Rams confident in final exhibition game

Alonzo Small
Sports Editor

It won’t stand in the record books, but the VCU men’s basketball team made the final exhibition game before the start of the season count, as the Rams dominated California University of Pennsylvania Friday, Nov. 7, winning the contest 92-43.

There are just certain staples for a VCU basketball team led by head coach Shaka Smart: press defense, up-tempo style of play on both sides of the ball, teammates creating the best shots for one another and the ability to convert successfully on shooting attempts. To make all this work in the HAVOC system, team chemistry is paramount. Against the Vulcans, the Rams showed that chemistry is evolving and Smart took notice.

Forward Justin Tillman dunks on a fast break play. Tillman finished with a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in an exhibition win over California University of Pennsylvania on Friday, Nov. 7. Photo by Christian Keppler

“I thought it was great that we could play a lot of guys, and get some guys some experience,” Smart said. “It was terrific to see our young guys out there playing together and doing some good things. They’ve got a long way to go but I’m excited about them.”

The key to how far the men’s basketball team goes this season may indeed be roster depth. The 2014-15 men’s basketball team is arguably Smart’s most talented ever assembled. Only time will tell, but the exhibition game offered a recurring sign of the present and many glimpses of the future.

“We’re looking for our team to play together and play for each other,” Smart said. “I told these guys we were going to play a lot of guys and nobody was going to play really heavy minutes and I thought our guys had a good attitude and really had a good team mentality.”

Right now, no one on the team is playing better bsketball than junior guard Melvin Johnson. Johnson has led the way in two exhibition games played at home and his love for the three-point shot and the mid-range floater has paid dividends. Against the Vulcans, Johnson converted six of eight from beyond the arc, and finished seven of nine overall. Johnson logged 20 points in 17 minutes of play.

Smart complimented Johnson’s ability to create and convert on great shooting opportunities.

“He’s been shooting it well. He shot it well in the Black and Gold game, he shot it well in Florida (as part of a closed-game scrimmage) and he shot it well tonight,” Smart said. “Hopefully that continues.”

Transition to the future, and it was only fitting for the VCU Peppas to play a rendition of World Wrestling Entertainment superstar John Cena’s entrance music, “My Time is Now” in the second half, when forward Justin Tillman took center stage. Tillman finished the game as the second leading scorer, picking up 14 points and 10 boards, five offensive and five defensive in 17 minutes. Tillman’s 6-foot-7 frame hustled up and down the court, resulting in a few monstrous dunks that brought fans in the Siegel Center out of their seats. The Detroit, Michigan native shot seven of 10 from the floor.

Tillman accounted for the only double-double of the contest, and Smart said that Tillman impressed him throughout the night.

“I thought he did a nice job.He’s a unique player. He has a knack for, number one, putting the ball in the basket, around the basket,” Smart said. “He’s a really quick finisher who can turn and shoot in the air. He’s got really long arms so he’s able to corral some rebounds and make some plays. He’s really made a lot of progress in about the last six weeks.”

Smart was quick to add that Tillman is still learning the game.

“Again, he’s got to learn and has a long way to go.” Smart said.

For the third time in four seasons, the Rams made easy work of the Vulcans by controlling key phases of the game. The Rams shot from the field 71 times, converting on 39 shots (55 percent). Additionally, the Rams shot 12 of 28 from the floor (43 percent) and dominated in the paint, scoring 55 points to California Penn.’s 18. The press defense accounted for 30 points off of turnovers.

Johnson said he feels the team is clicking on all cylinders because everyone improved their overall game.

“For the most part, everyone is in the gym doing what they got to do,” Johnson said. “The guys in the past were extremely talented so it’s no big difference. It’s just the simple fact that guys are getting better and better each year.”

No Ram played more than 20 minutes, which allowed every player ample time to showcase some of the talent Rams fans can expect to see on game days. Freshman Terry Larrier and sophomore Jordan Burgess rounded out the team’s double-digit scorers, registering 11 and 10 points respectively. Redshirt sophomore Mo Alie-Cox added six points to his seven rebounds. Senior forward/guard Treveon Graham had a quite night, finishing with four points while senior guard Briante Weber did not suit up for the game.

For many, the team looks to be new and improved, and sophomore guard JeQuan Lewis attributes the change to one thing:

“Confidence,” Lewis said.

Now the time has come to see if that confidence and team chemistry can translate to wins when the games do matter. Smart has been hesitant to anoint the team as ready, offering that the team hasn’t played in any meaningful games, yet. On Nov. 14 against the University of Tennessee, the Rams get their chance.

“Obviously, our next opponent in Tennessee is going to be a major step up in weight class,” Smart said.

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