VCU men’s basketball faces a conundrum of circumstances entering its 2017-18 campaign.
On one hand, the Rams return a mere four players — senior forward Justin Tillman, senior guard Jonathan Williams, sophomore guard Malik Crowfield and sophomore forward De’Riante Jenkins — who previously recorded minutes for the Black and Gold.
On the other hand, this is not necessarily a young roster. Three freshman — guard Tyler Maye, forward Sean Mobley and forward Marcus Santos-Silva — could eventually push for playing time, but any real contributions from this talented, raw trio should come as added bonuses for coach Mike Rhoades and RamNation.
VCU’s core is experienced enough, just not at playing together. If the Rams hope to maintain their cherished streaks of 24-plus win seasons and seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, then two returning starters, three transfers and two returning contributors must gel as fast as possible with a daunting out of conference schedule looming.
Williams, Tillman, Crowfield and Jenkins join sophomore transfer guard / forward Mike’l Simms, sophomore transfer forward Issac Vann and senior transfer forward Khris Lane to form what must be the Rams’ primary rotation, at least early on this season.
VCU is known for playing 8-10 deep in order to facilitate the infamous up-tempo, hectic, defensive style of play known as HAVOC. Accordingly, Rhoades played 12 men in last Friday’s 98-74 exhibition win over Virginia Union University. Although Rhoades is known for and will likely institute the same approach as the new year draws near, he knows it may be difficult during the Rams’ loaded early schedule.
“The biggest thing that we have to do is gain experience quickly because of our schedule,” Rhoades said.
A seven-man rotation is not uncommon in college basketball, and this will be Rhoades’ best option for the time being. Rhoades said he is confident in his team’s ability to build chemistry quickly, because they genuinely enjoy playing with one another.
“The thing I like about our team is they really like playing with each other,” Rhoades said. “Now we’ve got to continually build on feeling each other out and how we play together, who plays best off each other.”
After the regular season opener and homecoming game this Friday against Grambling State University, the University of North Florida visits the Siegel Center on Monday, Nov. 13. In these games, an 8-10 man rotation and chaotic style is realistic given the level of opposition.
Then the Black and Gold enter a stretch that will likely define their NCAA Tournament hopes, if not their season all together.
The University of Virginia comes knocking at the Stu Friday, Nov. 17 for a showdown between the two premiere college basketball powers the state has to offer. Rivalry implications aside, the Cavaliers are a perennial top-25 team and legitimate Final Four contender. This will be the new-look Rams’ first real test and an optimal barometer for their ceiling going forward.
After going to war with the Wahoos, the road only intensifies. A subsequent trip to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational Nov. 20 – 22 brings a trio of matchups with top-tier competition.
The field, which includes preseason No. 7 Wichita State University, the University of Notre Dame and national player of the year candidate Bonzie Colson, last March’s cinderella sensation the University of Michigan and Will Wade’s Tigers of Louisiana State University, will be a minefield for the raw Rams to navigate.
Success in Maui will hinge on an opening matchup with Marquette University. A win will open the door to further opportunities for statement wins — or even close losses that will be attractive to the tournament committee and boost the Rams’ RPI — against the rest of the field. An opening loss could render the whole trip a failure.
Additionally, we all know RamNation wants a shot at Wade and his shiny new top-five recruiting class.
After Maui, VCU welcomes Appalachian State University to Richmond for a prospective reprieve. The breath of air will be short lived, however, as December brings a deceptively difficult final six games of non conference play.
An old rival journeys up I-64 before a new one travels across the country. Old Dominion University, who always seems to give the Rams more trouble than expected, arrives in the capitol Dec. 2 before Shaka Smart and the University of Texas at Austin come calling just three days later.
Neither opponent made the NCAA Tournament last year, but that won’t stop emotions from reaching fever pitch in these highly anticipated tussles. The close proximity of these emotionally charged matchups will be a tall task for Rhoades and the Rams to manage.
A trio of NCAA Tournament teams from last year round out VCU’s early season gauntlet.
A trip to Seton Hall University precedes home matchups with Bucknell University and Winthrop University. Although these opponents may lack the name recognition and familiarity of Texas, UVA, Maui and ODU, they are equally if not superiorly formidable opposition. All three lost in the first round of the big dance last year.
Then, finally, the Black and Gold will look to settle into their season and expand their rotation. Virginia Military Institute comes to the Stu before A-10 play commences with a home game against Fordham College on Saturday, Dec. 30.
But during nine non-conference games — UVA, three in Maui, ODU, Texas, Seton Hall, Bucknell and Winthrop — before the calendar turns, Rhoades and the Rams will have to stick to their experienced, seven man core if they hope to emerge from this stretch with a winning record.
Yes, I said a winning record. Anything greater than a 5-4 mark, which would be par for the course, in these nine contests will have VCU well on their way to an eighth consecutive tournament appearance. That’s the immense level of opportunity this loaded stretch garners.
Williams, Tillman, Jenkins, Crowfield, Lane, Simms and Vann hold the hearts of RamNation in their hands. Reinforcements will develop, but not fast enough for the Black and Gold to realistically take full advantage of arguably their most difficult non-conference schedule ever.
“We’re not making any excuses,” Rhoades said. “It doesn’t matter that we have new guys, new coaching staff — our job is to improve.”
And improve they will. Make no mistake, this year’s montage of talented yet unknown pieces will eventually morph into a well oiled machine with Rhoades at the helm.
The question is, will their experienced core develop chemistry fast enough?
Because you can bet Tony Bennett and our friends up on that hill are formulating a way to silence the Stu, right now.
And that just can’t happen now can it?
Zach Joachim, Sports Editor