JeQuan Lewis suffered one of the scariest college basketball injuries in recent memory on Friday night when he was pulled down to the floor and had his head whip lash against the court.
He was knocked unconscious and suffered a concussion, and while he has improved, VCU head coach Shaka Smart told ESPN.com that Lewis still isn’t ready to get back out on the court.
“Not sure yet,” Smart told ESPN.com on Monday. “He still will need to be cleared [by the team’s medical staff] in order to play. It is possible.”
No. 13 VCU will play Toledo on Tuesday during the 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon.
Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith is cleared to suit up: Finney-Smith suffered hairline fractures in the index and middle fingers on his left hand after taking a fall in Friday’s win over William & Mary, and while he sat out Saturday and Sunday’s practices with a cast protecting the injured fingers, Finney-Smith has been cleared to play.
“It’s probably going to be a month before he starts to feel a lot better,” Donovan said. The No. 7 Gators take on Miami on Monday night, but Donovan said he is “going into the game not expecting to get very much from him.”
Dez Wells’ ankle appears to be fine: Maryland’s star guard injured his ankle during Maryland’s win over Wagner on Friday, but it doesn’t appear to be that serious. He returned to the game in the second half. The injury was attributed to wear and tear by head coach Mark Turgeon.
“He’s not 100 percent because he continues to tweak it so it’s a little bit weak,” Turgeon said. “But it’s a funny thing because it like really hurt obviously when he did it, but then like two minutes later he wasn’t in any pain at all.”
Maryland plays Central Connecticut State on Monday night.
VCU’s Treveon Graham: From lightly recruited to leader of Havoc, the Atlantic 10 favorites
In early September, on Belle Isle, a small 54-acre island in Richmond, Virginia, the VCU basketball team gathered in army fatigues for a week of Navy SEAL training. The daily workouts consisted of running with 300-pound sandbags draped over their shoulders, rowing in the James River, pushups, obstacles and an array of other challenging activities, all designed to help VCU remain one of the best conditioned teams in the country.
The Navy SEAL training, also known as ‘Hell Week’, has become part of the fabric of the program since 2011, and for seniors like Treveon Graham, they’ve been a part of each one.
“Communication, leadership, team-building, they always hit us with some sort of adversity or multiple forms of adversity, and it’s good for our guys because that’s what we’re going to face in games, particularly on the road and against great teams,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said in a video from ‘Hell Week’ 2014.
Graham, Briante Weber, JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson were selected as leaders for the five different groups, made up of players, coaches and graduate assistants, all of whom took part in the training. For Graham, the first-team all-Atlantic 10 forward, his last ‘Hell Week’ took on great importance in one area in particular.
“I thought it brought out the verbal aspect of being a leader,” Graham told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “My first three years I was more a lead by example. I’m more comfortable now just talking to teammates out on the floor in practice.”
The 6-foot-6 Graham was ready to be pushed in the week-long workout sessions, spending the summer traveling from camp to camp. There was the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in June. Then the LeBron James Skills Academy three weeks later, followed by the Chris Paul Elite Camp in August. Three years of playing in Havoc’s non-stop, full-court pressure defense has helped Graham take on an individual barnstorming tour like that.
In four years, Graham has gone from an under-recruited VCU commit watching the Rams’ improbable journey to the 2011 Final Four to one of the top forwards in the country, the Atlantic 10 preseason player of the year and the leader of a top-15 team with lofty expectations again this season.
“Last year we fell short of our goals,” Graham said. “We were second place in the regular season. Second place in the A-10 Tournament, and then we lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I think we can leave a good mark on VCU. I think this is one of the more talented teams I’ve played with since I’ve been here.”
Coming out of St. Mary Ryken High in Leonardtown, Maryland, Graham was still south of 6-feet as a sophomore, but after a late growth spurt, along with the endorsement of area coaches brought Graham’s to Smart’s attention.
“To be honest, I gotta give a lot of credit to Mike Jones [of DeMatha] and Steve Turner [of Gonzaga] for their words about Tre to us in the recruiting process,” Smart told the Washington Examiner last February. “[They helped] us understand how good he was so that we could have a sense of urgency in recruiting him.”
In that same class recruiting class was Weber, who led the nation in steals rate in each of his first three seasons. Graham and Weber, both perfect fits in Smart’s system, have gone from Colonial Athletic Association commits to all-Atlantic 10 caliber players. And in their final season at Richmond, both could end up leaving their mark in the record books. Graham, who has been a matchup problem for opposing forwards, would need a bump in his 15.8 points per game average to reach Eric Maynor’s 1,953 career points (Graham is currently 604 behind). As for Weber, he has a shot at the Division I record for steals in a career (385) as he enters his senior year with 296 picks.
But the two anchors of this team are looking to leave their mark on the NCAA tournament. Since the Final Four run in 2011, the Rams haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, last season coughing up a ten-point lead to Stephen F. Austin, as the Lumberjacks shot 53 percent from the field against the vaunted VCU defense. In 2013 Michigan, the eventual national finalist, trounced VCU by 25 in the Round of 32.
The unanimous favorites in the Atlantic 10 will get challenged early this season with non-conference games against Villanova and Virginia, and that’s before the Rams go through the gauntlet of A-10 play, looking to fend off the likes of George Washington and Dayton. VCU, led by Graham, made it through ‘Hell Week’, now it’s on to seven months of Havoc.
Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 13 VCU.
Last Season: 26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10 (t-2nd), lost in the opening round to No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin
Key Losses: Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenberg, Terrence Shannon
Newcomers: Terry Larrier, Michael Gilmore, Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams
– G: Briante Weber, Sr.
– G: Melvin Johnson, Jr.
