Tuesday night at the Siegel Center after VCU had a mini-vacation over in Maui, the Rams eagerly got back to work against Appalachian State. While there were a few stumbles, overall the experience was mostly positive in the victory while preparation began for a visit from an “old friend” come Saturday.
Boost! From Downtown!
VCU’s defense aka HAVOC found itself under the magnifying glass before tip-off. During their 1-2 stretch in the Maui Invitational, the Rams looked a bit out of wack without the ball. Flashes of defensive intensity and prowess appeared alongside perimeter defending that constantly said “My Bad” when the opposition knocked down another three-pointer.
Just 11 seconds into the contest, Justin Tillman committed a turnover that sprung the fears of every VCU fan in attendance that the struggle was indeed still real. The Fro channeled that into a backboard block on a fast break that may have even impressed King James while HAVOC started to recollect.
Xavier Jackson was the surprise of the night as he made his first collegiate start for VCU. Social media and even I may have risen an eyebrow upon hearing the news and Jackson quickly showed that he was worthy of that starting five spot. Jackson is a work in progress on offense, however, #15 was a defensive tank on man to man and during zone sequences.
Perimeter defending as a whole was working better for HAVOC. There was a couple “My Bad” expressions shared upon teammates on some sequences yet VCU held Appalachian State to 6-of-25 from three at 24%. An extra bonus came for the Rams during the 2nd half when they held the Mountaineers to only one made three out of 13 attempts. Bravo.
This was the second lowest percentage from downtown that VCU held their opponent to thus far in the season (15% vs. Grambling State). As a unit, Coach Rhoades admitted that VCU doesn’t have a high basketball IQ on defense and it’s being worked on every day in practice. Multiple factors are behind this with new players transitioning from high school to college, experienced players learning new roles in this defense and keeping the same energy on defense for 40 minutes overall.
Injuries Into Opportunities
Malik Crowfield and Issac Vann both suffered ankle injuries and currently are under day-to-day precautions. With the Vannimal and Crowfield’s biceps sidelined, VCU’s bench came up with a response.
Along with X, Mike’l Simms continued raising his stocks from the bench. Simms has good ball handling and drives to the basket that will improve with time. He also remains unphased with the contact in the paint as Simms leaps for rebounds and second-chance buckets.
Sean Mobley and Marcus Santos-Silva are making the most of their limited minutes. Mobley is getting more comfortable as a hybrid forward with a silky Euro step and filthy jay that can ignite the net rather quickly. Santos-Silva likes to channel his inner Beast Mode under the basket and has gotten better boxing out the opposition for rebounds.
Both are still working on limiting the referee’s whistle towards their direction. Mobley was whistled for 3 fouls in 13 minutes while Santos-Silva had 2 in less than 9. The duo is still learning under Khris Lane & Justin Tillman and they already got the strength lesson down to a science.
While VCU and Ram fans would love to see Malik Crowfield and Issac Vann back out there, they aren’t hurting in offensive production. Players stepped up and the scoreboard lit up for the Rams as usual.
Some JLew Behind That Beard
As I explained a little in a scRAMbled episode, Jonathan Williams is showing flashbacks of JeQuan Lewis at the point.
Last season Air Johnny was a highlight layup finisher mixed with a passing game that made and broke games. In the beginning stages of this year, Williams decided to put the shooting on the backburner and focus more on getting his teammates involved with assists. In the process, turnovers began piling up and raising concern if Williams could lead this VCU offense.
Sounds a little familiar?
Fast forward to present day and the homegrown beard out of RVA is getting more comfortable at his position. Some instances the play may implode however Williams is getting better at recovery and focusing on the next play. When comparing JeQuan and Johnny in their first 7 games of their senior year, Williams is having the better start in comparison to assists and turnovers per contest.
Johnny vs. JLew: First 7 Games for VCU During Senior Season
|Jonathan Williams (2017-18)||44||20||3.24|
|JeQuan Lewis (2016-17)||33||19||2.39|
What held Lewis back a bit was ball handling versus shot selection in the beginning. In instances where he would shoot, Lewis dished it and vice-versa. Once Lewis was comfortable and gelled more in VCU’s offense he was promoted to the true floor general ranking.
Jonathan Williams wants to get everyone involved on the court and that could lead to him doing too much on some plays. Williams already has a good passing game to build off from junior year and in his final season, he is in search of upgrading that to elite status. This will be tested on the game to game basis and VCU still believes that Williams is the right man for the job.
Rekindling an Old Flame
Ahh…VCU vs. Old Dominion. The 93rd edition of this game may lack the old school flavor of bitterness and hate between the two in-state rivals…but it’s still a game that VCU must win.
I remember attending Virginia Commonwealth University when VCU and Old Dominion were considered the Mega Powers of the CAA. Both teams had studs from Eric Maynor, Kent Bazemore, Larry Sanders, Gerald Lee and others that were involved in classic battles from the Stu to the Ted.
Memories from the Eric Maynor Phantom Foul, VCU’s Perfect 10 winning streak, ODU’s CAA Final revenge in the Coliseum revived good…and bitter…times of Virginia’s version of Alabama’s Iron Bowl except on the hardwood.
With VCU moving to the Atlantic 10 and Old Dominion following suit with their trip to Conference USA, the rivalry started to diminish significantly on the emotion scale. The 2 game series was cut to a yearly contest and VCU versus Richmond turned into the rivalry that people paid more attention over the years.
Old Dominion went back to the drawing board and brought in Jeff Jones to lead a new era of basketball in Norfolk. The Monarchs are not back to their CAA prime days however this is a pretty good team led by B.J. Stith averaging 14.1 points per game.
VCU won the last 2 previous contests against ODU and last season’s 67-64 victory at the Ted Constant Center put the Rams ahead 49-43 overall in this rivalry. Khris Lane may have reignited a spark during the post-game conference where he states that he “never liked ODU honestly” and looked forward to defending the Siegel Center come Saturday night.
This isn’t Coach Rhoades first rodeo in VCU vs. ODU from back in his assistant days under Coach Shaka Smart. This will be his debut into the rivalry as VCU Head Coach and he looks forward to getting his Rams ready to fight like crazy. While the emotion and the flame may have piped down a tad, the expectation remains the same: You DO NOT lose to Old Dominion.
Onward To Saturday Night!
Besides the new chapter of Rams vs. Monarchs, excitement is building from within this VCU squad. Everybody is stepping up in the absence of Crowfield and Vann to make their minutes count and adding responsibilities to their individual roles.
Rams like Air Johnny, Agent Zero, Tillamania, and Lane The Train continued to cause HAVOC on the scoreboard and defense. HAVOC has not reached the pinnacle but the glass ceiling is within reach. VCU continues to work on the simple things while keeping that same aggressive energy in order to make a defensive breakthrough.
VCU sits above .500 at 4-3 overall. On Saturday, the Rams will see if the work they put in upon showtime results in VCU staying there.
“There’s no magic pill to become a good defensive team. It’s a ton of hard work, It’s ton of teaching. It’s a ton of carry over…we all know we can score the basketball and we’re hard to guard but we gotta continue to get better (on defense).” –Coach Rhoades