By Ryan Grube
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — All streaks must come to an end. That’s the motto the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team has lived with after last season’s first failed tournament bid in seven years, though it has not blocked their tournament hopes for 2019.
Mike Rhoades, the third head coach at VCU in a four-year span, endured growing pains while rebuilding in 2017-18.
Following last season’s eighth place finish in the Atlantic 10, the Rams (then 18-15, 9-9 in conference) missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Darius Theus, current director of player development and former VCU point guard from 2009-2013, said the missed postseason opportunity was disappointing, especially given the program’s success in recent years.
“The first time missing the tournament, I was really hurt by it,” Theus said. “So, I think the team has been working hard to improve their legacy and improve coach Rhoades’ legacy to make sure that never happens again.”
The A-10 committee picked the Rams to finish seventh in a conference preseason poll, but Rhoades’ bunch has exceeded all expectations.
Rhoades brought nine new faces to the squad. Among them are transfers Marcus Evans, Corey Douglas and Michael Gilmore, as well as the freshmen class of Vince Williams, P.J. Byrd and KeShawn Curry.
A deeper bench has really boosted the team’s defensive efficiency. By cycling in more bodies, Rhoades can apply more pressure on the ball.
A crucial road victory Wednesday over George Washington improved the Rams to 16-6 for the season, and the team is now second in the conference, 7-2.
Chris Kowalczyk, the assistant athletic director for athletics communication at VCU, said the turnaround is a testament to the team’s much-improved defense.
“It’s pretty remarkable where we are this year compared to last year,” Kowalczyk said. “We were rated somewhere around 150th defensively last year, and now we’re rated eighth. The team has really, really grinded defensively.”
The resurgence of the Rams’ notorious “Havoc” defense style has shot them back into discussion as a current favorite to secure one of the 36 at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament in March.
Assistant Coach J.D. Byers said that although the thought is in the back of their minds, the players can’t get too far ahead and they can’t focus on March just yet.
“I think it’s something in our peripheral vision,” Byers said. “But, at this point, we’re really trying to focus on one game at a time, and control what we can control.”
But with March only weeks away, ESPN’s “Big Dance” projections have already started. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi kept the Rams as an 11 seed for most of January, though now he has them as a No. 12 seed. They remain one of his last four teams in the field of 68.
Given the school’s Final Four run in 2011 in similar circumstances, but as a No. 11 seed, the scenario holds promise around the VCU campus. Theus said the chance would mean a lot to this year’s team, but cautioned people not to get “too excited about that legacy.”
With nine games still left in the conference season, players and coaches are tackling one challenger at a time, but hope to still be playing in March.
“I think just making the tournament is a blessing,” Theus said. “As long as we’re playing in March, that’s the goal.”
The Rams’ next home game will be against local rival University of Richmond, on Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.