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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 2 VCU Rams

You don’t want to go to war with the Rams.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 23 VCU at Rhode Island Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2018-19 Record: 25-8 (16-2 A-10), NCAA Tournament First Round
Key Returning Players: Marcus Evans (RS-Sr., G), De’Riante Jenkins (Sr., G), Isaac Vann (RS-Sr., F), Marcus Santos-Silva (Jr., F), Vince Williams (So., G/F), Mike’L Simms (Sr., G/F), Corey Douglas (RS-Jr., F)
Key Losses: Sean Mobley
Key Newcomers: Nah’Shon Hyland (Fr., G), Jimmy Clark III (Fr., G), Hason Ward (Fr., F), Jarren McAllister (Fr., G)

The VCU Rams have spent the last decade evolving from a solid mid-major team into a bonafide college basketball program. It has survived coaching changes, bringing on top-tier talent like Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant, Shaka Smart, Will Wade, and now Mike Rhoades. It used the conference realignment wave of 2012 to upgrade conferences and join the Atlantic 10. Most importantly, it has been a consistent winner and a consistent presence in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite all of their success over the past decade — the Final Four appearance, three conference tournament championships, and nine trips to the Big Dance — this might be the Rams’ best team ever.

VCU is the only team in college basketball that won its conference by multiple games AND returns its top six scorers from last year (shoutout Gary Parrish for that fun fact). But the Rams didn’t win 25 games last year by running up the score on its opponents. In keeping with tradition, they were one of the best defensive teams in the country, turning opponents over routinely and forcing low-percentage shots. Over the last 11 games of the 2018-19 regular season, VCU held each of its opponents under 60 points. That included a 71-36 win over George Mason where it held the Patriots to 24 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers.

Rhoades told Blue Ribbon that his 2018 team was the worst defensive team he’d ever coached. If 2019 showed the turnaround he could produce in just one offseason, imagine what’s in store for 2020.

Key non-conference games:

This is the schedule of a team that expects to play in the NCAA Tournament. After two warmups, the Rams get LSU at home (the Will Wade Bowl), then a few weeks later head to the Emerald Coast Classic where they play Purdue and then either Florida State or Tennessee. That kicks off a stretch of six straight tough games that ends with a trip to Koch Arena to play Wichita State.

Nov. 13 vs. LSU
Nov. 29 vs. Purdue (Emerald Coast Classic)
Dec. 15 vs. Missouri State
Dec. 18 at Charleston
Dec. 21 at Wichita State

Three things to watch:

Experience

As mentioned above, VCU returns almost every important player from last year’s team. The Rams also rank 18th in the nation in returning possession minutes, according to Bart Torvik’s calculations. That means Rhoades didn’t have to do much teaching in the preseason. He didn’t have to explain how VCU’s trademarked press and in-your-face on-ball defense worked.

He also knows what he’s going to get from most of his contributors. Marcus Evans, De’Riante Jenkins, Isaac Vann, and Marcus Santos-Silva combined for 64 percent of the team’s scoring, 49 percent of its rebounding, and 59 percent of its assists. Evans, when healthy, is the leader of the offense. Jenkins is the guy who can score at will. Vann is one of the best defenders in the Atlantic 10. Another year with the same core should lead to a more efficient offense — the Rams ranked 177th in the nation in that category, per KenPom. Rhoades told reporters at Atlantic 10 media day that he’s seen improvement there in the preseason.

“I thought [in] this preseason so far and live-action practices we’ve been shooting a lot better,” he said. “Whether or not it’ll carry over to success in games, we’ll see pretty soon. We want to shoot the open threes and make them more often than we did last year.”

Navigating the Atlantic 10

Regardless, VCU will face its share of challenges. After that grueling non-conference schedule, the Rams will compete in the best iteration of the Atlantic 10 that members of this team have seen. Davidson joins VCU as the other true Top 25-caliber team with Dayton and Rhode Island not far behind. The past two seasons have been rough for the A-10, but it appears primed to be a three- or even four-bid league. Don’t be surprised if Richmond and St. Bonaventure challenge for postseason berths as well.

Even with the conference’s unbalanced schedule, VCU will have to play Davidson, URI, and Dayton twice each in addition to trips to both Richmond and Saint Louis. If VCU can limit the damage against teams picked outside the top five and hold their own against everyone else, then their non-conference schedule should be more than enough to catapult the Rams to a single-digit seed in March.

An elite defense

That’s what the Rams do. It’s what they’ve always done. They press. They force turnovers. They make you beat yourself. They ranked third in the nation last year in effective field goal percentage defense and eighth in opponent turnover percentage. They were also the second-best team in defending the three-point line and 22nd in steal percentage.

That’s all amazing on its own. Add to it that VCU didn’t have a single player chosen to the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive team and it just underscores how much of a team game VCU’s defensive philosophy really is. Freshman Nah’Shon Hyland should be an immediate help as well — the incoming guard averaged four steals a game in high school, though that’s hardly the most impressive thing about him. Then there’s fellow freshman Hasan Ward, who Rhoades expects to provide an immediate frontcourt presence.

“He blocks shots and rebounds, but we’ll probably need him to do a lot more than that this year,” Rhoades said. “We could throw him in the fire early and he can get a lot of experience.”

X-Factor

Vince Williams

Despite averaging just 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last year, Williams has been on the receiving end of plenty of praise from his head coach. In February, Rhoades called Williams “pound-for-pound one of the team’s best players.” In the preseason, he told Blue Ribbon that he needed Williams on the floor because of his playmaking ability, his defense, and his rebounding. To that end, he ranked second in the A-10 in steal percentage and ninth in fouls drawn per 40. He doesn’t need to be an all-world player for VCU to be successful. But, assuming he’s recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, he can be that do-it-all x-factor the takes the Rams from a good team and makes them a great team.