RICHMOND, Va. – There were eight NBA scouts at the Verizon Wireless Arena Tuesday night. Although their stated purpose was likely to see UAB forward Cameron Moore, by halftime Juvonte Reddic and the Rams had people wondering, “Who was the pro prospect again?”
Reddic, VCU’s 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, torched Moore and the Blazers in the first half and played ringleader of the Rams’ stable of outstanding youngsters in VCU’s 68-49 rout before more than 7,600.
It was underclassmen leading the way from the outset. Reddic finished with 16 points, while freshman Treveon Graham pumped in a game-high 18 and classmate Briante Weber added a multifaceted performance for the Rams, winners of five straight. Yeah, these kids are alright.
They were supposed to be too young to be this good. The Rams were one of the most inexperienced teams in the country prior to the season, considering the 10 freshmen and sophomores on the roster. Don’t tell them that. For the last three weeks, Weber, Reddic, sophomore Rob Brandenberg and Graham, not to mention an occasional bright spot from guys like sophomore D.J. Haley and or rookie Teddy Okereafor, has helped spur the white-hot Rams (8-3).
“They’re very good,” said senior Bradford Burgess said of VCU’s underclassmen. “The coaching staff, they know how to recruit. Those guys, their learning curve had to be increased because of what we lost and they’ve handled it greatly. Tre, Juvonte, Briante, it’s incredible how these guys have played at an early stage and they haven’t hit their ceiling yet. ”
The upperclassman trio of Burgess and juniors Troy Daniels and Darius Theus may form the backbone of VCU’s success, but of late, the Rams’ youth has been a source excitement for fans, coaches and players alike.
Take Tuesday’s win, for example. Reddic played like a man possessed as he hit his first seven shots and staked VCU to a 36-26 halftime lead. He had 14 points and 5 rebounds at the break, while limiting Moore, the Conference USA Preseason Player of the year, to 2 points and 4 rebounds on 1-of-5 shooting.
“He was motivated,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “Ju is a very, very talented kid. He’s had his bright spots and he’s had some setbacks at times. Coming into the game we talked about Cameron Moore as an NBA prospect because he is…and Juvonte does well with that, when he’s going up against somebody that is regarded as a high-level player. He was terrific.”
Graham, who missed 17 of his first 19 field goal attempts this season, dropped 10 points on the Blazers in just 11 first-half minutes off the bench. Early in the second half, Weber and Brandenberg teamed with Theus to lead the Rams’ unrelenting full-court press. UAB did not record a field goal the first 8:00 of the second half, and by that time, VCU was up 50-31 and well on its way to its sixth win in seven games.
Save Burgess, VCU graduated the protagonists of its Final Four team and replaced them with six freshmen. The early returns were every bit as inconsistent as some might expect. The Rams opened 1-2, including an unconvincing win over a nondescript Saint Francis (Pa.) squad. However, the team has found its footing, thanks in large part to the emergence of several underclassmen.
Graham, held scoreless in three of his first eight collegiate games, is averaging 13.3 points in his last three. A rugged, 6-foot-5 swingman, Graham has shown increasing comfort within the VCU offense. He finished in traffic, got to the foul line and stepped out to hit a pair of 3-pointers Tuesday.
Last season, Reddic averaged 3.5 points and 11.2 minutes and seemed content to fire 15-foot jumpers (although he’s pretty good at that too). But VCU’s absence of depth in the low post this year has given Reddic, who is clearly stronger this season than last, the opportunity to blossom as an athletic player who does not shy away from contact. He finished with 16 points and 6 rebounds Tuesday and narrowly missed a double-double in the Rams’ previous game, a runaway victory over UNCW.
“Last year as a freshman I was still learning,” Reddic said. “But since we lost four seniors this year I have a bigger role to play and so I have to play a lot more aggressive because I’m kind of one of the key players on the team.”
Weber, meanwhile, has been the prototype guard for Coach Shaka Smart’s brand of basketball: fast as a rocket and hell bent on creating turnovers. He’s not a scorer, but he’s growing into his role as the Rams’ third guard, as well as Theus’ backup at the point. When he’s not on offense, he’s spearheading VCU’s crash kings on defense.
“Defensively, He’s the definition of wreaking havoc,” Smart said. “Just overall as a member of our program, he is an unbelievable energy-giver.”
There are sure to be some head-scratching moments ahead, but the Rams’ Final Four rebuild has essentially come to a close. This team is ready to contend right now, and its underclassmen are the vanguard of that movement. You always knew what to expect out of Bradford Burgess. He’s as steady as they come. But on Tuesday, Burgess scored 8 points – and the Rams won by 19.
The future looks bright because while the Rams are young, they’re also very, very good.