What Shaka Smart did at VCU changed the idea of what the program should be. He wasn’t just one more coach who came in, won big as the program did for years as one of the CAA’s signature programs, then moved on to greener pastures. Yes, he won big, highlighted by their run to the Final Four in 2011, but they were consistent winners. He brought them into the Atlantic 10 and made them winners there, including a conference title last season, before leaving for Texas.
Now Will Wade inherits a stronger tradition, but higher expectations. And while the Rams had a relatively non-descript non-conference showing, they now look like a team that grew from it. About halfway through Atlantic 10 play, the Rams have yet to lose, the latest being Friday night’s 79-69 win at Davidson.
Wade was no small part of what Smart achieved, so he’s no stranger to the program, no stranger to HAVOC, and no stranger to winning. Before coming to VCU, he was a key part of Tommy Amaker’s staff at Harvard as the Crimson turned into a perennial Ivy League contender and champion. In between his time as an assistant to Smart and now, he won at Chattanooga.
Which brings us to the current iteration of VCU.
In a season that is wide open nationally, as discussed in our conversation with Ted Sarandis on Friday, VCU was relatively quiet in non-conference play. They didn’t get big wins or win a tournament; they went 0-2 in the 2K Classic in New York, then whiffed on their toughest games later (Florida State, at Georgia Tech and Cincinnati). Their best win came at Middle Tennessee, which isn’t going to get the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s attention. At one point, they were 5-5 after a three-game losing streak.
But now they’re getting their best wins in a winning streak that has reached 11 games. Since Atlantic 10 play began, they have scored four top 100 wins, the latest being Davidson, whose RPI is in the top 40 like VCU. In Friday’s win, their top talent all came up big, as JeQuan Lewis scored 22 points, Melvin Johnson added 21, and Mo-Alie Cox had a big double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Lewis’ numbers are up appreciably in conference play, and he’s the kind of player who can be a barometer for this team.
It’s all coming together, and at a good time. That isn’t just true because it’s the conference season; the Rams also have a challenging ten games left. They still have to play George Washington twice, have Rhode Island at home, have to go to Dayton to end the regular season, and have return visits from both Richmond and Davidson, both of who they already beat on the road.
This time around, VCU isn’t a big part of the national conversation. They are, however, a very good team that is getting better, and the bottom line is starting to look a lot like it usually does in downtown Richmond.
Ivy League play is now in full swing, and already a big matchup is set for Saturday night after Friday night’s results. Princeton improved to 3-0 with an 83-59 blowout of host Brown, while Yale, who Princeton visits on Saturday, also improved to 3-0 by blasting Penn 81-58. Yale was also the only home team to win in the Ivy League on Friday night, as Cornell won 77-65 at Harvard and Columbia went to Dartmouth and beat the Big Green 77-60.
Oakland is making the race in the Horizon League a little more interesting after Kahlil Felder scored 33 points, at times in spectacular fashion, to lead the Golden Grizzlies to an 89-63 romp over Wright State. That brings the Grizzlies within a game of Wright State for second place behind Valparaiso.
Florida is likely to be short-handed when they host West Virginia on Saturday, as starting forward Justin Leon has not been cleared to play. The junior suffered a concussion early in Tuesday night’s loss at Vanderbilt, and head coach Mike White described his status as a “probable absence” on Friday.
Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA held a hearing last week with Southern Mississippi officials, as well as former head coach Donnie Tyndall and former assistant coach Adam Howard. The hearing, held on January 21, lasted about 12 hours and focused on seven alleged Level 1 violations, the most serious ones according to the NCAA. Among the charges are fraudulent academic credit, impermissible financial aid and obstructing the investigation. Southern Miss self-imposed postseason bans for last season and the current one. Tyndall left in 2014 to become the head coach at Tennessee, but was fired after one season because of the investigation at Southern Miss.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams let it be known that he is no fan of a new ESPN feature in its college basketball coverage this season. The Tar Heel mentor held his usual news conference on Friday and at one point criticized ESPN for focusing on what he called “the frickin’ green room,” which refers to the area where top prospects wait on NBA Draft night to hear their name called. Williams continued, calling it “the most ridiculous thing we’re having to put up with in college basketball” and said his critique should be put “in capital letters and send it to ESPN.” While one can understand the fixation given that college players hope to play pro ball, college basketball stands on its own as a fine product, especially in a season like this that has seen so much evenness across the country.
Highlighting the busy day is a slate of non-conference games in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. For more on that, as well as other notes around the country, make sure you listen early to our conversation with Ted Sarandis.
- In the big matchups in that series, Florida hosts West Virginia, Texas hosts Vanderbilt, Iowa State visits Texas A&M, LSU hosts Oklahoma in a game boasting two of the nation’s best players in Ben Simmons and Buddy Hield, Baylor hosts Georgia, and the biggest one of all, Kentucky visiting Kansas.
- The ACC is highlighted by Syracuse hosting Georgia Tech, Clemson going to Florida State, and a great matchup with Louisville hosting Virginia.
- Florida Gulf Coast visits North Florida in a big Atlantic Sun game.
- Providence heads to Georgetown in a key Big East game.
- A Conference USA showdown is on tap as UAB visits Marshall, with both teams at 7-1 in the conference.
- In Mountain West action, Boise State looks to bounce back from a loss as they host New Mexico, while San Diego State visits the UNLV team that beat Boise State earlier in the week.
- In Pac-12 play, a matchup of teams who recently were tied atop the conference takes place as USC hosts Washington, while Stanford visits Utah and Arizona hosts Oregon State.
- The Southland Conference has a battle of 7-0 teams with Stephen F. Austin visiting Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, while Sam Houston State and Houston Baptist meet in another matchup of contending teams.
- In the SWAC, two teams chasing Texas Southern match up as Alcorn State visits Southern.