Photo courtesy: VCU Athletics
VCU knew it would be challenged this past weekend, going up against 5th-ranked Duke and eventually Wisconsin, and the Rams were. Despite far from perfect play, they almost won both games, and now get set to enter a stretch of the season that has found VCU hot in recent history. Here are some thoughts and observations from the Rams' weekend in New York:
Periods of sloppy play: This isn't uncommon for many teams in November. At some points, especially in Friday's game with Duke, VCU seemed to be pushing a little bit too much, leading to some pretty wild passes and blunders. Some poor shot selection also bit Will Wade's club at times. Defensively, I thought there were a few too many easy looks near the basket for VCU's opponents, as well. The Rams often rebounded with necessary runs, which really put them in positions to win both games. They were obviously very close to nipping Wisconsin in that one point defeat, and just a few plays away from handing Duke a loss as well. This is a good sign if they can sure up some of those costly errors, and it's only November, so no doubt they can.
Free throws: Not terrible on Friday (9-13), ouch on Sunday (17-29). If you're looking to narrow it down to one single reason for Sunday's loss, look no further than the foul line.
Strength of competition: VCU was facing two upper-echelon teams from power conferences, was a few plays away from having Duke on the ropes and was six seconds away from earning a win on Sunday. Duke is a top ten team and should be at the end of the season as well. Wisconsin-- not as good as last season, but still good. Last year's results for the Blue Devils and the Badgers isn't really weighing on how I look at these games. Personnel from each squad is significantly different and both are getting used to different line-ups and newcomers. Still, very strong competition that will prove to be a good learning experience.
The Hamdy factor: Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed has the chance to be a huge factor for the Rams this year. We're four games in and I'm not prepared to solidify him as consistent just yet, but if he can be, look out. Hamdy hit some big shots in both games and has come a long way in a short time since we observed him at practice in October. He can provide a great additional post presence for Wade and the Rams. Through four contests-- 7.8 points, 4.5 rebounds/ game.
Melvin Johnson: The senior showed that he's ready to put this squad on his back. What a showing for Johnson in New York. He scored 20 points against Duke and followed that up with 21 points in Sunday's match-up. He hit some big shots, too, including a few deep threes and a go-ahead jumper with a hand in his face against the Badgers. Through four games, Johnson is averaging 19.5 points per outing, shooting 45 percent, 53 percent from beyond the arc. If he can avoid any long slumps, I think he's a potential A-10 Player of the Year candidate. He also exudes confidence and leadership. Seth Greenberg said it best on Friday: Johnson came to VCU as a jump-shooter and he's grown into a basketball player.
JeQuan Lewis: It would appear that doing something that doesn't sit well with Will Wade leads to one sitting on the bench. Right now, the only details we have are what Wade told Tim Pearrell of the RTD after the game, which was that Lewis needs to "do things our way." Lewis accounted for seven turnovers between the two contests this weekend. He only played nine minutes on Sunday, committing four turnovers.
Stats and more: VCU is getting up a lot of shots. They shot 63 times in Friday's defeat, ten more than Duke, and 61 on Sunday, compared to Wisconsin's 49. The Badgers shot 53 percent to the Rams 42.6, and VCU still only lost by one. They also forced Wiscy into 17 turnovers, a team that's known for taking care of the ball. The Ram bench outscored the starters on Sunday, 39-34, but don't look too much into that. One of VCU's starters, as mentioned above, only played nine minutes and sat out the entire second half. Another, Justin Tillman, only played seven minutes.
Looking ahead: The Rams host American on Wednesday at the Siegel Center, before Old Dominion pays a visit on Saturday. After that, we move into December, where VCU has been nearly unbeatable in recent years. Since 2011, the Rams are 24-2 in the final 31 days on the calendar. Overall, they're not that far from putting it all together.