High expectations follow VCU men’s basketball into season opener against St. Francis (Pa.)

Redshirt-senior forward Issac Vann averaged 10.8 points last season. Photo by Jon Mirador

Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor

A year after an A-10 preseason No. 7 ranking, men’s basketball is in the national spotlight ranked No. 25 in the AP top-25 poll as they gear up for Tuesday night’s season opener against St. Francis (Pa.). 

The outside expectations mirror those in the locker room, coach Mike Rhoades said Monday afternoon. 

“That’s the expectations we have,” Rhoades said. “That’s what I have on myself, that’s the demands that I’m putting every single day on the players.”

The national ranking is the third preseason AP top-25 ranking for the Rams in program history and the first since the 2014-15 season. 

“It means we’re doing things right if we’re getting that recognition before we start,” Rhoades said. “Now it’s up to all of us to perform when the lights are on.”

The lights in the Siegel Center will shine on the 2019-20 season Tuesday night as the Rams welcome St. Francis to Richmond for only the second time. The two squads faced off in the 2011-12 season, and the Rams won 63-57. 

This season, the Red Flash enter as one of the top teams in the Northeastern Conference, picked to finish third. Last season, they finished atop the standings tied for first with Farleigh Dickinson and made their first NIT appearance since 1956. 

“They’re a very good team,” Rhoades said. “We’ve got our hands full. The way they play gives teams fits …  it’s going to challenge us, but that’s what we need.”

St. Francis is led by guard Keith Braxton, who averaged about 16 points and 10 rebounds a night last season. The redshirt-junior was named the NEC Player of the Year a year ago and Rhoades said Braxton could create some issues for the Rams. 

“If he [Braxton] comes in here and has an unreal game, then we’re putting ourselves in a tough spot,” Rhoades said. “We’ve got to make sure we do what we do, but we’ve got to make sure we really respect him and get ready to play against him.”

The Red Flash also have Isaiah Blackmon, a 3-point shooter who has a career mark of 42.5% from beyond the arc. Last season, he averaged about 12 points with a 40% clip from three. 

“The best way to take momentum into next week is build it this week,” Rhoades said. “We’ve got two really good teams this week starting with St. Francis, so it’s really important.”

With St. Francis on Tuesday and North Texas on Friday night, there is one thing Rhoades is looking for on the court — staying in the moment. 

“I don’t want any pressure,” Rhoades said. “ I want them going out and doing what they’re capable of all the time… [being] aggressive.”

The top-25 ranking and the outside noise doesn’t phase Rhoades, he wants his team to prove what some may think. 

“There’s nothing wrong with being in the position we’re in, and we’re not worried about it because it’s just what people think,” Rhoades said.

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