RICHMOND, Va. – It certainly didn’t feel like a scrimmage, what with the stands full of black and gold-clad fans, the pep band in mid-season, bar-raising form, and players crashing into the benches for loose balls.
VCU Coach Shaka Smart put his 2014-15 team on display Sunday night in the annual intra-squad Black and Gold Scrimmage at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. A crowd of 4,855 poured in to have a look, and they likely came away with plenty to talk about – and that’s without even talking about the basketball. It was an event with regular-season appeal, two weeks early.
On the floor, fans were treated to an up-and-down pace and some new faces, as well as a few familiar players who were anything but old hat.
Here are a few takeaways from the game, a 73-63 win for the Gold team, led by JeQuan Lewis and Briante Weber.
1-VCU fans are ridiculous in the best way possible. Much was made of last year’s Black and Gold Scrimmage audience of nearly 3,200. That’s pretty impressive for a intra-squad scrimmage. The first two schools I worked at in college athletics would’ve changed their mascots to the Fightin’ CPAs for a REGULAR SEASON crowd of 3,200 at one of their games. But 4,800? Are you serious? That’s better than the average attendance of seven Atlantic 10 Conference schools last year and just a shade below George Mason’s average crowd from 2013-14.
Don’t think Smart is going to let his team take it for granted. The sixth-year VCU coach speaks often of the importance of appreciation in his program.
“I told our guys in the locker room, have a level of appreciation for that. Because there’s a lot of programs that, for regular season home games, don’t get a crowd like that. For us to have that on a Sunday, it just says a lot about how excited people are about VCU Basketball,” Smart said Sunday.
2-Point guard might be VCU’s most intriguing position this year. Smart started both Weber and Lewis alongside each other on the Gold team, while freshman Johnny Williams was left to run the show for the Black squad. It was a chance for all three to stand in the sun, and each impressed in some facet.
Williams is a burner and a true point guard. He finished with seven assists, a freshman-like six turnovers and three points. Although he’s not a great scorer right now, Williams showed the ability to create shots for his teammates. He found junior Melvin Johnson (26 points) and senior Treveon Graham (14 points) for open buckets early and often.
It will be interesting, given VCU’s depth at the guard spots, how many minutes he can wrangle, but one thing seems certain: Williams is going to help the Rams this year. To hear Smart tell it, Williams’ fitness will go a long way toward determining his role this season.
“He’s really good. I’m really excited about him. I think he can make as big an impact as any freshman, but as you saw tonight, he got tired. That’s what happens. He gets worn down. He gets run down, so we’ve got to keep working him into better shape and keep getting him to play though fatigue,” Smart said.
Weber primarily ran the point for the Gold team and finished with 15 points, 7 assists, 3 steals and 1 turnover. He even pulled up in rhythm for a long 3-pointer from the right wing at one point. Weber has not been known for his long-range shooting.
Lewis played off the ball had the look of a scorer. He knocked down 4-of-8 field goals, including 3-of-4 three-pointers, and finished with a team-high 19 points.
I’d bet my house you’ll see Weber and Lewis play in the same lineup a healthy amount in 2014-15, and Smart reiterated that all three point guards could play on the floor at the same time. I’m assuming he said that because he’s a mad scientist.
Regardless, it’s clear VCU is in a better position at the point than it was at this time last year.
3-Freshmen will be freshmen. Williams, Terry Larrier, Michael Gilmore, Justin Tillman and Antravious Simmons each managed to give VCU fans a reason to smile Sunday, and each reminded us of their youth at times as well.
It took Larrier, playing on the Black team with Graham and Johnson, a little while to get involved, but once he did, he managed to carve out an 8-point, 6-rebound evening. The Bronx native displayed length and athleticism and glided around the floor. But he also finished 1-of-10 from the field, including 0-of-5 from three.
“Terry had touble tonight with things are happening fast,” Smart remarked afterwards. “It’s, was he ready to shoot, was he not ready to shoot? He’s been really good in practice, so I’m not too worried about it. But it’s good to get out there with fans and officials for a little bit of a dress rehearsal.”
Gilmore (10 points, 6 rebounds), Tillman (6 points, 2 rebounds) and Simmons (7 points, 2 rebounds) each made a case for minutes.
Gilmore was the most active freshman big of the three and showed off some good range by knocking down a corner 3-pointer. Tillman showed athleticism and a willingness to dunk the basketball – hard. Simmons has nice touch around the basket and looks to be in remarkably better shape than last season.
Tillman and Gilmore also picked up six fouls a piece (there were no foul-outs), so there’s still a great deal of improvement to be made on the defensive end.
“Early in the year we foul a lot,” Smart said. “So we have to learn with our style of play to be aggressive but not to put you hands on the offensive player. So that’s an adjustment process and that’s what we’re in the middle of right now.”
4-The Rams are still figuring out the frontcourt. Mo Alie-Cox (5 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block) looked every bit the active rebounder and defender you saw last year, and Jared Guest ran the floor like a gazelle on the way to 10 points and six rebounds. Tillman, Simmons and Gilmore each provided something as well. What the Rams still have to find out is who is going to get buckets in the paint. Each is known to do damage in transition, and Gilmore and Guest are both comfortable from 15 feet or so, but it’s a little unclear how the Rams will make up for the loss of Juvonte Reddic’s nearly 12 points per game down low.
Alie-Cox is likely a safe bet as the first Ram who will be given a shot establish a low-post scoring presence. He took just one field goal attempt Sunday, although he did manage to get to the line six times (5-of-6).
“I think he’s taken a good jump,” Smart said. “He’s still got a lot of good seasoning to go, but I think he’s taken a big jump. The big thing is he’s going to play a lot more so he’s going to be a lot more involved in what we’re doing.
“It doesn’t have to be you throw him the ball and he goes and gets him a basket with his back to the basket, although he can do that sometimes. It’s just for him to be active and gets his hands on the basketball.”
MISC: The two teams were a combined 15-of-24 (.625) from three. Lewis (3-of-4), Jordan Burgess (2-of-2), Graham (3-of-3) and Johnson (5-of-10) all shot it well… Burgess quietly turned in a 9-point (3-of-3 FG), 6-rebound effort in 25 minutes of play… The Gold team, led by the slashing drives of Lewis and Weber and an active Guest, outscored the Black team in the paint 38-12… The two teams combined for 24 assists and 25 turnovers… The Rams were also a combined 35-of-48 (.729) from the free throw line… Prior to the game, Smart made a point to introduce 17-year-old Morgan Vega, who is battling cerebral palsy, to the crowd. Vega was welcomed to the team in a special press conference Thursday. Smart has invited Vega to join the Rams at team activities, as well as games.