VCU will hope to pick up their first top-100 win this season when they welcome the nationally-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats to the Siegel Center on Saturday.
The black and gold have been competitive throughout the season but were on the wrong end of two close games, dropping neutral court contests to Wisconsin and Florida State within the final minute of regulation. The Rams routed the Bearcats in a 21-point road win last season with a healthy Treveon Graham and Briante Weber but will need an improved performance from this year’s supporting cast if they want to oust Mick Cronin’s squad from the national rankings this weekend.
Starting on a positive note, Melvin Johnson has been sensational. The senior guard’s 19.6 points per game this season is the highest at VCU since some guy named Maynor averaged 22.4 before taking a high-paying job in Utah back in 2009.
Quite frankly Melvin Johnson has carried this team. The Rams’ 36.8% three-point percentage is the highest “team total” since VCU’s 2011 Final 4 squad, but it’s only that high because Johnson is hitting a blistering 45.6% from the field on a team with no other player (outside of Mike Gilmore who has just eight attempts) shooting over 31.6%. Last season five players shot over 35%. Johnson is one of three players with 20 or more three-point attempts on this team but is the only player of that group shooting over 30% from the field.
What’s more, Johnson has elevated his game against the best teams VCU has faced. The Bronx native hit 50% of his 34 threes against the group of Duke, Wisconsin, FSU and Georgia Tech and connected on over 47% of his shots inside the arc, both numbers being better than his overall averages on the season.
But he needs help…
SOLVING THE POINT GUARD PUZZLE
The point guard position has been one of the key trouble spots in VCU’s four losses. JeQuan Lewis is attempting to settle into his first full season as THE GUY running the offense and Ram fans will hope he is primed for a breakout game on Saturday. VCU needs that breakout…desperately.
In VCU’s four losses, the hard truth is Lewis has turned the ball over on 41.6% of used possessions. If that stat isn’t obvious enough, it means almost one of every two times Lewis has been involved in a play against top opponents this season he has turned it over.
That is a killer for all parties involved.
The good news is last season that number was down to a career-best 24.3% against the top tier opponents VCU faced (14 games) and an even better 20.2% in Atlantic 10 play.
Lewis can get there.
JeQuan is also one of VCU’s best players at getting to the free throw stripe where he is almost automatic. His true shooting percentage of 56.5% ranks only behind Melvin Johnson and Michael Gilmore on this year’s team (he’s 50.6% against top-tier teams).
The Rams need Lewis’ offense on the floor but absolutely MUST get it with fewer turnovers.
DESPITE BIG TALK RAMS STILL PREFER SMALL BALL
Will Wade had some familiarity with this VCU team before taking the job but is clearly still trying to figure out where all the pieces fit.
So far despite hints of bigger lineups this offseason from new head coach Will Wade, VCU’s head coach has actually for the most part stuck with the small ball approach Ram fans saw under former coach, Shaka Smart. Mo Alie-Cox is the only VCU big to crack the top-six in minutes played this season, checking in at fifth behind Johnson, Billbury, Burgess and Lewis. Alie-Cox is followed by Brooks as VCU’s preferred sixth man this season then has their main rotation rounded out by Tillman, Hamdy and Gilmore.
Alie-Cox’s minutes are actually down from last season’s while Tillman’s are up by two minutes per contest.
The Rams lost 6’8 forward Terry Larrier (who honestly played more like a guard) to transfer and he’s seen some of his minutes absorbed by Michael Gilmore who’s averaging an additional 5.5 minutes (currently at 11.8 per contest) and newcomer Ahmed Hamdy who checks in at 12.7. The promising sign for each however is Wade has used all three of Tillman, Gilmore and Hamdy in 20 or more minutes during several games. Tillman played 20-plus minutes three times all of last season but has matched that total nine games into this season. Gilmore has two 20-plus games including a 20-minute performance in a tight game against the ACC’s Florida State — always a positive sign for minute watchers. And Hamdy logged a career-high 25 minutes against Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden, dumping 13 points on 6-10 shooting against the Badgers while grabbing eight rebounds on the night, both career-highs.
The question is will VCU at any point start using more of that group together?
They may have to against a Cincinnati team that will play 6’7, 6’8 and 6’10 together for close to 30 minutes in tight games.
5-30 (16.7%) – Dough Brooks’ shooting numbers in VCU’s four losses. Brooks was one of the Rams’ most accurate three-point shooters during last year’s season at 40.8% on the year (31-76) but has plummeted basically back to his freshman averages. Last season Brooks connected on 50% of his threes against top-100 teams for an insane true shooting percentage of 60.6%. That number has been more than cut in half and sits at 22% so far this season, a stat that hurts even more as Brooks has attempted the third most shots on this year’s team.
43.3% – VCU currently ranks 303rd nationally out of 351 teams in two-point percentage, the lowest number at VCU since kenpom’s been keeping the stat. The Rams posted a top-100 last back during the 2012-13 season at 50.5% but immediately dropped off the following season, all the way down to 289th nationally at 45.6%. They posted a 46.9% two-point mark the following season but have struggled this season due mostly to the loss of Treveon Graham and a dip in the percentage of Melvin Johnson (down to 38.5% from 46.6% the previous season).
TILLMAN TAKES A STEP
His career-high 18 points was one of the lone bright spots from VCU’s road loss at Georgia Tech. I’m not confident that the jump shot will be as consistently effective (hey, I miss the dunks) but I gotta admit it was mighty pretty early this week, as was his hitting all six of his free throw attempts. Tillman is averaging 12.6 points and 9.6 rebounds in the three games where he has played at least 20 minutes this season (24-minute average). His defense however will ultimately determine his playing time, which is why I, like all of you, am hoping he was a defensive machine during this week of practice.