy added four of his own in just 14 minutes of play. I chalk a good bit of that up to guys struggling through some confusion at times and hopefully that’s something that will improve in time. I suspect it will, especially with Will Wade and staff learning their roster’s potential in real under-the-lights game action.

Oh and here’s another number I love: 40, as in 40 defensive rebounds. That’s an 11-rebound improvement over last year’s effort. The Rams held Cal U to 10 offensive boards, an improvement from last year’s exhibition and one that looks even better when you include the added opportunities.

PLAYER THOUGHTS

JeQuan Lewis – VCU’s offense seemed to run nice and smooth with Lewis on the floor, particularly in the second half where he seemed to help spark the offense by finding the open man (6 second half assists). What killed him however was the foul trouble. JeQuan is capable of a big year but he has to stay on the court to do so.

Justin Tillman – It wasn’t the highlight reel dunkfest Tillman we saw last year, but his 10 points and 9 rebounds plus a block and a steal in just 21 minutes is as solid as it gets. He led VCU with five offensive rebounds and overall appeared to play a bit bigger than we saw him play at times last season. He also demonstrated a nice little touch from on his mid-range jump shot.

Mo Alie-Cox – I expected a dominating performance from big Mo but you have to give credit to Cal U’s Tony Richardson for doing a nice job on the beast. Alie-Cox was just 2-7 from the field and from my angle looked like he had a swarm of guys around him at all times. He’ll have better games but I know he had to be a bit frustrated last night.

Korey Billbury – KB posted one of the sneakiest double-doubles I’ve seen in a long time…how very Treveon Graham of him. The ORU transfer attacked the glass for a team-high 11 rebounds and added 10 points on a decent 5-11 shooting. He did however miss all three of his free throws and had three turnovers. I know that’s probably bugging him this morning. I love this guy’s game though as an odd mix of Graham, Weber and Pellot-Rosa. He seemed to press a little early last night but looked great once he settled down.

Melvin Johnson – Last night proved why Johnson is so dangerous. After a 1-6 start to the first half and just two points he exploded for 19 in the second. That is offensive havoc. VCU’s ultimate potential seems so dependent on Johnson to me. I think he’s capable of having one of those all-time type of seasons where he goes absolutely nuts. If he does VCU will be dangerous.

Jonathan Williams – I loved Johnny’s game for the most part last night. What continues to impress me in particular is just how easy he gets to the basket and can do so starting underneath the other basket. He looks like a running back out there and I loved hearing the fans behind me calling him “Johnny Basketball” in the second half. My favorite stat of his last night was his one turnover. That’s what we need from Williams. If he limits turnovers he can be so good. He did so last night.

Michael Gilmore – The good: 9 rebounds in just 13 minutes. That’s just something he is born with. The dude looks somewhat like Larry Sanders out there, just a long body that makes rebounding the ball look effortless. The bad: not his best night offensively. Gilmore was 1-5 from three and had just two shots in the paint. I think once he reverses that strategy, focusing one his post game as option-one, then like Jamie Skeen uses the deep ball to keep people honest for option-two, that’s when he reaches his full potential. If I’m Gilmore I make sure I make one two-point basket for every three I attempt, then I watch NBA scouts fall in love with me.

Torey Burston – Two people I very much respect raved about Torey Burston last night: Will Wade and my brother. I loved in last night’s post-game presser when Wade commented that he wasn’t bluffing when he said he was going to play Torey a lot, and that Torey heats up the ball on D better than probably anyone on the team. That’s the educated coaching opinion. It felt good to hear my post-game phone guy, my brother Bo, echo those sentiments as I talked to him immediately after the presser. Defensively Torey was an absolute pest out there (two steals in 15 minutes). Offensively I think he becomes more and more valuable when he sticks to his strength, which is acting as a pass-first, pass-only point guard. Burston had an impressive 29.6 assist rate last season (second to only Briante Weber) but ranked last in effective fg%. If he can be the point guard version of Dennis Rodman (do what you do, do it well, and only do that…in his case that means be a defensive pest and strict point guard), he can go from walk-on to serious value player for this VCU team.

Jordan Burgess – This guy. Man, how much did we all love watching Burgess last night? He looked to me like the adult playing with the kids all night. Burgess just looked calm from the start, making tough plays look easy and never forced a thing throughout the night. Last night’s MVP in my opinion.

Gerron Scissum – Savage or sandwich only got two minutes off the bench as one of two freshman to hit the court but did grab two rebounds and dish 2 assists in that time. For those keeping score at home that’s a 40-rebound, 40-assist per-40 average. Keep that up in added minutes and he’ll go down with one of the best stat lines in history. Scissum has the body to fight is way into minutes. His work ethic and willingness to learn will determine how much court time he sees this season. Physically it’s all there, just gotta match that mentally.

Ahmad Hamdy – We all loved Hamdy out there. It looked like VCU had some really good Euroleague guy on their roster out there just making grown man plays. Hamdy tallied six points and seven rebounds in just 14 minutes, adding three blocks on defense. Hamdy is a skilled big and in two exhibitions has demonstrated just how valuable he can be for VCU. Ram fans are going to love watching him this season.

Jordan Riullano – The walk-on Riullano came in late in cleanup time but didn’t look phased or nervous one bit and managed to get to the stripe to grab a quick point to christen his college career. I’ve been impressed with the little samples I’ve seen from him this year.

RANDOM STATS OF THE NIGHT

Here are some perspective stats from last night that caught my eye…

Attendance: 7637. That’s 5,246 more fans than Shaka Smart’s new team, the Texas Longhorns drew at their home exhibition opener last night and they have over 50,000 students, even more alumni and their own TV network. I don’t say that to pile on negativity on our old coach, I say that so you guys know just how special of a place VCU is and just how passionate our fans our about college basketball. It’s a rare thing for teams to sellout their exhibition games, but we do it, every year. That’s impressive and Ram fans should be applauded for that. We have something special here and I look forward to watching the continued growth of that.

76-74: That’s the final score of Iowa’s exhibition against DII Augustana. Iowa was the team that bounced Davidson from last year’s NCAA tournament immediately after VCU had bounced them from the A-10 tourney. That said, Augustana is arguably the best team in division II basketball (they went 30-2 last season). My point being these exhibition teams we play get scholarships too, their guys want to win just as bad and truth be told, probably more than we do in these games, so don’t just expect VCU to dominate every exhibition, every time, even if we did just win by 36. Also of interest, follow A-10 conference mate and horn-wearing Rams as well, Rhode Island defeated St. Thomas Aquinas (who recently destroyed St. John’s by 32) 100-77. Feel free to look up their stats and compare to VCU if you’d like.

 

 

 

 

VCU School of the Arts (BFA '07) and Center for Sport Leadership (M.Ed. '10) alumnus, Mat has followed VCU basketball since the Sunbelt days when he'd...