Can VCU turn their season around?

In lieu of a game preview today I pose the question heading into tonight's matchup against kenpom No.298 Howard: Can VCU turn its season around?

(Note: for those of you wanting a game preview, the cliffs notes on Howard is they are very bad both offensively and defensively and have lost their three top-100 games by an average margin of 28 points, which includes 26-point losses to both JMU and that's the bar for today. Can VCU beat Howard by more than 26 points? They need to.)

The Rams are off to a 5-4 start, by no means unfamiliar territory, having seen Rhoades-coached Rams jump out to 5-4 in his first season, a year VCU sat out of all post-season competition, then later this past year in what ended up as an NIT bid, but also in Will Wade's first season, a 5-5 start that ultimately ended with the Rams losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- but worth noting those five losses were all to teams that finished the season ranked 51st or better in the final kenpom top-100.

What will become of this year's 5-4ers?

Perhaps the most optimistic comparison is that to Mike Rhoades' 2018-2019 Rams, his second as head coach and first to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament. That team featured a star point guard, some talented but inconsistent wings and a promising sophomore center. Sound familiar?

That group was actually 7-2 through nine games before losing their 10th and 11th contests to drop to 7-4. At the 6-2 mark they sat at 121st on, a spot behind where VCU sits now at 120th, then through 11 contests with four losses, actually moved up to 90th.

That team did the majority of their heavy lifting in Atlantic 10 play though, finishing a surprising 16-2 in-conference thanks to the A-10's top-ranked defense and an offense that was considerably more efficient in A-10 action than they were out-of-conference. That team struggled with turnovers all season (again, sound familiar?), ranking 13th out of the then-14 A-10 teams in turnover percentage offense, BUT rose to third in conference offensive efficiency despite that thanks to a high free throw rate and an offense that finished fourth in the Atlantic 10 in effective field goal percentage. They also finished third in the A-10 in offensive rebound percentage, something this year's group has struggled to do thus far.

That is the extremely optimistic model.

The 2018-19 A-10, like this year, had just three kenpom top-100 squads. This year's league boasts the same, but VCU will need to climb to become one of them and will have to figure out a few things to match that team's success. VCU has been without key players in multiple contests this season though, missing Ace Baldwin in two early losses, then starting center, Jaylen DeLoach, in the letdown L to Jacksonville (who just lost to UNCW by 28 points...oof), so a healthy Rams squad certainly can't hurt the black and gold's chances of potentially stacking some wins in an overall down Atlantic 10.

This year's VCU group has also been doing some serious roster experimentation, breaking in three key transfers, a new starting sophomore center and wing and as mentioned, has had some injury issues effecting the point guard rotation to start the year.

A more reasonable prediction however, might be to match last year's success. After all, this year's team consists of several players from that group minus one Vince Williams who starred for the Rams before hearing his name called in the NBA Draft. How does this year's group turn it around to even that NIT status last year's team did without the help of an all-conference player like Vince Williams?

The biggest difference from last year's team and this year's is so far the Rams defense has been good, but not QUITE as elite -- and has been just outright bad the past two games -- and the shooting has taken a dip.

Last year's Rams finished A-10 play with the top conference defensive rating, but finished eighth offensively thanks to the league's worst turnover offense, turning the ball over 21.1% of their A-10 possessions, which would actually be an improvement over VCU's current 22.6% offensive turnover percentage.

But what helps VCU is their remaining competition is almost as flawed as this current Rams group.

VCU's top-ranked remaining non-conference opponent is Navy at 187 on kenpom, a Midshipmen squad that has really struggled defensively despite a super beatable schedule. Also looming is Radford, currently ranked No.237 on kenpom, but a team that tested both Marquette (10-point loss) and Notre Dame (three-point loss), but has losses to miserable William & Mary and VMI teams.

Either way, VCU will be favored to win all of their remaining OOC games, for a predicted 9-4 non-conference finish -- although they were favored to beat Jacksonville by seven and we know how that story ended.

After that the Rams will get into A-10 play, taking on a conference full of teams who have had disappointing starts.

Preseason favorites, Dayton and Saint Louis, are off to 6-5 and 7-4 starts and after starting the season ranked within the kenpom top-40, both currently sit outside of the top-60. The A-10's other lone top-100 team at the moment is Richmond at No.89, but just earned their way back in after a 30-point win over the previously 8-1 Drake Bulldogs. It was Richmond's first top-100 win of the season, a Spiders team that took an L at that really bad William & Mary squad, so an extremely beatable rival for the black and gold, but one who has proven an ability to get hot enough to cause major issues for the Rams.

There are just three top-100 A-10 teams as of this moment versus six to finish last season that included two top-50 teams in Davidson and Dayton.

Record wise, it might not help that VCU plays all three current top-100 A-10 squads twice this season, as well as a Davidson team that always seems to figure it out eventually. On paper that could be best for whatever farfetched at-large hopes an A-10 team might have this year, but even saying that feels like a stretch. VCU's best path to turning things around at this point would be in securing a top-4 seed and the double-bye that comes with it, then winning three big games in March.

The computers predict an 18-13 regular season finish with a 9-9 conference record (and a 6th-10th place finish, depending on tie-breaker scenarios). That would not sit right with a VCU fan base who has now grown to expect not only post-season appearances, but NCAA appearances -- and after seven consecutive, are currently on pace for two in the six years since Mike Rhoades and Co. have taken over.

Heading into the season Head Coach Mike Rhoades said this was his deepest VCU team since taking over at VCU, but with what is currently the least efficient VCU offense since kenpom has been tracking the stat (dating back to the '01-'02 campaign), it is hard to imagine how that switch gets flipped and somehow the Rams magically find offensive consistency.

Can VCU improve their defense enough to save what is effectively the worst Rams offense we've seen in decades?

There is a ton of season left ahead of the Rams, but everything would seem to indicate VCU will need a flawless run through Brooklyn to dance. With the current third worst offense in the Atlantic 10, the tea leaves seem to suggest VCU just might be in trouble.

The Rams take on Howard at 7PM tonight at the Stuart C. Siegel Center where they'll hope the magic starts tonight.
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Mat Shelton-Eide
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