- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Marcus Evans, Issac Vann, De’Riante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Vince Williams, Mike’l Simms, Corey Douglas, Malik Crowfield
Key Losses: Sean Mobley, Michael Gilmore
Key Newcomers: Nah’Shon Hyland, Jimmy “Tre” Clark III, Jarren McAllister, Hason Ward
Outlook: The Rams were picked 7th in the A-10 preseason poll heading into the 2018-19 season, coming off a lackluster 2017-18 campaign. Mike Rhoades led a striking turnaround, capturing the A-10 outright by two full games and snagging an 8-seed at-large bid to the Dance. With nearly every player of consequence returning this season and one of the best recruiting classes in school history joining the fold, VCU figures to be the favorite in an improved A-10 and a staple in the top-25 conversation all year long.
Defense is the calling card of the VCU Rams and has been since the days of Anthony Grant back in 2007. Rhoades’ 2017-18 Rams notched the worst program adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjDE) rating in the KenPom era, which dates back to 1999-00. What a difference a year makes. Last season, Rhoades flipped the script on his team’s defensive woes and turned in the school’s second highest AdjDE in the KenPom era, ranking 7th in the country and far outpacing conference rivals. The gap between VCU’s AdjDE and the 2nd place St. Bonaventure Bonnies was about the same as the Bonnies’ gap to 6th place La Salle:
The Rams embraced the “HAVOC” style of play, forcing turnovers at the 8th highest rate in the country while allowing the 3rd lowest eFG%. Opponents were overwhelmed by the VCU pressure, which often consisted of picking up full-court and trapping helpless ball handlers. The Rams pressed on roughly 30% of their possessions last season, the 8th most in the country, and allowed just .704 PPP, the 30th best mark per Synergy. Below is a taste of VCU’s frantic, in-your-face, style of play:
Despite the team’s overall dominance on the defensive end, VCU was not represented on the A-10 All-Defensive Team at the conclusion of last season. Awards are subjective, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better defensive perimeter threesome in the country than Marcus Evans, De’Riante Jenkins, and Issac Vann. Each of these three players wreaked “havoc” on opposing ball handlers while big man Marcus Santos-Silva anchored the paint. With essentially the same personnel at Rhoades’ disposal in 2019-20, expect the Rams to be a nationally elite defense once again.
VCU’s dominance on the defensive end didn’t always carry over to the offensive, and this will once again be the key improvement point heading into this season. In conference play, the Rams were actually quite efficient, ranking 3rd in AdjOE per KenPom’s metrics but just 177th nationally. A tendency to stand when playmakers like Evans held the rock led to stagnated possessions at times, and woeful outside shooting did nothing to help the cause. The Rams were most successful scoring on the run, where they could use their superior speed and athleticism to beat opponents down the floor. I’ll talk about the outside shooting performance for individuals below, but it’s worth noting that VCU’s team percentage crashed from 35.2% (155th nationally) in 2017-18 to 30.5% (332nd) with high roster continuity, save Evans. Lady Luck would point to a correction to the mean this season.
Evans is the catalyst to the VCU offense and the Rams NEED him on the floor to score consistently. Despite his atrocious 27.3% three-point percentage last season (39% two seasons prior with Rice), VCU scored 1.01 PPP when Evans was on the floor versus just 0.91 PPP when the talented point guard sat (per Hoop Lens). Evans’ ability to create his own shot off the bounce especially comes in handy to an offense that tends to stagnate – he’s one of those “get out of jail free cards” in college hoops, a guy that can make something out of nothing late in the shot clock. Defensively, as alluded to earlier, Evans is as tough on the ball as any in the country – last season he ranked 20th nationally (3rd in the A-10) in steal rate. Barring any major injury (he has had Achilles issues in the past), Evans should earn a repeat bid to the All-A-10 First Team.
Fellow All-Conference performer and lock-down defender, De’Riante Jenkins, also returns to fill a much-needed shooting role on the perimeter. Like Evans, Jenkins saw his 3P% drop from 41.8% to 34.1% last season despite an uptick in conference play. Defensively, Jenkins’ 6’5” frame makes him a matchup nightmare for opposing 2-guards.
VCU’s backcourt / wing depth is substantial this season behind Evans and Jenkins and the aforementioned Vann, a so-so offensive player and highly switchable defender. Mike’l Simms, a *potentially* good outside shooting wing, and Malik Crowfield, a known commodity as a deadly outside shooter, give the Rams some nice spacing off the pine. Both will be pushed for playing time this season with the influx of a highly touted recruiting class. Point guard Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland is the crown jewel of Rhoades’ 2019 class, a highly skilled 4-star top-100 ball-handler with elite vision and quickness. Hyland is still a bit skinny for the physical style of play VCU prefers, but he is a no-doubt future star in the A-10. Spending the year as Evans’ backup at the PG spot will serve him well.
Jimmy “Tre” Clark III and Jarren McAllister round out VCU’s backcourt newcomers. Clark is a big, athletic guard that looks physically ready for Division I basketball. He emulates what VCU wants in a guard, a guy who can hound his man for 40 feet and score on the run. McAllister, a former Virginia Tech commit and ESPN 4-star prospect, is a long, skinny guard with eye-popping athleticism. His shot is still a work in progress, but he’s liable to jump over any defender in his way. Both Clark and McAllister could see consistent minutes in year one and supplant Crawford and/or Simms for playing time.
Santos-Silva is the big man up front, a bruising 6’7” 250 lb. monster with an addiction to eating glass. The center ranked 6th in the country last season in offensive rebounding rate, putting up a staggering 26 point / 22 rebound performance against Rhode Island late in the year, and finished 8th in the A-10 in block rate on the other end. He’s efficient on the low block, but not a primary option in VCU’s offense – he knows his role and plays it well. A combination of Corey Douglas, a partial starter last season and asset in the field of rebounding and rim protection, Vince Williams, an athletic defensive wing with a developing shot, and Hason Ward, a long, athletic freshman with gobs of potential, will fill the 4-man role alongside Santos-Silva.
Bottom Line: VCU’s defense gives it a high floor this season. With majority of the roster returning from last year and a promising recruiting class, Mike Rhoades should find himself in the NCAA Tournament picture once again and a favorite to capture the A-10 crown. If the Rams’ shooting returns – say to 2017-18 levels – a top five seed in the Big Dance is well within the realm of possibilities.