The Rams will head to Georgetown today for a closed scrimmage that they hope will go much better than the exhibition car crash that took place at 1200 W Broad St. this Thursday night against Liberty. While the loss wasn’t totally unpredictable — this was a game against a Liberty team that returned virtually all of their pieces that nearly beat an experienced VCU team last season — the manner in which they beat VCU was somewhat of a shock.
The Flames 51 first half points and eventual 65% true shooting percentage showed a Rams team that has a long way to go in an incredibly short amount of time. VCU’s regular season schedule tips up on Nov 10, then intensifies Friday Nov 17 in what should be the toughest stretch of games in the program’s history, a stretch that currently includes six kenpom preseason top-100 teams with more to be added as VCU advances through this season’s Maui Invitational.
But before we look ahead, let’s first consider some of the positives and negatives of what we saw in VCU’s loss to Liberty.
Malik Crowfield – What we saw from the sophomore was what Riverside Academy fans watched during Crowfield high school tenure. The Reserve, LA native kept VCU within reach throughout the night, hitting four of his five three-point attempts to lead the Rams in both minutes (33) and points (14). Like early last season under Will Wade, Crowfield got the start. Unlike last season under Will Wade however, Rhoades stuck with Steady Eddie and I think we got a glimpse of a future star at VCU.
SOME offensive numbers – Let’s be honest, losing to Liberty is extremely depressing, even if they are a bit underrated, but if you want to really dig for sliver linings, I suppose you could consider the following: 1) this young group of Rams with a ton of new faces and even more tons worth of gelling to do actually put up more points against a more mature Flames team than last season’s VCU group did. Rhoades’ Rams outscored Wade’s Rams featuring Lewis & Alie-Cox by five points. This year’s Rams finished with a true shooting percentage of 59%, slightly better than last year’s 56% true shooting effort (note: true shooting % is a stat that takes into account free throws and the added value of threes). I know that’s really digging, but on a night it felt like VCU couldn’t hit shots, that, combined with a 40% three-point night, do offer some offensive glimmers of hope. I suspect there will be some nights when VCU explodes offensively, especially as the team gells, figures how the rotation and when facing opponents that don’t play that pesky pack line defense Liberty now employees.
Defense – VCU’s help defense was a lesson in essentially what not to do and a three-point D that resembled what it would look like if the Ram Nation foursome plus Chris Kowalczyk at center somehow got the start for Mike Rhoades & Co.
The Flames torched the VCU with a ridiculous 50% three-point night on 22 attempts. LU’s Ezra Talbert was a 48% three-point shooter last season and went 5-5 from distance against VCU while Ryan Kemrite, a 41.8% three-point shooter last season, fired off eight three-point attempts against the black and gold, hitting four of those. That’s nine of LU’s 11 distance makes and 27 points. The reality is that’s about as good of a shooting backcourt as VCU will see all season — true story…I mean, even if they’re a Big South team, they’ve got three dudes who shoot 40% from distance last season.
Offensive rebounding – Maybe it’s this new, more spread out offense, but the Rams four offensive rebounds was a little worrisome. Liberty is a very strong defensive rebounding team however, as is often the case with defenses that play a similar pack line style, but damn…four offensive rebounds? VCU grabbed seven o-boards against the Flames last season and had four or worse in just one game last season, a four offensive board performance in a 81-74 win over Richmond.
Turnovers – There was certainly a havoc siting at the Stu on Thursday, but VCU happened to be on the wrong end of it. 20 turnovers including 11 from newcomers Vann and Lane. VCU had a combined 12 turnovers in the Black & Gold scrimmage that was nothing but Rams versus Rams, so the hope is Thursday was a bit of an aberration. Either way, it was killer. Liberty scored 20 points off of those turnovers to just 10 points off turnovers for VCU.
The whistles – This was no doubt a whistle-happy officiating crew. The Rams were called for a brutal 28 fouls that resulted in 28 Liberty free throws and 22 points off of them. Liberty was called for an additional 25 fouls. VCU needs to learn to press and play without fouling, even with a bad officiating crew.
Positively positive– Even with the result, one positive is quite frankly the positivity of new VCU head coach, Mike Rhoades. Rhoades was poised in his post-game presser and offered some glimmers of hope.
Every former player I’ve talked to about Rhoades essentially relayed to me that they would run through a wall for the guy. I expect this group will do the same and will look like a much different team over the next few months.
Statistically speaking – Heading into this game Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay had seasons worth of advanced stats to know exactly which of his combos did what while on the court together. He essentially stuck to those combinations, playing an eight-man rotation that was virtually identical to last year’s.
Rhoades did not have that luxury.
As the season progresses Rhoades and Co. will have more data to discover their ultimate efficiency, making this mystery group a much more dangerous club come March or even in January when conference play really gets underway.
A rag tag team of transfers and newcomers scored 69 against a defense that ranked 19th nationally last season in allowing 63.4 points per game. I know it sounds like I’m digging, but I think there are definitely positive signs there.
Non-conference schedule will test both VCU and the fans – I expect this team can and will be much better than what we saw against Liberty. But don’t be surprised if this team struggles early. That could prove to be a serious test for a fanbase that has seen nothing but winning in this new Final 4 era and hasn’t seen a losing non-conference season since the 2004-2005 season.
VCU OOC schedule (kenpom ranking)
v Grambling St (343)
v North Florida (295)
v UVA (9)
n Marquette (49)
n either Wichita State (4) / California (101)
n either Notre Dame (22) / Michigan (32) / LSU (91) / DII Chaminade (NR)
v App State (225)
v ODU (94)
v Texas (37)
n* Seton Hall (28)
v Bucknell (77)
v Winthrop (182)
v VMI (340)
Kenpom.com’s computers predict a 7-4 non-conference finish but don’t include two yet to be determined Maui Invitational games. Adding those games into the mix based off the predicted loss to Marquette would predicted a matchup and predicted win over No.101 California, then another predicted win over the other losing bracket winner of Division II host team, Chaminade, and Will Wade’s new team, LSU. So that’s fun right there, a kenpom predicted matchup against LSU.
But after witnessing VCU v Liberty, how confident are you that VCU would lose to Marquette then beat California, assuming the Bears lose to Wichita State? That would put VCU at a predicted best-case Maui scenario of 2-1 (lose to Marquette, beat Cal and LSU) and a worst case of 1-2 (lose to both Marquette and Cal, then beat Chaminade on their home court to avoid finishing dead last in the tournament).
In terms of supreme confidence rating, I’d say VCU should have just five guaranteed wins should their Maui path pit them against Chaminade: that is Chaminade, Grambling, North Florida, App State and VMI for a floor OOC record of 5-8. VCU’s ability to hold serve at home against Bucknell, ODU and Winthrop — what could be three very tough home matchups for the black and gold — could flip that record to a solid 8-5 in OOC play. Do that and SOMEHOW pull off an upset here or there in either Maui, versus Seton Hall in Newark or at home against UVA or Texas, and the Rams are a surprise OOC winner. A 9-4 non-conference finish against this schedule would be a boarder line miracle and a very Merry Christmas for Ram fans, especially after the recent showing against Liberty.
So with those scenarios, where do you see the Rams finishing? Realistically 6-7? 7-6?
Pray for 9-4, hope for 8-5, but don’t be too surprised if it’s a 7-6 or even sub-.500 6-7 start to the season to tip up the Mike Rhoades era on Broad St.
Either way, it’s gonna be a wild ride.