After a year away from the Siegel Center for most, it was a welcomed return in last night’s Black & Gold exhibition game that provided a first look at this year’s Rams team. Mike Rhoades welcomed the team and the crowd — a reported 2311 in attendance, not VCU’s normal packed Siegel Center, but an overdue improvement over last year’s 250-person capacity — and provided Ram fans a glimpse of what to expect from this year’s group.
There are a number of huge questions that need to be answered after losing Bones Hyland to the NBA Draft and three players, Ace Baldwin (expected January return), Jamir Watkins (out for the season) and Jarren McAllister (out of the season), to injury, but we got our first hints of how that might look.
Here are my five key takeaways from watching last night’s exhibition:
THIS TEAM IS LONG
This was the main thing that I just couldn’t stop thinking about last night. It felt like almost everyone on the court was 6’8+ with a 7′ wingspan. The addition of Jalen DeLoach and Jimmy Nichols Jr., both of whom seemed to match the versatility of Hason Ward and Mikeal Brown-Jones, just gave the game a look of giants versus giants. Add to that the fact VCU’s point guard matchup on the evening put 6’4 freshman, Jayden Nunn, against 6’3 transfer junior, Marcus Tsohonis and you could see size could/should be a strength of this year’s VCU team. Late in the game the Rams even had 6’6 senior, Vince Williams, handling point guard duties for one version of the black squad, something Head Coach Mike Rhoades hinted would be an occasional occurrence this upcoming season and with that you get one of VCU’s largest five-man groups I can remember on the Siegel Center floor.
On the note of DeLoach and Nichols: The Rams already return perhaps their most traditional big man in 6’8 245 fifth-year senior, Levi Stockard (due to COVID rules allowing seniors an extra season), but this new duo appears to me to give VCU two more athletic/versatile bigs in the mold of Hason Ward — who handled the ball a bit more than I am used to seeing…and looked good doing it — and Mikeal Brown-Jones. Both are extremely long and can move and I think are going to give the Rams two more well-rounded bigs for opposing teams to worry about, particularly on defense. Nichols Jr. was statistically one of Providence’s best defenders this past season, checking in second on the team in defensive box plus/minus and DeLoach seemed to be able to match the more experienced Nichols and Ward.
Also worth noting that freshman Nick Kern is an extremely long 6’6 and battled amongst the giants all night himself.
I BELIEVE IN NUNN
Weird fact: This summer I spend a few weeks with Richmond Spiders legend, ShawnDre Jones (during our time competing in this year’s “The Basketball Tournament”). Watching last night’s game, all I could see in watching VCU’s freshman PG was a bigger version of ShawnDre Jones.
Nunn has size for a point guard, but as I mentioned above, was competing in the land of giants. He was 4-7 from the field (hit a three and flashed a nice jumper) on the night and had three assists and I thought overall did a solid job competing against his own team’s press on occasion, one of the better presses in college basketball.
But the key thing that really stood out to me was the freshman’s leadership and poise (finished with a total box plus/minus of +23, by far the best of any player on the night). You could see it in his eyes and it’s that same look I saw for years — and this summer — in Jones.
Nunn will likely handle a huge chunk of the team’s point guard minutes with Tsohonis and with Ace Baldwin expected back for conference play, the Rams don’t look short on point guard options. I think he’ll surprise early for the black and gold.
VCU WILL ONCE AGAIN BE VERY GOOD DEFENSIVELY
The Rams true defensive loss this offseason was the graduation of who I think is a pretty underrated loss in Corey Douglas. The senior ranked second on the team in defensive plus/minus and was a very smart team defender, but again, the Rams added a very similar player defensively in Nichols Jr. (who blocked 9% of opponents shots his freshman season). Add DeLoach and a large backcourt in Tshonis, Nunn, a returned KeShawn Curry — who looked extremely explosive and perhaps better than ever — and I just think VCU very well may have the luxury of a stellar defense that will make them a challenge for any opponent, even if shots aren’t falling without the services of shot-maker extraordinaire, Bones Hyland, now hooping in the NBA.
A MORE AGGRESSIVE WARD
The big question for VCU heading into this season without Bones is really who outside of Vince Williams is gonna go get you a bucket when you need one. I think Marcus Tsohonis is the obvious answer there because while he did not have his best night in last night’s scrimmage (1-9 from the field), he has two years of data from his time in the Pac-12 that let’s me know he’ll be just fine over the course of the season.
But last night I think we saw a bit more of an aggressive Hason Ward, a Ward that needed to be more of a leader and scorer and not just as an alley oop option. Ward put the ball on the floor a number of times — and looked pretty good doing it — and created some shots for himself that I’m just not super used to seeing, even hitting a three on the night. That is both crucial for VCU’s success going forward, but also Ward’s own pro potential.
WELCOME BACK, CURRY
Speaking of getting a bucket, while I fully expect Vince Williams to carry the load and to lead this team in scoring and maybe every other stat as well, KeShawn Curry looked the best I’ve ever seen him as a VCU Ram. The Jacksonville native missed about a third of the season last year, first due to injury, then missing the final five games of the season following the tragic death of his brother.
Curry had 16 points in last night’s exhibition, finishing seven of his 11 attempts, most of which coming in extremely explosive fashion and for most of the night just played with a comfort that was on a different level than almost anyone else on the floor. Curry’s athleticism resulted in easy finish after easy finish and that is something the Rams will hope carries over into the season against teams that aren’t wearing the same name on their chest.