Rhode Island (9-5, 1-1) travels to Richmond Saturday afternoon to face the VCU Rams (12-3, 2-0) in an early Atlantic 10 Conference battle. It will be quite the litmus test for David Cox and staff, as playing at the Stuart Siegel Center, a/k/a The Stu, is never a picnic for any opponent.
That’s why I love talking with my friend, Michael Litos, VCU’s radio color guy. He knows his stuff, has deep contacts within the VCU program, and is a helluva good person. His time cornering the market on VCU knowledge goes wayyy back, even long before he ran one of the sharpest, informed blogs (CAA Hoops) you could find anywhere in the land.
With this matchup on the immediate horizon – and VCU looking to atone for Rhode Island bouncing them from the A-10 Tournament last year, we decided to lob each other five questions about our respective Rams squads.
Chris DiSano: Describe the style under Mike Rhoades in year three. Are there any areas where he’s tinkered year-over-year that you see?
Michael Litos: The real style change came last year–an aggressive trapping defense that’s tilted more towards half court grittiness than the havoc style. They are still pressing and trapping, but it’s not the full bore style that also gives up layups. That really matters.
The difference this year is that he has more guys that can play it for longer periods. The bench is not just about eating minutes so the starters can rest–they produce. That allows all of them to play harder, which means a tougher defense.
CD: We’re about halfway through the season overall. Who’s the unsung hero for this team to date?
ML: I will say Bones Hyland. Now that seems weird, a freshman point guard who plays about 18 minutes, but I believe it. He is a capable player with incredible offensive skills. That’s taken pressure off of Marcus Evans. There’s the “downside benefit” of this as well — VCUs first team all A10 point guard has struggled this season, but VCU is still 12-3 because guys like Hyland have filled the void. Hyland is shooting the three, distributing and NOT turning it over.
CD: Where is this team susceptible to taking some body shots? Do they have a particular Achilles heel that will surface?
ML: There isn’t one thing, but it’s one thing.
What does that mean?
One night they turn the ball over and throw the ball around the gym. Then they fix it, but forget to box out and get killed on the boards. Then they remedy that, but shoot 5-23 from three. I think that’s encouraging for VCU fans–they still have not fully put it all together. The seniors have not put it together but if they do, look out.
CD: How has the squad improved offensively and how would you assess the team’s growth on that side of the ball?
ML: It isn’t as much growth as it is execution and depth. They are making shots at a higher clip. Marcus Santos-Silva has been a godsend with what he is able to do on the offensive end. As mentioned before, the bench is contributing and a weapon. It’s less about growth and more about performance.
CD: Okay, let’s go with a wildcard. Share one fact, development, or hot take about this VCU team that bears mentioning from your perspective ?
ML: Marcus Santos-Silva. Every word that is written about him is the truth. He’s a game-changer in that his ability makes the VCU offense far more diverse. He can now pass out of double teams. VCU can run its usual high ball screen offense, but can go one-in/four out and isolate him. On defense, his motor will keep him in every play and his strength helps him play bigger than 6-foot-7. I guess what I’m saying is that he is the most important player on this VCU team.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44