RICHMOND, VA — The Siegel Center crowd isn’t one to sit on its hands, and it certainly didn’t do that during Friday night’s game against Davidson.
The VCU faithful’s first eruption came before the game even started — before the national anthem — when the university honored senior Marcus Evans for scoring his 2,000th career point 10 days prior in a win over Richmond.
Evans, who has played two years for the Rams and followed head coach Mike Rhoades from Rice, accepted a commemorative basketball before joining his teammates as they rose for the Star-Spangled Banner.
Evans has played 30 games in front of that crowd and has given them more than any fanbase could reasonably ask for. Over the last two years, the Rams have won 29 out of 31 home games and are well on their way to a second straight NCAA Tournament berth.
A lot of that is attributed to Evans, sure, but as a team, VCU is one of the most experienced units in the country. It has one of those groups that, no matter what year they say they’ll graduate, feels like has been together for a decade.
De’Riante Jenkins is the long and versatile pest on the wing who has been such a cog in VCU’s defense for four years now, helping the Rams bring back the Havoc style that has defined the program for a decade. Marcus Santos-Silva is the 6’7, 250-pound machine who looks like he can bulldoze the opposition while taking his share of rebounds and blocks along the way. Then there’s Issac Vann, the transfer from Maine. His overall numbers are a little bit down this year, but he’s shooting better from three than he has since he was a Black Bear and just recently passed the 1,000-point career plateau.
On their own, before you even get to electric freshman Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland or sophomore KeShawn Curry, they should make VCU a favorite in the Atlantic 10.
Naturally, VCU sits at 7-3 in conference and is fighting for a double-bye in the conference tournament.
It’s a familiar place for a VCU team that is used to competing at the top of its league. This year, however, a strong A-10 finish doesn’t feel like it would be enough. VCU has the experience and personnel to do so much more, even if this year hasn’t been nearly as easy as one might have expected.
While the Rams led wire-to-wire on Friday night, withstanding a late surge from all-league player Kellan Grady to win 73-62, the team watched the polar opposite play out just a week ago.
VCU not only lost to Rhode Island in Kingston last Friday, it was embarrassed. With a national TV audience watching, VCU fell behind immediately and let Rhody build a 29-point lead early in the second half. VCU did manage to claw back and make the final score respectable (87-75), but anyone who watched the game knows that VCU was never in it.
That’s not what junior- and senior-laden NCAA Tournament teams do. Especially not ones that feel like they can do damage in March. They might lose on the road. They might have some slip-ups along the way. But they don’t fold in the first half, seemingly losing the will to compete while Rhody dances all over them.
“They were mad from their last performance, so I said ‘let’s do something about it,’” head coach Mike Rhoades said after the Davidson win. “I told the guys ‘who we really are is how we respond to it.’ We had a really good week of practice, we competed, we got after it, I wasn’t nice with them, and I thought our guys did a good job responding.”
Rhode Island had a lot to do with that, for sure. That’s a damn-good team, and both Fatts Russell and Jeff Dowtin are playing their best basketball of their season (maybe even careers).
Evans knows that’s not an excuse.
“I know every guy in the locker room is like ‘that can’t ever happen again,’” Evans said. “More than anything we wanted to come out here and give effort. We knew the other plays would take care of themselves but for 40 minutes we wanted to try to give effort.”
After that win over Davidson, one week to the day after the URI loss, Evans, Jenkins, and Vann provided reporters with plenty of coach-speak. Lots of “one game at a time,” and “we’re not thinking about the tournament right now” talk.
It’s what they’re supposed to say, so…whatever. They insist they don’t look at bracket projections, but it’s hard not to. They fell behind immediately last year in their First Round game against UCF, ending the season with a pair of losses that took plenty of shine off of a six-week run that saw them win 12 games in a row to close out the regular season.
How they executed against the Wildcats on Friday is much more emblematic of a team looking for another shot at March glory.
“I don’t think we’ve still scratched the surface,” Evans said about his team’s defensive play. “Last year we were top five nationally in defensive efficiency. This year we’re still top 25, I believe, but I think that says a lot about how we’re guarding the ball and how aggressive we’re being.”
VCU spent the week working on just that, and came out on fire defensively against another experienced team, making it look foolish. VCU held Davidson to just two points in the first nine minutes. Its swarming defense forced turnovers in the backcourt, bad passes, rushed shots, and sometimes no shots at all as the Wildcats battled for a good look until after the shot clock expired.
As VCU forced Davidson to turn it over 21 times overall and 16 times in the first half, Jenkins tied his season-high in steals with five.
“He’s more confident in his defense than he’s ever been,” Rhoades said. “He’s got good instincts and long arms, and now when you’re disciplined and you’re active, good things are happening.”
Rhoades wasn’t thrilled that the Rams let Davidson back into the game, though Grady (27 points, 20 in the second half) suddenly becoming unstoppable and rookie Hyunjung Lee (20 points, 14 in the second half) are huge reasons why. So expect finishing opponents off to be a bigger focus moving forward.
“If you have a good team and you’re up 20, make it 27,” Rhoades said. “Make it 32. Make it 42. That’s a mentality. Some guys have it. Some guys get loose when they have a lead.”
Coaches are always going to find areas to improve, so even in a game where VCU led from start to finish, Rhoades needs something for his team to work on before George Mason comes into the Siegel Center on Wednesday.
This seems to be a needed next step. For all the success that these upperclassmen have had, they’ve still never won an NCAA Tournament game. In fact from a national perspective, VCU has been at that good-not-great level virtually every year since its Final Four run in 2011.
Now, they have every piece they need to make NCAA Tournament noise in 2020. They just need more performances like they gave on Friday and to never, ever replicate that Rhody game.