Creating a nonconference schedule is a little like putting burgers on the grill. No matter how many times you’ve done it, and no matter how good you think you are at it, something can go wrong. The grate has to be clean. You have to have the right amount of heat—and it should be given time to warm. Your burgers have to have the right level of spice—too weak and it isn’t satisfying. Too much and you wonder why you bothered. And you have to pay attention to the little things in order to cook it properly. It’s about more than the level of char.
For me and my taste buds, the VCU coaching staff put together a perfect schedule. It’s the ice cold Stella to go with that burger schedule. I’m not saying you have to like it, but if Mike Rhoades hired me to build a nonconference schedule, this would be the result.
It’s a tough schedule. The Rams have a metric ton of SOS opportunities. You know the big names Virginia and Texas. But while Rider, Iona, Charleston, Hofstra and Old Dominion may not be brand names, all are projected to be at or near the top of their conference race. Whatever the hell this NET thing is going to be is going to like this schedule and the numbers it produces.
I even love how it’s laid out. Most of the games are home—we only play three true road games of the first 13. The heat is distributed. We’re not playing a bunch of teams that could tater us right out of the gate and beat down the confidence level of a team with two seniors, one who was here last year, and one who hasn’t been here in three years.
That said, there’s three stages to the nonconference season:
Heating Up the Grill Portion
Don’t underestimate the full year under this staff and lingering benefits of last season. You read that right–the benefits of last season. Guys had to adopt to new roles, and what we lost sight of is it’s difficult to help your teammate when you’re still trying to figure out your own role. That’s why at times you saw brilliance, and at others clunky misery. There’s a better understanding of roles this year.
However we’re not being honest if we don’t admit guys have to succeed in those roles to be sticky and grow. We get to do that with the lighterweights on the schedule. We get to saunter into the season and (hopefully) taste winning while we figure those things out, and while Marcus Evans continues to rehab towards playing.
Preparing the Burger Portion
Then we test ourselves. We head to Brooklyn with gettable games—beatable brand names in Temple, St. John’s, and Cal. I want to go there feeling good, not coming off a 17-point drubbing at the hands of Virginia. These are swing games so that’s why I like the schedule frontloaded with winnable games.
We come home and play a pair of 2007 CAA tilts. Hofstra is a top three CAA team with a loaded backcourt, and those sonsofbitches from Norfolk are going to be good, and we have to go there. That would be a really good, and tasty, win. Iona follows, and the Gaels will challenge Rider at the top of the MAAC.
I can see VCU winning them all, but I’m not willing to write in pen.
Cooking the Burger Portion
Then the test gets serious. Trips to Texas and then Charlottesville are terrible to have back-to-back. Unfortunately there’s only so many dates to hold the dance and things like this happen. Those two games, and the Charleston game that follows, may be the most educational portion of the pre-A10 season. I have a hunch we’re going to see what we’re made of, and how we respond to adversity.
About Charleston. For me it’s the sneakiest tough game until the calendar flips. The Cougars won the CAA last year and return a pair of absolute studs in Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley. We will be tested. From there, it’s Greggggggg Marshall and the Wheat Shockers. I don’t care how many players graduated or left for the NBA—they are a top 20 program. Then Rider, who as noted is in the running to win the MAAC.
Gardner-Webb: series 2-0 alltime, with a two-game series in 2000-01/01-02. The Bulldogs finished 9-9 in the Big South last year. Return their leading scorer, David Efianayi, who averaged 17.5ppg. FWIW, they beat Hampton last year.
Hampton: 7-1 alltime, and many of us remember that awful trip down I-64 under Anthony Grant. Tied for the MEAC regular season title with a 12-4 record last year and went to the NIT. Moving into the Big South. Led by Jermaine Marrow, who averaged nearly 20ppg and dished out 184 assists.
Bowling Green: First ever meeting, and Jim Larranaga coached there before taking the Mason job. Finished 7-11 in the MAC, losers of their last six games. Also return everybody, with four freshmen and a sophomore in their rotation last year. Clearly they were a team that hit the wall. Remember the name Justin Turner.
Temple: 0-1 alltime, the site of another bad-memory-drubbing on t-shirt day about five years ago. The Owls went 8-10 in conference last year and 17-16 overall, making the NIT. This is coach Fran Dunphy’s last year. Their starting backcourt, Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston, returns. Yeap, Shizz Alston.
Cal (1-1 alltime) or St. John’s (1-0 alltime): The Jonnies went 4-14 in the Big East. Cal went 2-16 in the Pac 12. VCUs first half against Cal last year might have been the best half of basketball we played. Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill are Cal’s two best returning players. As for St. John’s, keep your eyes trained on Shamorie Ponds. He’s probably the best individual player we will see in the nonconference portion of the slate; perhaps all season (if we play them).
Hofstra: 15-5 alltime, and we’ve always loved Tom Pecora and the cadre of guards he recruited there. The Flying Dutchmen won’t look much different this year. Justin Wright-Foreman averaged more than 24ppg last year and is in the conversation for CAA POY. He is flanked by Eli Pemberton and Desure Buie.
at Old Dominion: 50-43 alltime, and if I have to write one word of history for you, stop reading and go call a VCU fan older than you are. Then come back. They went 15-3 in C-USA and won 25 games overall. Ahmad Caver is a dangerous player at point guard, and the smaller Stith (BJ) returns on the wing.
Iona: 4-2 alltime. Finished fourth in the MAAC at 11-7 and the Gaels have won three straight MAAC tournament titles. Can’t really tell you much on their personnel. The stats show three players returning who are double-figures scorers, but there’s also five transfers. Tim Cluess always has you playing a game of Concentration to figure out his roster.
at Texas: 1-2 alltime. Yeah. Went 8-10 in the Big 8, er, Big 12. VCU split a series with the Longhorns in the early 1990s. From the “We Hope History Repeats Itself” Department: the Rams lost at home in 1992, and then won in Austin the next year. We got a big dose of freshman point guard Matt Coleman last year and he is back; but keep an eye on Jericho Sims. He didn’t do much against VCU last year, but was one of those kids where the light bulb turned on in January. He’s 6-9 and very active.
at Virginia: 2-12 alltime. Went 17-1 to win the ACC and earn a number one seed. They made history in the NCAA tournament, if you didn’t know. Kyle Guy, who scored in easy ways and hard ways against us last year, is back. Love watching that kid play. So is De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt (who I’m convinced is the love child of Ivan Drago and Justin Bieber).
Charleston: 4-1 alltime. Cougars won both the regular season and CAA tournament title. Thin behind the big two mentioned above, but these dudes also play rugged defense and Earl Grant is a really good coach.
Wichita State: 2-2 alltime, but our two wins were Bracketbusters that got us into the 2011 NCAA tournament, and actually in the 2012 NCAA tournament. Tied for second in the AAC and won 25 games overall. Nine new players (and two new assistant coaches), with only 11% of their minutes played returning. Don’t let that fool you. Markis McDuffie is an NBA player and they will play physical and tough.
Rider: first alltime meeting and the Teddy Okereafor Revenge Game. Not really. But Rider won the MAAC regular season title with a 15-3 record last year. They return everybody, including Jordan Allen, who made 92 threes. We can’t tip glass and ring in the conference season too early.