VCU could ill afford a loss Saturday against George Mason. In the end the Rams got that, and potentially a lot worse.
Coming into the game, the team atop the A-10 standings had quietly put together a good 2020-21 campaign, but still found its resume hovering near the NCAA Tournament’s bubble. That made the date with the 9-8 (5-6) Patriots a classic little reward, big risk proposition for a bubble team deep into the season.
Trailing by three late, VCU was flirting with adding a damaging loss to its record, but then may have lost much more. With just over two minutes left, star guard Bones Hyland went down with an injury as the Rams tried to claw back a game they had led by 10 at halftime. At the time, it certainly didn’t look good.
As the dust settled on a game VCU would ultimately lose in overtime, it doesn’t look much better. Rams coach Mike Rhoades called the injury a foot sprain after the game, and said that Hyland was still being evaluated. Later that night, the sophomore himself posted a picture on Instagram of his foot in what appeared to be a cast, with crutches visible in the background — and a caption that could be interpreted in a number of ways.
That was followed Sunday morning with a tweet from Hyland about the injury and a positive attitude about the road ahead.
It’s beauty in the struggle! I’m a living witness.. last time I came back from a injury I was a whole different player.. I know this time it’s gonna be even scarier !!!! Thank you Jesus for fast healing! #GodsChild— Bizzy (@BizzyBones11) February 21, 2021
It’s certainly too early (and inappropriate) to speculate on whether the foot injury has ended Hyland’s sophomore season, but what a campaign it has been. The combo guard developed into the frontrunner for A-10 Player of the Year, mixing plenty of offense (19.2 PPG, 38.1 3P%) with lockdown perimeter defense that has helped the Rams post the 10th-most efficient defensive unit in the country.
All along, it’s been peppered with big moments. There was a deep three to beat Rhode Island two weeks ago, a 23-point outing against Utah State’s stingy defense to lead the Rams to a win to open the season or a massive effort to beat Richmond (20 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists) earlier this week.
Hyland has been the tip of the spear for a VCU team having an enjoyably different campaign than a year ago. The Rams were well-hyped coming into the 2019-20 season, as a veteran group seemed poised to etch its name among the best in the Rams’ rich recent history. A 17-6 season start to the season ultimately faded into a 1-7 finish to the year, as a sagging offense was dinged by an injury to senior Marcus Evans.
That left them far out of contention for the NCAA Tournament that never was to be, and tempered expectations coming into this season as Rhoades fielded one of the country’s youngest teams. But unlike many programs relying on youth, the Rams have built themselves into yet another elite defensive unit, and were enjoying a six-game winning streak prior to the GMU game that propelled them to the top of the A-10.
In a year that had seen prospectively strong league teams Richmond and Saint Louis shine and then fade to various degrees, the Rams had quietly emerged as the conference’s most consistent outfit. And paired with non-conference victories over Utah State and Memphis, that pile of wins in a solid-if-not-spectacular A-10 had seemingly put the Rams just on the right side of the bubble.
That appears to still be the case even after the Patriots loss, as BracketMatrix still has them pegged as a 10 seed. But the margin for error has gotten very slim, and a prolonged (or permanent in 2020-21 terms) absence for Hyland will leave Rhoades scrambling for answers with tricky games against Saint Louis and Davidson still on the regular season schedule.
No Ram has created offense for himself like Hyland this year, who burst into his role as the focus of the team’s offense. There would certainly be opportunity for other players having a breakout season, like junior wing Vince Williams, and that’ll be put to the test immediately Tuesday against the Billikens’ solid defense.
Make no bones about it, the unfortunate injury Saturday in Richmond may have been a big development for not only VCU, but the NCAA Tournament picture on the whole.