The Virginia Commonwealth University’s men’s basketball team began the new season ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll. The Rams are also widely viewed as the team to beat in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
So expectations for this year’s Rams team are high. While that can be seen as a measure of validation for the program, it also means there is more pressure on Head Coach Mike Rhoades and his players, who are looking at a tough pre-Atlantic 10 schedule.
Schedule-wise, four noteworthy tests are coming during November and December: Louisiana St. (AP No. 22) at home on Nov. 13; Purdue (AP No. 23) at a holiday tournament in Niceville, Fla., on Nov. 29 and either Florida St. or Tennessee (both have received a lot of votes in the AP poll) in Niceville on Nov. 30; at Wichita St. on Dec. 21, you can go here to see VCU’s entire 2019/20 schedule.
The LSU matchup brings the Tigers head coach, Will Wade, back to the Siegel Center. Wade preceded Rhoades as the Rams head coach.
Rhoades, in his third season at VCU, has a veteran team led by four starters from last year’s 25-8 squad. They are: senior guard Marcus Evans, senior guard De’Riante Jenkins, junior forward Marcus Santos-Silva and senior forward Issac Vann. They are coming off of a season in which all four averaged scoring in double-figures.
Until sophomore guard/forward Vince Williams is cleared to play (concussion protocol), senior guard/forward Mike’L Simms is the fifth starter. Other key players on Rhoades’ bench are senior guard Malik Crowfield, sophomore guard KeShawn Curry and junior forward Corey Douglas.
Rhoades plans to routinely use 10 or 11 players to execute what he calls his “army” system – an all-out, all-the-time scheme that relies on keeping fresh legs on the floor. For what it‘s worth, Rhoades generally doesn’t use the word havoc to characterize his approach.
In the Nov. 5 season opener at the Siegel Center, against St. Francis, Santos-Silva led the Rams to an easy win. He scored 21 points and pulled down 18 rebounds. Jenkins added 16 points. The Rams took control of the game early and maintained a 10-to-20-point working margin the rest of the way: VCU 72, St.F 58.
Two freshmen saw action facing St. Francis – a nifty guard, Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, and a long and athletic forward, Hason Ward (he once blocked 22 shots in a high school game). Both appeared ready enough for Division I competition. In his 12 minutes of playing time Hyland looked unusually confident for a kid in his first college game.
A couple of other games in December have a bit of extra spiciness, as they are with schools that whipped the Rams last year: Old Dominion at VCU on Dec. 7 and VCU at Charleston on Dec 18. ODU’s Monarchs are the Rams’ longtime rival. VCU leads in the series 50-44. Last season VCU went 16-1 at home; Charleston’s Cougars defeated the Rams, 83 to 79, at the Siegel Center. So Rhoades’ army should be payback-minded.
Yes, this VCU team, sans one particular go-to-guy, has the potential to stay in the Top 25. To finish off last year’s regular season, when the Rams were winning 12 straight tilts, it was evident the players had completely bought into their coach’s system. If that sort of dedication to the mission can be duplicated, it bodes well for the Rams.