Winthrop faces Virginia Commonwealth Tuesday in men’s college basketball, the Eagles’ last action before taking a week off for the holidays. Pat Kelsey and company aren’t back in action until Dec. 30 when they host High Point in both teams’ Big South Conference opener.
Winthrop’s schedule thus far splits almost perfectly into two categories: non-Division I cakewalk or stronger/bigger Division I opponent. South Carolina State, Furman and Alabama State are three outliers, but the Eagles beat all three. Southern Illinois, Colorado State, Auburn and Georgia -- all squarely in the tougher of the two categories -- should have Winthrop pretty well mentally prepared for what VCU will offer Tuesday.
This is a different VCU team from what fans have become accustomed to recently
Mike Rhoades is VCU’s sixth different coach since 2002 and third in the last four years. Shaka Smart had great success in Richmond imposing his “Havoc” brand on the Rams, derived from a furious playing style predicated on turnovers and making the opposition extremely uncomfortable.
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This VCU team isn’t succeeding like Smart’s did, in fact, the Rams’ opponents are shooting nearly 48 percent from the floor. That’s 308th in the country (out of 351 teams). VCU hasn’t been getting easy lay ups out of its press, and in some cases, has been allowing them at the other end.
Rhoades’ team has the lowest defensive efficiency rating (102.9) since 2002, the first year KenPom.com has data available. From 2012 to 2017, the Rams, who have played in seven straight NCAA Tournaments, weren’t ranked lower than 41 in defensive efficiency. They’re 148th at the moment.
That hasn’t escaped Rhoades’ attention. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the Rams are spending 85 percent of their practice time on defense. Kelsey, who has been working on Winthrop’s defensive attentiveness too, will share Rhoades’ pain.
All five of the Rams’ losses are to teams in the top-54 of Ken Pomeroy’s KenPom.com rankings, which may have something to do with the lower defensive numbers.
Winthrop needs another big game from its bigger players
Xavier Cooks had probably his worst game of the season last Saturday against Alabama State, fouling out with just six points and six rebounds in the win. But his struggles were offset by strong performances from Josh Ferguson and Jermaine Ukaegbu.
Ferguson had 14 points and 13 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end of the floor. Ukaegbu encountered some foul trouble but was still his energetic, bouncy self, scoring 10 points and adding nine rebounds. The pair helped Winthrop out-rebound Alabama State by 14, its biggest rebounding win over Division I competition this season.
A repeat of that effort will be much harder to do against VCU, which doesn’t have overwhelming height, but does have athleticism and length, as well as a couple of stoutly-built low post loads.
VCU is fairly young
The Rams have eight underclassmen on the roster, some of which are contributing regularly. Sophomore De’Riante Jenkins, from Lake Marion, S.C., will be familiar to Winthrop coaches. Likewise for Tyler Maye, a freshman point guard from Farmville, N.C., who had a Winthrop offer.
VCU’s roster got an injection of experience with the addition of 6-foot-7, 245-pound Khris Lane, who played four years at Longwood before making a graduate transfer move. He’s a very skilled big man that could cause Winthrop trouble Tuesday with his ability to shoot from distance and stretch the Eagles defense.
Shoot it some more
That’s music to many basketball players’ ears, and it’s something that Kelsey has told his team several times this year. The Eagles would like to get 30 or more 3’s up, a pretty sensible idea given the number of quality shooters on the team’s roster.
They’re shooting close to 41 percent from 3-point range this season, even more impressive considering Cooks’ slow start in that department (3-of-14). The Broman brothers are off to particularly strong shooting starts, with Bjorn fresh off a six 3-pointer game against Alabama State; he and Anders combined to score 37 points in the win.
The Eagles are 36-13 under Kelsey when they connect on 10 or more 3-pointers. If Winthrop can get hot from beyond the arc at VCU, it would greatly enhance the Eagles’ chances of beating the Rams for the first time ever (0-3 headed into Tuesday).