Men’s hoops heading for Puerto Rico after 3-0 start

Freshman point guard JeQuan Lewis finished with 11 points, four rebounds and three steals Saturday against Winthrop.

Colin Kennedy
Sports Editor

After Saturday night’s 92-71 win against Winthrop University, the VCU men’s basketball team is 3-0 for the first time in the last three seasons.

The Rams have a pair of convincing home victories against Illinois State University and Winthrop to accompany last Tuesday’s thrilling road win at the University of Virginia. And each game has shown us something different about the 2013-14 squad.

The season-opener against the ISU Redbirds gave fans a preview of the team’s depth, as 11 different VCU players logged double-digit minutes and scored for head coach Shaka Smart.

Though the game was never in jeopardy after the opening minutes, we got a glimpse of a solid rotation that will be used throughout the remainder of the season. Freshman guards JeQuan Lewis and Douglas Brooks both showed signs they are capable of making an immediate impact and redshirt freshmen Jordan Burgess and Mo-Alie Cox showed why each will receive considerable minutes this season.

Tuesday’s 59-56 victory against U.Va. at John Paul Jones arena was different but equally as telling. The Rams were slowed by a stifling Cavaliers defense, which limited VCU to 24 first-half points. Head coach Tony Bennett’s team controlled the pace for much of the contest and took a seven-point lead into the final minutes of the game before VCU rallied behind junior Treveon Graham to steal a critical road win at No. 25 U.Va.

Smart said there were many things the Rams wanted to improve upon after the team’s second victory of the season, but we did learn that VCU possesses the resiliency and attitude to compete against any team at any venue in the nation. Graham arguably emerged as the Rams’ most reliable scoring threat and showed the ability to hit clutch late-game shots on the road.

The third contest against Winthrop fell somewhere in between the first two games in terms of difficulty. The much-improved Eagles team got off to a quick start, converting all five of its three-point attempts in the opening minutes. Winthrop hung around well into the second half but the Rams eventually made a run behind a strong offensive rebounding effort and a wide range of contributions.

VCU shot 34-48 (71 percent) from the free throw line after struggling through the season’s first two games, and featured at least 10 different players with double-digit minutes for the third consecutive game.

The Rams’ guard play was one of the biggest takeaways from the evening, as junior Briante Weber finished the game with 16 points, four assists and five steals. His replacement, freshman JeQuan Lewis, contributed 11 points, four rebounds and three steals in 16 minutes off the bench.

Now, with three games in the rearview mirror, VCU will prepare for the 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which begins this Thursday against Terrance Shannon’s former team Florida State University.

Smart said he thinks it is critical that his team remain focused on what remains ahead.

“We’re excited,” Smart said after Saturday’s victory against Winthrop. “I think we have to reset a little bit after this week. It was a long week and we got two wins, but now we need to understand that the week is over and we have a new challenge ahead of us. We have to prepare at a high level because, to win the games that we want to win down there, we’re going to have to play better than we did tonight and with a great level of focus.”

A win against FSU on Thursday could potentially set up a grudge match with the University of Michigan, who defeated the Rams in the third round of the NCAA tournament last March.

VCU could possibly receive its highest AP ranking in school history when the polls come out on Monday, Nov. 18. The Rams were ranked No. 11 nationally in the AP’s final poll at the conclusion of the 1984-85 season.

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