VCU fans got a tough bit of weekend news on Sunday with the announcement that A-10 Player of the Year, Ace Baldwin, will follow Mike Rhoades to Penn State. It’s likely just the first of several similar announcements to follow from the Rams starting lineup, as like Baldwin, Jayden Nunn, Jamir Watkins, Nick Kern and Jalen DeLoach are all testing the waters of the transfer portal and are expected to leave VCU. That provides a challenge no-doubt for new Head Coach, Ryan Odom, but one he’s seen before and proven more than capable of handling.
Odom makes his way to VCU and back to the East Coast after rebuilding a Utah State team that saw a similar exodus upon his arrival to Logan two seasons ago. The Aggies were an NCAA tournament 11-seed prior to his taking over for departing Head Coach, Craig Smith — who left State to take the same job with the Utah Utes — but saw three starters depart upon his hiring. The biggest hole was left by exiting big man, Neemias Queta, a 7′ junior who took his talents to the NBA. Fellow starters, Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster, followed their head coach to Utah where their new team has struggled in the Pac 12 upon Smith’s hiring. And lastly sixth man, Alphonso Anderson, departed upon Odom’s hiring to Pacific for a starting roll on an 8-22 team.
What was left from that group were three little-used underclassmen in sophomore Sean Bairstow and freshmen Steven Ashworth and Max Shulga.
Odom’s first season in Logan was hit or miss with this new roster pieced together from some returning talent and transfers he brought in with him. The Aggies played a brutal schedule that included 18 top-100 matchups, finishing 60th in kenpom’s rankings (the same as VCU finished this season) themselves and ultimately ending in the NIT with a loss to Oregon, but even with the struggles, the Aggies earned that postseason birth and finished top-100 nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, something they would build on the following year.
Now, facing a schedule that included 20 games against top-100 teams (for reference, VCU played just 11 of those this past year), the Aggies in Odom’s second season road the nation’s 16th-best offense to a 26-9 overall record, an NCAA tournament bid and a kenpom No.28 finish, a top-30 finish there that VCU hasn’t seen since 2014 when Graham, Weber, Reddic, Brandenberg, Alie-Cox and Co. were roaming the court. Odom built that group with the little-used pieces from his predecessor (Ashworth, Shulga and Bairstow in particular), some of his own UMBC transfers and a big A-10 portal pickup in sharpshooting St. Joe’s transfer, Taylor Funk.
As impressive as that two-year build at Utah State was, it probably pails in comparison to the job he did prior at UMBC.
In 2016, the Aki Thomas-coached Retrievers finished with a 7-25 record, a slight improvement over their 4-26 mark the season prior. A year later with Odom at the helm and led by VCU transfer, Jairus Lyles, UMBC won 21 games. As fun as that had to be for Retriever fans, it certainly was miles from matching the excitement of the following season when Odom would lead UMBC to an America East tournament championship run before taking out top-seeded UVA in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the first time a 16 has defeated a 1-seed in men’s hoops tournament history. That win featured three players who made their way to UMBC prior to Odom, including Lyles and KJ Maura, showcasing their new Head Coach’s ability to elevate their games and turn the two under appreciated and perhaps undervalued hoopers, into March legends.
Odom looks to be in a somewhat similar position at VCU, but has a great foundation to build off of.
That foundation includes former top-100 hooper, Michigan transfer, Zeb Jackson. Jackson came off the bench under Mike Rhoades to average 17.3 minutes in his first season with the Rams. The Toledo native posted a 102.3 offensive rating in conference action, up from his 95.4 season number, and is a player to watch in terms of offensive improvement with Odom, who’s past two teams ranked top-25 nationally in effective field goal percentage offense, something VCU hasn’t seen since 2004.
Jackson is joined by heavily recruited local product, Fats Billups. The Varina native announced his intentions to return to VCU after playing a combined 33 minutes under Mike Rhoades. The 6’7 top-100 win chose the Rams initially over a loaded recruiting list that included the likes of LSU, Texas A&M, NC State, Oklahoma State and a long list of other suiters. Billups was a part of a talented 2022 recruiting class that included 6’10 big man, Christian Fermin, a one-time top-100 who eventually landed at No.116 nationally in 247Sports’ composite rankings. Like Billups, Fermin saw extremely limited minutes in his first and only season under Rhoades and Co., but finished with a two-block effort in just five minutes of action in this year’s NCAA tournament. He instantly becomes the most highly-ranked center Ryan Odom will have coached as a Head Coach and a candidate for a big offseason jump.
That freshman duo is joined by bouncy London native, Toibu “Tobi” Lawal, yet another little-used frosh under Rhoades. Lawal played double-digit minutes three times this past season (I would argue, out of position as a five instead of the four where I think he’s a more natural fit), but in one of those contests did log a career-high 24 minutes where he scored 10 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked three shots.
What the ultimate ceiling proves to be of that group remains to be seen, but as hard as it may be to believe, on paper it’s as impressive of a returning group as Odom has ever inherited at any of his previous rebuilds. Whether or not any surprise returnees remains to be seen.
Odom will rebuild VCU the same way it’s being gutted: through the portal. The two most likely candidates there are Utah State hoopers, Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow, both of which were reportedly on campus this past weekend. Shulga averaged 11.9 points in his 31.2 minutes per game for the Aggies this past season, a Kyiv, Ukraine native who can score from anywhere on the floor and connected on 36.4% of his threes this past year. He finished the season with an impressive 58.4% true shooting percentage and the prior year was even more deadly at 67.1% while knocking down 46.2% of his threes. Bairstow entered the portal for what would be his final year of college hoops. The 6’8 Aussie averaged 10.3 points for State this past season and connected on 37.5% of his threes.
News of other portal targets to VCU is beyond limited, but make no mistake, Odom and his staff (which now includes VCU grad, Darius Theus) are on the hunt. What Ram fans should know heading into that hunt though are two things: 1) this, at least for the time being, is the new normal of college hoops. It’s less college basketball and more pro basketball without contract, so something we’ll have have to either learn to get used to or just give up on altogether and then 2) Odom has shown an ability to build, not once at the DI level, but twice and with impressive results both times at completely different levels.