After a long weekend to mull over their opening round loss to the Saint Mary’s Gaels, it seems an appropriate time to evaluate the VCU Rams’ 2016-17 season.
The Rams entered the 2016-17 season with questions about who would fill the scoring void left by departing seniors Melvin Johnson (17.4 ppg) and Koery Billbury (11.2 ppg). JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox both averaged double-figures during the 2015-16 season, but Lewis represented the only returning Ram shooting above 28 percent from beyond the three-point line. The offseason was also dominated by the news of promising sophomore Michael Gilmore’s transfer to Miami. Gilmore’s transfer left the Rams with only three members of the roster over 6-7.
Despite Gilmore’s departure, the Rams were picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10 and JeQaun Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox were picked as preseason All-League performers. The Rams also had high hopes for head coach Will Wade’s first recruiting class, which included a top 100 recruit in small forward De’Riante Jenkins, and the on-court debut of redshirt freshman Samir Doughty.
VCU maneuvered its non-conference schedule as it underwent a transition from a three-point shooting team to one that emphasized interior play. Junior Justin Tillman made the leap from a player with raw athletic potential to an interior force with his length and leaping ability. The Rams were dealt a sour pill, however, when Jenkins, who had started to grow in confidence and improve his defense, broke his foot in the team’s A-10 opener against George Mason December 30.
Even without Jenkins, the Rams scrapped their way to a second place finish in the A-10 and earned an at-large NCAA selection for their seventh straight trip to the national tournament. The season can viewed as a success, as the team was able to mask its perimeter shooting for large portions of the season and was able to dominate teams inside with a front court that did not include a player taller than 6-9. The Rams made it to their fifth consecutive A-10 Tournament Championship game, had three players receive All-League recognition and had their eighth straight season of 25 wins or more. Despite not advancing out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years, the Rams performed admirably against arguably their toughest first round opponent in that span, Saint Mary’s.
The Rams now enter the offseason with a team that is much younger and more inexperienced than the team that took the court in Salt Lake City. The Rams lose three starters, Lewis, Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess, and also lose sparkplug sixth man Doug Brooks.
Lewis’ graduation leaves the Rams with a void at point guard. Jonathon Williams made strides during 2016 and featured intermittently in the Rams’ starting lineup, but his inability to knock down exterior jump shots allowed defenders to back off and clog up driving lanes in the paint. Doughty, too, faded as the year progressed after showing promise as a hybrid point guard early in the season. VCU will hope both players can make strides in the offseason to ensure the Rams can chase an eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
In addition to players already on the roster, the Rams boast a top 20 recruiting class. Incoming freshman Mayan Kiir and Lavar Batts rank in ESPN’s top 100. Kiir will add size as a 6-9 power forward, while Batts fits the VCU mold of quick guards who flourish in the open court. The Rams will also add 6-9, 4-star recruit Sean Mobley and 6-7 Marcus Santos-Silva. Junior Isaac Vann, a transfer from Maine, will be eligible after sitting out the 2016-2017 season. The 6-6 small forward averaged 16.4 points per game during his freshman campaign with Maine.
The Rams also hope they can retain the services of Wade, who is being courted by LSU and visited with the school over the weekend. If the Rams can keep Wade, and his highly touted recruiting class, VCU can reload instead of rebuild as they attempt to build the prominence of the basketball program.