239 days later, basketball is back. VCU last hit the court in a March 16th NCAA tournament opening-round loss to St. Mary’s and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. Four days later two-year VCU head coach Will Wade left for LSU. A day after that the Rams hired former VCU Associate Head Coach, Mike Rhoades, away from Rice to become the new main man on Broad St. VCU senior Mo Alie-Cox signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a tight end, JeQuan Lewis signed a contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, Samir Doughty left the program, two Wade recruits recommitted and a total of seven other new players joined Rhoades and Co. and the brand new VCU Rams.
But finally it’s time to take our focus off all the off-the-court stuff and start talking about the action on the floor. Basketball is back and it starts with the first official game of the Mike Rhoades era: VCU v Grambling in a home-opener that will be VCU’s 100th consecutive sellout.
A QUICK LOOK AT GRAMBLING STATE
When looking at what Grambling did statistically last season, it’s a small miracle that the Tigers managed to finish over .500 in conference play and just two games below .500 (15-17) on the season. Grambling ranked 311th in adjusted offensive efficiency on the season and an even worse 315th on the defensive end out of 351 DI schools. And that was WITH leading senior scorers Ervin Mitchell (16.9 ppg) and Remond Brown (14.2 ppg). The Tigers finished the season as one of kenpom’s 30 worst teams in the country and will once again have their work cutout for them under fourth-year head coach Shawn Walker. Grambling struggled to shoot both inside and outside of the arc, ranking 314th nationally in effective field goal percentage and checked in at an even worse 338th in effective field goal percentage D. The Tigers did however wreak some small bit of havoc, ranking fourth nationally in turnover percentage defense. That however was against statistically the fifth worst schedule in the country. Grambling played just three top-100 opponents on the season, losing by an average margin of defeat to those teams of 35.7 points per game. Woof.
A QUICK LOOK AT VCU
So far we’ve gotten two early looks at the Rams and have rumors from another contest. But what have we learned? The Rams were blown out by Liberty in a hurricane exhibition game I regret to even remind you of, reportedly lost a very close one in a closed scrimmage against Georgetown, then blew out Virginia Union as you’d expect a VCU team to do.
For starters, I truly believe Liberty will surprise some folks this year. This is a Flames team that nearly knocked off last year’s VCU team, an eventual NCAA tournament team led by two all-conference senior stars. Liberty returned everyone from that team and caught a VCU team playing in their first game with a completely rebuilt team and a new coach trying to figure out what all he had to work with with, then proceeded to hit 50% of their threes. Recipe for disaster. I know we all hate excuses, but it might be a decent idea to give the Rams a pass on that night.
Things apparently improved against Georgetown, as I was told it was a one-possession game late before VCU eventually lost. That was however a true closed scrimmage, so we don’t know what either coach was trying to learn with whatever combo of players. We have no clue of knowing how good that Georgetown team is just yet after the Hoyas finished 14-18 last season but knocked off the likes of Oregon, Butler, Creighton, Syracuse, Marquette and UConn in the process.
Virginia Union is a decent DII team and managed to hang with the Rams early before the offense clicked and before you knew it, we were watching a little classic havoc run.
So back to my question: what did we learn?
The early results suggest what most of us probably expect with this VCU team: an improved offense that could be potentially explosive and a bit of a step back on defense.
Oddly enough, VCU actually outshot and outscored last year’s VCU team in terms of games against Liberty. The Rams then dumped 98 points on Virginia Union, the first time a VCU team had scored that many points in any game, exhibition or otherwise, since November of 2014 when Shaka Smart was coach. They did so despite getting just 13 points at the free throw line and shooting just 32.1% from three.
Long story short, it may take VCU a while to figure out things on the defensive end, but they have the potential to be explosive offensively. Rhoades’ Rice team last season ranked 22nd nationally in scoring offense and 262nd nationally in scoring D. We might be looking at a very similar type of team here at VCU.
VCU WINS IF
One thing fun part of this contest is it will be the first time VCU has played an opponent with healthy versions of both Justin Tillman and Sean Mobley. Both have the potential of being two of VCU’s three best offensive bigs, joining Longwood grad transfer Khris Lane who scored 21 points in 24 minutes against Union and averaged 17.1 per contest at Longwood last season. Get that duo going and some threes falling from the combo of Jenkins, Vann and Crowfield and you’re likely looking at a long night for Grambling.
GRAMBLING WINS IF
For starters the Tigers have to hold on to the ball. VCU will be playing in their 100th consecutive sellout, are opening the season on homecoming and playing their first game under Mike Rhoades as head coach. The energy in the building will be unbelievable. And then comes havoc. Grambling turned the ball over 20.2% of their possessions last season and are about to take on a Mike Rhoades led VCU team that will attack defensively, a team that forced 23 Virginia Union turnovers just a week ago. Step-one to winning for Grambling will be winning the turnover margin and breaking VCU’s press for what they’ll hope will be easy buckets. Following those baskets Grambling will need to defend the three-point line with their life, because believe me, the threes are coming.
Kenpom: 86-62 VCU win with a 99% chance of a Rams victory.
Game tips at 7PM at the Stuart C. Siegel Center in Richmond, VA
Watch: MASN, Official game day headquarters at Buffalo Wild Wings locations at Virginia Center and downtown on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom.
Listen: Fox Sports 910 AM & 98.5 FM
Live Tweets: @VCURamNation