– F: Treveon Graham, Sr.
– F: Jordan Burgess, So.
– F: Mo-Alie Cox, So.
– Bench: JeQuan Lewis, So.; Terry Larrier, Fr.; Jarred Guest, Sr.; Antravious Simmons, Fr.; Justin Tillman, Fr.; Jonathan Williams, Fr.; Michael Gilmore, Fr.
They’ll be good because … : Shaka Smart will once again have himself a roster perfectly suited to VCU’s ‘Havoc’ style of play. Briante Weber is an absolute nightmare to try and handle the ball against, having led the country in steal percentage in each of his first three seasons in college, and he’s the guy that plays the point in VCU’s full-court press. He’s the engine that makes that defense go, and when the Rams get on a roll defensively, they can simply overwhelm opponents.
Weber will be joined on the perimeter by senior Treveon Graham, who is arguably the best player in the Atlantic 10. Graham is a known-quantity at this point in his career. He’s a physical, 6-foot-6 wing that scores a lot of points, draws a lot of fouls and just generally causes headaches for opposing power forwards that have to guard him. There are some question marks at some other spots on the floor, but with those two seniors anchoring the lineup, VCU is always going to be good.
But they might disappoint because … : There are, more or less, three real concerns for this VCU team:
The Rams don’t have all that much in the way of consistent perimeter shooting. Melvin Johnson can get hot in a hurry and hit four or five in a game, but he’s streaky. Graham is a respectable shooter, while Weber is barely a threat. Jordan Burgess shot 30.7% from the field as a freshman. This limits what VCU can do offensively, and when the Rams struggle to score, they struggle to get into their press.
Mo-Alie Cox is one of my favorite players in the country for a couple of reasons: His name is terrific, and he’s a 6-foot-5 brick wall of a big man that looks like he should be playing football, not basketball. He’s physical, he can rebound, he can score around the rim, but he’s also VCU’s best front court option and he’s all of 6-foot-5. Antravious Simmons has lost a ton of weight and VCU landed a pair of forwards that are long, lanky and athletic in Michael Gilmore and Justin Tillman, but none of them are guaranteed to be impact guys this season. The front court could be a constant question mark.
Sticking with that same theme, I’m not sure if VCU has enough depth this year. Freshman Terry Larrier, an athletic, 6-foot-8 wing that was a top 50 recruit nationally, should be an impact guy right away for Smart. JeQuan Lewis will provide some experience in the back court as well. Beyond that, there’s a lot of youth. Having quality depth is a bit overrated in college basketball, but not when you run the system VCU runs.
Outlook: Here’s a stat for you: Shaka Smart has never won a conference regular season title. Not in the CAA, and not in the Atlantic 10, and that is a point worth discussing. Ever since he led VCU to the 2011 Final Four out of the play-in game, Smart has been one of the hottest names in college coaching. He’s taken VCU from being a contender in a mid-major conference to being a perennial top 25 program and the overwhelming favorite to win one of the top nine conferences in the country.
Smart has done a terrific job building — and branding — this VCU team, but there are skeptics out there. Is VCU nothing more than ‘Havoc’? And can a team that relies on being more athletic, more aggressive and in better shape to win games really going to be able to beat elite teams, teams with players that can match up with VCU athletically who won’t be bothered by a full court press? It’s worth noting here that the team Smart had the most success with, that 2011 team, was the least ‘Havocy’ of any team he’s had in Richmond. They played the slowest pace, forced the fewest turnovers and won because they had shooters that caught fire from deep at the right time.
I say all that to say this: VCU is the best team in the Atlantic 10, which is the first time the Rams been the clear favorite since joining the conference. They should win the regular season title, and at least a game or two in the NCAA tournament. If they don’t win the league, however, than we’re going to have to have a real conversation about whether or not VCU can be elite using ‘Havoc’.
Entering Sunday the Belmont Bruins were the owners of the nation’s longest home court win streak, winning 23 straight games at the Curb Events Center. With No. 24 VCU being the first-ever ranked opponent to visit the arena, it was clear that the streak would be put to the test. And sure enough the Rams were able to use their advantage inside to pull away from Belmont, winning 81-68 with Juvonte Reddic leading four players in double figures with 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds.
Using their “havoc” defense VCU was able to force 21 Belmont turnovers, but at only a plus-8 in points off of turnovers (21-13) converting those opportunities isn’t where Shaka Smart’s team did its best work. The Rams were most effective in the paint, as they outscored Belmont 40-22 in the points in the paint category. VCU gained separation with a 22-2 second half run and the Rams were also more efficient during the game’s final 20 minutes, shooting 61.5% from the field (14-for-18 2PT) and scoring 1.19 points per possession.
The Rams scored 22 of their 40 paint points and three players scored at least nine points during the game’s final 20 minutes. Melvin Johnson and Treveon Graham, who’s come off the bench in each of the last two games (health reasons), scored 16 points apiece and freshman JeQuan Lewis added 12. Lewis’ output may be the biggest development going forward, especially when considering the offensive production the Rams tend to receive from Reddic, Johnson, Graham and guard Briante Weber.
Lewis entered Sunday averaging 3.9 points per game, going scoreless in two contests and reaching double figures just once (in a win over Winthrop). Against Belmont the freshman shot 4-for-7 from the field while also dishing out three assists, scoring nine of those points in the second half. If Lewis can build on his outing Sunday, that gives VCU a needed scoring option off the bench.
Would it be realistic to expect double figure outings from Lewis on a consistent basis? Not yet, and VCU doesn’t have to with the scoring options they already have. But the Rams do need something from those other reserves as they approach Atlantic 10 play, and if Lewis can step up VCU will be better for it.