RICHMOND, Va. – Justin Tillman provided the lasting memory of VCU’s 78-51 rout of Belmont Tuesday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center, but there was certainly more to his performance than one play.
Tillman, a 6-foot-8 freshman from Detroit, turned in his most impressive game of the young season with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including a pair of thunderous dunks. It was the second straight solid effort for Tillman, who is giving Coach Shaka Smart plenty of reasons to find him more minutes.
He came into Tuesday’s game averaging 3.9 points and 2.1 rebounds, but in his last two contests, Tillman has averaged 12.0 points, while shooting 11-of-13 from the field. His emergence, combined with the continued growth of sophomore Mo Alie-Cox, give VCU a reason to be optimistic about replacing the production of Juvonte Reddic in the post.
For Tillman, Tuesday’s effort was the culmination of a solid 10-game stretch to begin his college career. While each of VCU’s four freshmen has given the Rams’ encouraging moments, Tillman has been the most consistent. Smart believes that’s because Tillman keeps it simple.
“There is no pretense to Justin. There’s no nonsense. There’s no worrying about things that don’t matter,” Smart said. “He just plays, tries to follow the plan. If he makes a mistake, he’s hard on himself, but he doesn’t lose confidence. He just does what you want him to do. I think for that reason, in addition to his physical, gifts he’s going to be a terrific player here.”
Following Saturday’s double-overtime win over Northern Iowa, a game in which Tillman scored eight points, Smart said that the Detroit native had made the quickest adjustment from high school to college basketball of VCU’s touted recruiting class. It appears there are reasons for that. Despite his relative youth, Tillman says his approach is pretty straightforward.
“They just talk to me about going 100 percent in practice. Growing up, I learned you practice how you play,” Tillman said Tuesday.
With his electrified afro and powerful dunks, Tillman is quickly becoming a fan favorite, but the freshman’s soft-spoken nature and level-headed approach will give people a reason to believe this isn’t a flash in the pan.
FAB FOUR FRESHMEN
Tillman wasn’t the only one of VCU’s freshmen to shine Tuesday. In fact, all four rookies impressed in one way or another.
In addition to Tillman’s 16 points, the Rams received a season-high eight points and eight rebounds from forward Michael Gilmore. Meanwhile, wing Terry Larrier provided an offensive boost of the bench for the second straight game with eight points, not to mention four rebounds, in 20 minutes. Point guard Jonathan Williams didn’t get on the scoreboard, but that’s mostly because he was busy setting up his teammates. In 15 minutes of play, Williams handed our a personal-best seven assists and did not commit a turnover.
VCU built an early lead and gave Smart space to extend his rotation Tuesday night. That allowed him to hand his freshmen their most extensive minutes of the year. In all, VCU’s four freshmen accounted for 70 of the Rams’ 200 minutes. They were 13-of-22 from the field and committed just one turnover among them.
PARKED AT THE ARC
One reason VCU was able to win handily was because the Rams were able to limit Belmont to 8-of-29 (28 percent) shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
On paper, it looked like an area of potential disaster for the Rams. In the first nine games of the season, VCU opponents were shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, which ranked near the bottom nationally. In addition, Belmont entered Tuesday’s contest averaging nearly 11 threes per game, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc. Nearly 42 percent of the Bruins’ points this year had come from 3-point range, fifth-most in the country.
Those gaudy numbers did not going unnoticed in practice this week. The Rams held the Bruins to 3-of-13 shooting from long range in the first half on the way to a 34-21 lead.
“That was a Big point of emphasis,” Smart said. “Belmont’s a great 3-point shooting team. They always are every year, and this year is no different. We have not defended the 3-point line well, so it was a big point of emphasis coming into the game.”
Belmont leading scorer Craig Bradshaw, one of the team’s better shooters, did not play due to a calf injury, and Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette and Spencer Turner were unable to make up for his absence. Barnette and Turner combined to shoot 3-of-17 from beyond the arc in the face of an active VCU defense.
LEWIS RETURNING TO FORM
Sophomore JeQuan Lewis scored a season-high 13 points and knocked down 3-of-6 three-pointers Tuesday night.
Lewis had been counted on to provide offensive punch this season, but hindered by poor shooting, as well as a concussion in VCU’s season-opening win over Tennessee, he’s struggled to fill that role and entered the game averaging 5.6 points.. Lewis, who was a catalyst in Saturday’s win over No. 23 Northern Iowa Saturday – handing out six assists – converted 4-of-8 from the field and grabbed five steals against Belmont. Lewis looked much like the player he was toward the end of last season.
“He had a very, very unfortunate occurrence with the concussion, and I think it took him some time, obviously it took several days to get cleared, I’m not talking about just being cleared, I’m talking about playing with his feet under him and playing JeQuan Lewis basketball. I feel like he’s going that now,” Smart said.
QUOTE OF NOTE
Smart sized up the performance of Gilmore and alluded that the 6-8 freshman is just scratching the surface of his potential:
“He’s out there playing on ice skates right now to be honest with you. He’s such a better player than he looks, but…it’s just a credit to how talented this kid is that he’s out there flopping around and doing the things he does and he still has eight points and eight rebounds. He’s so talented. He might be the most talented of all those guys, but he’s really nervous right now. He needs to settle down, but again, he’s had a really good attitude of late. I think he’s a guy that did not play a lot over our first several games. He didn’t sulk. He didn’t think about himself. He kept working hard. He got extra lifts in with [Strength Coach Daniel] Roose. He got extra workouts in with the coaches. I’m glad to see him get some time out there tonight. Once he settles down, he’s going to be really good.”
BONUS EDIT: All the dunks from Tuesday’s game.