Ryan Grube, Staff Writer
The college basketball season is right around the corner, which means analysts are set to unveil their early preseason rankings and lists for fans in search of their favorite team.
One team sure to be included in those lists is VCU. Coach Mike Rhoades and company return an experienced bunch — led by redshirt-senior guard Marcus Evans, redshirt-senior forward Issac Vann and senior guards De’Riante Jenkins, Mike’L Simms and Malik Crowfield — that went 25-8 in 2018 and returned to the NCAA Tournament.
Combine that veteran leadership with promising youth — four incoming freshmen and two returning sophomores — and the Rams have been the popular pick to capture the Atlantic 10 title for the first time since 2015.
Initial projections have the Rams around the 15-20 range for the opening AP Top 25 poll, which would place them squarely on the map of mid-major teams to watch for in 2019-20.
But, the reality is, it’s way too early to set expectations at this point. While top-25 rankings have to and are bound to be released, there is an entire season of games to be played, and anything can happen.
“Potential is a dangerous word,” Rhoades said on Jon Rothstein’s College Hoops Today Podcast. “There’s no guarantees of your success in college basketball of making the NCAA Tournament again.”
Certain situations always occur over the course of a college basketball season. Unfortunate injuries happen, surprise teams emerge, and tough out-of-conference matchups can make for a potentially rough start for ranked teams.
VCU has been ranked in the preseason poll just twice in school history; the last time was in the 2014-15 season. In both seasons, the black and gold finished below their preseason rankings.
In the 2013-14 season, the Rams began the year ranked 14th in the first poll. Following three consecutive wins to open the season — including a victory over then No. 25 Virginia — VCU rose as high as No. 10 in the nation.
But two losses later to Florida State and Georgetown in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, as well as an unimpressive narrow victory against Eastern Kentucky in overtime, and the Rams quickly found themselves on the outside looking in.
A similar scenario unfolded in the 2014-15 campaign when VCU began the season No. 15 in the AP preseason poll. The Rams started the season with three straight commanding victories, but they proceeded to lose three of their next five games, including two losses to in-state rivals Old Dominion and Virginia.
Recent history has shown VCU’s ability to recruit high-caliber players and to piece together talented rosters. The key for the Rams, as for every team, is executing when the season arrives and living up to high expectations.
The 2019-20 season presents another difficult out-of-conference schedule for the black and gold. Matchups against LSU, Purdue, Florida State and Tennessee in the Emerald Coast Classic and Wichita State highlight a slew of nationally televised games that could yield losses for the Rams.
And once the conference schedule arrives, Davidson, Dayton, Rhode Island and others stand in the way of VCU’s quest for an A-10 title.
Davidson returns five starters, including 2019 A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson. Dayton welcomes back NBA prospect Obi Toppin for his sophomore campaign.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Rams have a powerful trio in Fatts Russell, Jeff Dowtin and Cyril Langevine. The competition certainly is there for Rhoades and his squad.
Rhoades has the pieces and talent to compete with anyone, and the Rams are in a good position to return to the “Big Dance” in 2020.
But, while VCU may be the early favorite to win the A-10 Championship, it’s far too early to pencil the team in as an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament.