By Nick Versaw
Rhoades gives Rams summer makeover
Summer is usually known as college basketball’s slowest time of the year. With students on summer break, most colleges become ghost towns from May until mid-August; but for VCU’s newly-appointed head coach Mike Rhoades, the hard work never stopped.
Following the departure of former head coach Will Wade in March, the Rams’ men’s basketball program was left in a state of flux. With six seniors graduating in 2017, the Black and Gold were left with just rising seniors Jonathan Williams and Justin Tillman and three sophomores — De’Riante Jenkins, Malik Crowfield and redshirt transfer Issac Vann.
Wade had accumulated a top-25 recruiting class for the upcoming 2017-18 season, but following his departure to Louisiana State University, top recruits Lavar Batts and Mayan Kiir decommitted from the program to ply their trade elsewhere. Rising sophomore Samir Doughty also jumped ship when he announced his decision to leave for Auburn University.
While incoming freshman Sean Mobley and Marcus Santos-Silva upheld their commitments, Rhoades was left with just seven players heading into what looked to be a tumultuous offseason for the Black and Gold.
Rhoades was announced as the Rams’ 12th head coach on March 21, and the new head man got right to work. A little more than a month later, Rhoades announced his first three VCU signings — Marcus Evans, Khris Lane and Lewis Djonkam.
The trio brings ample skill and know-how to a team low on top-end experience. Evans — a Virginia native who followed Rhoades to VCU after playing under him for two seasons at Rice — averaged over 21 points-per-game last season and earned back-to-back all-conference honors.
While the 6-foot-2 point guard will be forced to sit out the upcoming season due to NCAA transfer regulations, Rhoades said he is thrilled to have him on board.
“He had two great years at Rice and helped move that program forward,” Rhoades said. “When he decided that he wanted to make a change, we wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to have him here at VCU.
“He’s a super kid from a super family. The kid wants to win, and he’ll add a lot to our program. He’s a dynamic playmaker and scorer, and every team wants a kid like that.”
Lane — a graduate transfer from nearby Longwood University — brings much-needed length to a Rams’ squad sorely lacking frontcourt depth following the departures of fan-favorite Mo Alie-Cox and graduating big-man Ahmed Hamdy. Rhoades said Lane’s 17.1 points and 7.3 rebounds-per-game should pair nicely with the lanky Tillman down low.
“He’s a versatile big man who can do a lot,” Rhoades said. “I’m going to ask him to do a lot, put a lot onto him. But being an experienced, versatile player, it’s exactly what we need this year coming up, and I think he’s going to give us a great lift and bring great energy, great spirit to our program.”
Djonkam — who hails from Virginia’s Hargrave Military Academy — adds to the Rams’ presence down low. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound center averaged 11 points and 7 rebounds to help lift Hargrave to a 43-2 record last season.
“I love big men who have high motors that play with great energy and toughness, and (Djonkam) sure does that,” Rhoades said. “He had an unbelievable year at Hargrave, and really built his body up and got better on the court. I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”
Following the additions of Evans, Lane and Djonkam, Rhoades spent the next 60-odd days rounding out his squad.
Later in May, he added incoming freshman and three-star recruit Tyler Maye to the fray. A month later, he brought in local Richmonder and junior college standout Mike’l Simms. Last month, Rhoades made the finishing touches to his squad when he awarded the team’s final scholarship to another JUCO talent in guard Xavier Jackson.
Maye — a 6-foot-2, 170-pound point guard from North Carolina’s Farmville Central High — brings explosive scoring to the Rams’ backcourt after averaging an impressive 36 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists per game as a senior. Rhoades said he looks forward to seeing what the Farmville, N.C. product can do, not just on offense, but both ends of the court.
“He’s a gym rat who plays fast with very good skill,” Rhoades said. “He makes plays on both ends of the court. We can’t wait to get him and his classmates on campus soon to get to work.”
Mike’l Simms — a graduate of nearby Highland Springs High School — is returning home to add to the Rams’ versatility on the wings. At Kansas’ Cowley Community College, the 6-foot-5 wing averaged 14.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while shooting nearly 44-percent from the field and 36-percent from deep.
The highly-touted JUCO transfer chose the Rams over blue-chip programs such as The University of Miami, North Carolina State University and the University of Memphis, among others.
“We’re super excited to have Mike’l on board,” Rhoades said. “He has great versatility, and his game will fit into our style of play tremendously. Look for him to impact the program in many ways.”
Jackson adds to the Rams’ versatility by bringing both scoring and rebounding from the guard position. The 6-foot-3 playmaker from Wyoming’s Sheridan College recorded seven double-doubles last season and produced double-digit rebound outputs eight times. The Hinesville, Ga. product will join the Black and Gold as a junior and has two years of eligibility remaining.
“We’re excited to have Xavier and his energy and approach in our program. He’ll add depth and some maturity to our team,” Rhoades said of his newest recruit.
In all, RamNation will see eight total newcomers when the Black and Gold’s season kicks off in November.
Following the heavy player turnover, the new-look Rams face a season of uncertainty, but with a non-conference schedule including home games against the likes of the University of Virginia and the University of Texas, RamNation has a lot to look forward to in the coming year.
VCU kicks off its 2017-18 campaign with the Black & Gold Scrimmage on Oct. 14, with their first taste of regular season action coming a month later when Grambling State visits the Siegel Center on Nov. 10.