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A new-look VCU team will have plenty to prove in 2018-19

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De’Riante Jenkins will be one of the top players in the Atlantic 10, but a lot needs to happen for the Rams to finish near the top of the league.

NCAA Basketball: VCU at Seton Hall Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

With Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure both headed for rebuilding years, the Atlantic 10 is about as wide open as any conference heading into 2018-19. Saint Louis and Davidson will probably be picked near the top of the league, but after that, the picture starts to get murky.

VCU, an annual mainstay near the top of the standings before posting an 18-15 record last year, is one of a handful of teams with a high upside but plenty of question marks heading into the season.

It’s important to remember that despite a mediocre record by the Rams’ standards, they still finished in fifth in a bad Atlantic 10. So it’s not like the whole season was a disaster, even with a dreadful 3-6 finish to the regular season.

But the path to even equaling that 18-15 mark, let along improving on it, will not be easy. Here’s what we still need to figure out heading into 2018-19:

How do you replace Justin Tillman?

Short answer: You don’t. But you do need to make up for his lost production (18.0 points, 9.9 rebounds per game, and a top-two conference ranking in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages). With Khris Lane gone as well, the Rams will have a new look up front. Marcus Santos-Silva was pretty good in limited time last year, but he will need to take a major step forward now that he’s no longer playing behind Tillman. Michael Gilmore, who transferred from and then back to VCU will be another important piece. He’s an experienced big man who was a strong asset to Florida Gulf Coast, the best team in the ASUN last year.

Is De’Riante Jenkins an all-conference player?

Probably. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but he will have to be if VCU is going to have any shot at a top-three finish in the conference. Jenkins saw a lot more time in his sophomore year and he made the most of it, averaging just under 13 points per game and shooting 41 percent from three. Now, he’s the only returning double-digit scorer (though Isaac Vann averaged 9.8 per game) and the only returning consistent three-point threat. Fortunately for VCU, Jenkins says he has been working with Rams legend Darius Theus over the summer to try and take that next step.

Junior guards De’Riante Jenkins and Malik Crowfield were freshmen during Theus’ previous stint on VCU’s staff. Jenkins said he’s been in the gym with Theus every day since he’s been back.

“Working on small things, from footwork to finishes, everything,” Jenkins said.

Who’s the point guard?

It’s not Jonathan Williams, whose 5.7 assists per game last year put him in the top 30 nationally. It’s also not Marcus Evans, even though that was the plan. The transfer from Rice averaged over 20 points per game in two collegiate seasons and sat out last year per NCAA rules. He suffered an achilles injury in the summer and VCU is hopeful that he will be able to play at some point this year, but it’s anything but guaranteed. Jenkins got his share of time at the point last year, as did Malik Crowfield, but both spent the bulk of their minutes at the 2. Keep an eye on freshman PJ Byrd, a three-star recruit from Texas who chose the Rams over Boise State. Byrd is a good passer who can play in Mike Rhoades’ uptempo offense, according to VCU’s athletics site.