As the season approaches, Mid-Major Madness will be taking a closer look at its preseason Power 15 teams.
9. VCU Rams
Last April Shaka Smart hopped on a private plane for Austin, Texas and didn't come back. VCU now embarks on a new era this year with their fourth different head coach over the last decade of hoops on Broad Street. The Siegel Center has been a launching pad for coaches to big time programs, but all have failed thus far. The good news for Rams fans is that replacement coaches have always fared well taking the program to new levels each time.
Will Wade is the latest coach to inherit the keys to the kingdom at VCU and he's the first that served as an assistant of the previous coach. Wade was one of Shaka Smart's assistants from 2009 to 2013 before getting the head coaching job at Chattanooga. Wade installed a VCU-like system with the Mocs that he labeled as CHAOS and even brought VCU big man Justin Tuoyo along to help bolster his roster.
Wade promises to keep HAVOC on Broad Street but with a focus more on halfcourt sets. So what does that mean? Well it sounds like defensively that the Rams will be more diversified in traditional sets which will certainly result in a change for the Rams' offense as well. Wade has a lot of returning talent that fits Smart's HAVOC style but he also has a slew of newcomers who bring a new look to the Rams roster and likely style of play.
The backcourt is full of familiar faces for VCU fans but is missing it's heart and soul with Briante Weber moving on from the collegiate ranks. If HAVOC does still indeed live in Richmond then Wade needs to find someone who can initiate the fastbreak like Weber did. Obviously the primary candidate is junior JeQuan Lewis who started the last 15 games for the Rams last year when Weber went down. Lewis became a valuable distributor for the Rams but he only accounted for one steal in the Rams final five games of the year.
If Wade does opt for more traditional halfcourt sets on both sides of the court then it likely means more work for talented sophomore Jonathan Williams. Williams showed glimpses of brilliance last year but he was untrustworthy as an offensive threat from the field and the free throw line. He does however possess the ability to be a better pass-first point guard in Wade's offense.
At the off guard spot Melvin Johnson is expected to be the Rams main perimeter threat. Johnson started last year on fire averaging 16.3 points per game in the Rams first nine contests. Johnson then became rather inconsistent during the bulk of the year and actually failed to reach double-figures in six of the Rams last nine games. Johnson might also feel some heat this year with senior addition Korey Billbury. Billbury comes to Broad Street by way of Oral Roberts where he averaged 14.4 points and 7.4 rebounds last season.
Keep an eye on Johnson and Billbury this season because that's where a bit of a quandary arises with the Rams. On paper it looks great to have another guard with Billbury's scoring prowess, but how can will it effect the rest of the roster? Wade may go with three guard sets thus eating into the playing time of talented players like Jordan Burgess or Mo Alie-Cox. If Johnson and Billbury aren't on the floor at the same then do either get frustrated with the lack of touches they are receiving? It'll be interesting to say the least and in the end it may turn out to be a good problem to have, especially with Dougie Brooks on the roster, a guy that can swing to either guard spot.
There is also a bit of a logjam at the forward positions for the Rams that will either result in credible depth or a bit of a powder keg for Wade in his first year. Jordan Burgess returns as the Rams traditional small forward and big man Mo Alie-Cox is once again expected to anchor the paint for VCU. Behind those two are former 4-star recruits Michael Gilmore and Justin Tillman who both contributed last year and are expected to get more opportunites. All the aforementioned forwards are geared towards a more uptempo HAVOC style of play, it's Wade's new additions that don't necessarily fit the mold.
Wade brought in former Minnesota commit Jonathan Nwankwo (6'10, 245 lbs) and JUCO transfer Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed (6'9, 255 lbs). Both are more traditional big men and could signal a shift in VCU's playing style on both ends of the court.
I expect VCU to have another year similar to the last two where they rack up 20 to 25 wins and are one and done in the NCAA Tournament. I also think this team certainly has a lot of upside but is also teetering on the edge of a steep decline. If Wade does indeed change styles, as I expect, and can't find touches for an extremely deep team then there could be an exodus of players this spring. Wade is not bringing in the level of recruits Shaka Smart was and is using more of a shotgun approach with over 30 offers already on the table for the Class of 2016. He has a Ferrari now and can't drive it off the cliff or HAVOC as we know will be dead.