PRESS BOX: Men’s basketball in prime position to disprove early polls

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Ryan Grube, Contributing Writer

As the Rams prepare to kick off the 2020-21 campaign, coach Mike Rhoades and company find themselves near the bottom of early preseason polls and rankings. While VCU shouldn’t be the undisputed favorite to finish atop the conference, the black and gold are in a great position to silence the doubters. 

CBS Sports basketball insider Jon Rothstein released an early power rankings list that has VCU sitting at No. 10 in the Atlantic 10, which would mark the Rams’ lowest finish since joining the conference in 2012.

Rothstein’s rankings have Saint Louis, Richmond and Dayton sitting at the top, with George Washington, LaSalle, Saint Joe’s and Fordham as the only teams below VCU. But with a combination of youth and vital offseason moves, the black and gold are a sure bet to exceed such atypical, low expectations.

Before the 2019-20 season, men’s basketball was picked to capture the A-10 conference title, receiving 19 first-place votes over the likes of Davidson and Dayton. The confident pick came just one year after VCU went 16-2 in conference play, securing the No. 1 seed by two games.

The Rams essentially lost their entire starting lineup that opened the 2019-20 campaign. Senior forward Marcus Santos-Silva, VCU’s leading scorer last season, opted in April to transfer to Texas Tech for his final season of play. 

Meanwhile, VCU graduated seniors Marcus Evans, Issac Vann, Mike’L Simms and De’Riante Jenkins, who — combined with Santos-Silva — started the team’s first 14 games of the 2019-20 season.

It’s easy to write off the Rams with such a massive haul lost in the offseason. Santos-Silva, Evans, Vann, Jenkins and Simms accounted for 67% of the team’s point production on a per-game basis last year.

However, as they’ve notoriously done in the past –– ranking in the top 100 of recruiting classes every year since 2012 –– VCU reloaded ahead of its 2020-21 schedule.

Coach Rhoades and his staff enter the season with the No. 57-ranked class in the nation. The class is headlined by 3-star point guard Ace Baldwin from St. Francis Academy in Baltimore. 

Baldwin is expected to make an immediate impact in the Rams’ backcourt, joining fellow 3-star recruits Jamir Watkins from Trenton, New Jersey, Josh Banks from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mikeal Brown-Jones from Bradenton, Florida, to form VCU’s 2020 freshman class.

The four freshmen help complete a roster already oozing with young talent. Sophomore guard Bones Hyland set the single-season program record for 3-pointers made by a freshman with 63 in 2019-20, and he became the Rams’ first all-rookie team selection since Melvin Johnson in 2013.

Baldwin should serve as crucial depth at guard behind Hyland. And with their abilities to run the floor in transition and get to the rim, Watkins, Banks and Brown-Jones will give VCU options at forward. 

VCU was also aggressive in the transfer portal. Following the departure of Santos-Silva, the Rams were left with an immense void at the forward and center positions.

Rhoades went out and secured the transfer commitments of 6-foot-8-inch forward Levi Stockard from Kansas State, along with 7-foot-1-inch Coppin State transfer Brendan Medley-Bacon.

Stockard arrives with experience –– having been a part of three NCAA Tournament teams for the Wildcats –– and will have one year of eligibility remaining with the Rams.

“We are super excited to have Levi join our VCU family,” Rhoades said in May. “He fits our needs and style of play tremendously. He will be put into a leadership role from the start, and we can’t wait to get started working with him.

Meanwhile, Medley-Bacon finished No. 31 in the nation in blocked shots per game last year with 2.1 per contest. He’s become VCU’s first 7-footer since former fan-favorite DJ Haley, who played from 2010-13.

Medley-Bacon and Stockard received waivers from the NCAA on Nov. 5, and they were declared immediately eligible for the upcoming season. Under current NCAA rules, both players needed the waiver to avoid having to sit out a year before playing for the Rams. 

  The additions provide the Rams with much-needed depth in their frontcourt and two athletic, rim-running big men that should create havoc for opposing teams.

The Rams also have sophomore forward Hason Ward, who progressed nicely throughout last season, recording 15 blocks in just 171 minutes of action.

Add Ward into the mix, along with redshirt-senior forward Corey Douglas, and the black and gold enter the 2020-21 slate with one of the deeper frontcourts in the conference.

There are a lot of questions surrounding the black and gold, as they prepare to open the 2020-21 season with such a young roster that hasn’t proven much. 

But, there is just too much talent and depth at every position to write this team off. With a lineup that presents Rhoades and his staff with unlimited options, the Rams should have no problem surpassing their projection in the early rankings.

In a year where offseasons have been overshadowed by COVID-19, keep an eye out for VCU in the A-10.

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