VCU Rams1

Senior Treveon Graham is averaging a team-leading 17.4 points per game.

Senior Treveon Graham is averaging a team-leading 17.4 points per game.

RICHMOND, Va. –VCU is going to need all the help it can get to beat No. 23 Northern Iowa Saturday night. The Panthers (9-0) roll into Richmond unbeaten and likely riding a wave of confidence. The Panthers also own a 77-68 win over VCU last season in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“I think that Northern Iowa is playing better than they were last year…in fact, I know they are,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “We’re certainly going to need to play better than we did last year.”

To beat the Panthers, VCU will likely need to utilize most, if not all of the offensive resources at its disposal. The Rams’ offense has been nearly as prolific as last year, but less balanced. Saturday, and moving forward, VCU Coach Shaka Smart knows the Rams will be better off if they can find scoring punch outside of senior Treveon Graham and junior Melvin Johnson, who are averaging a combined 34.5 points per game. That duo has accounted for 46 percent of VCU’s points this season. That’s due in part to Johnson and Graham’s outstanding play, but also because the Rams haven’t yet seen a reliable third option emerge.

Last year, five Rams averaged 9.4 points per game or better. Right now, only Graham and Johnson meet that threshold. There’s a steep drop-off between Johnson, VCU’s second-leading scorer (16.9 ppg) and Jordan Burgess, the Rams’ third-best scoring option (8.5 ppg) at this point.

While the Rams’ Ken Pomeroy efficiency rating is nearly identical to last year (107.8 to 107.9), VCU has averaged 63.3 points in its last three games. In those three contests, Graham and Johnson scored 61 percent (116 of 190) of VCU’s points. Smart knows that in order to keep good defenses honest, the Rams will need multiple offensive options.

“I think on any good team you have several different scoring options and different guys who can put the ball in the basket,” he said.

Where the additional output will come from is still up in the air, but there are several candidates. Burgess has shown considerable improvement from his freshman season and has seen his shooting percentage climb (from .307 to .523). Burgess averaged 4.9 points per game in 2013-14.

In addition, Smart hopes its only a matter of time before sophomore JeQuan Lewis and touted freshman Terry Larrier turn up their games. Lewis flashed a number of offensive skills last year as a freshman, and much was expected this season, but it’s been a slow start for the Dickson, Tennessee native. Lewis, who missed one game with a concussion, is shooting .263 (10-of-38) from the field and .313 (5-of-16) from three.

Larrier, meanwhile, has intrigued with his length and athleticism, but has also struggled to find the bottom of the net. He’s averaging 5.1 points per game while shooting .333 (14-of-42) from the field. Larrier is 1-of-11 from 3-point range since he knocked down 4-of-7 Nov. 20 against Maryland-Eastern Shore.

“We have a couple of guys that have struggled percentage-wise from the field. JeQuan Lewis is a guy that we really felt like coming off of last year and coming into this year was going to be able to score at a pretty good clip. He’s really, really struggled shooting the ball. Terry Larrier is a guy we know can score but is just making that freshman transition so it might take some time,” Smart said.

Sophomore Jordan Burgess is averaging 8.1 points while shooting .523 this season.

Sophomore Jordan Burgess is averaging 8.1 points while shooting .523 this season.

You can also expect the Rams to find more touches in the low post for sophomore Mo Alie-Cox as he gets more comfortable in his starting role. Alie-Cox is averaging 5.9 points per game this season while shooting .567 (17-of-30). Senior point guard Briante Weber, while a defensive wiz, has also shown an ability to score when called upon.

The Rams wouldn’t mind some diversity on offense Saturday. Northern Iowa has allowed more than 65 points just once this season (an overtime game) and Panthers’ opponents are shooting just .390 this year, including .301 from three.

There are options for Smart, and he sounds confident the VCU offense will find some balance, but there are still come kinks to work out. As is often the case with shooters like Lewis and Larrier, mental state of mind is paramount.

“You try to get them to be aggressive…to be able to play on the offensive or defensive end, you’ve got to play with a clear head,” Smart said. “You’ve got to have a clear mind for what you’re going to do and what your goal is as a team and as an individual for what you’re going to do on the floor.”

It’s a matter of time, Smart believes, because overall, he’s been happy about the shots his players are taking, and the team has shown growth in that area since last season.

“Shot selection and making the right read have been a big emphasis for us,” he said. “I think we’re making progress with that, but you haven’t seen that reflected in the field goal percentage the last few games, so we need to get in the gym and keep getting better.”