In reference to his team’s youth, VCU coach Mike Rhoades has spoken multiple times this season about how, when a player steps on the court, no one asks, “How old are you?” or “What grade are you in?”
The question, he said — the one that matters — is “Can you play or not?”
On Wednesday night at the Siegel Center, the Rams — one of the youngest teams in the country — took on crosstown rival Richmond, one of the oldest teams in the country.
And they, again, answered the “Can you play?” question assuredly.
In a tight game, VCU withstood multiple Spiders challenges. The Rams held normally efficient Richmond to their lowest shooting percentage of the season by far and dominated the interior with advantages of plus-16 on the boards and plus-14 on points in the paint.
With that, they secured a sixth straight victory, 68-56, to add to their lead in the Atlantic 10 regular-season title race.
And perhaps they can officially leave the “young” label in the past.
“The inexperience or immaturity comes in just learning the game and understanding the situations,” Rhoades said. “[Richmond is] an older group, they’ve been through that. We’re going through that now, and sometimes on the fly. But we’re getting better at it.”
One of the most notable areas VCU has seemed to get better at is finding ways to finish games. They failed to in their only two losses of league play, at Rhode Island and at St. Bonaventure.
Wednesday, Richmond grabbed the lead early in the second half and again midway through the half. But VCU responded quickly both times.
It was a 1-point Rams lead with 7:51 to play, before they went on a 6-0 run, including a pair of baskets from Jamir Watkins. Richmond never got closer than 5 the rest of the way.
“The last four minutes of the game [Wednesday] was pretty good,” Rhoades said. “We had two bad turnovers. We gave up one open 3, that they missed. But, man, earlier in the year it was a lot more.
“And that means we’re carrying over late-game situations in practice.”
Describing his team’s defense Wednesday, Rhoades remarked that the “Havoc” occurred more at the rim against Richmond.
The Spiders, who have been sure handed overall this year, turned the ball over a season-low six times.
But the Rams finished with a 43 to 27 rebounding advantage and a 42 to 28 inside-scoring advantage. They also registered seven blocks.
Richmond recorded an overall shooting percentage of 32.8. Its previous worst was 40.4%, in a loss at West Virginia in December.
Rhoades said he thought each of his players was locked in on the defensive end. They guarded the ball, he said, blew up ball screens and limited the Spiders to 3 of 19 from 3-point range.
Sophomore guard Bones Hyland said the Rams tried to stick to the game plan.
“I give them a lot of credit for their defense,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said. “And I felt like we were able to get some good shots but, again, we didn’t make them and a lot of credit goes to their defense.”
Hyland led the rebounding charge with a career-high 12, to go along with his game-high 20 points and career-high six assists. And he did that while playing hurt. He admitted he didn’t feel so good Wednesday — Rhoades said Hyland hadn’t practiced the previous two days due to a knee issue and Hyland mentioned a hip flexor issue as well.
Hyland said he just tried to go out and do the best he could.
“Just trying to be out there and do whatever for my teammates, honestly,” Hyland said. “Just trying to give it my all.”
He’s also made a conscious effort to rebound more, assisting VCU’s forwards. He’s averaged 5.7 rebounds in the Rams’ 11 A-10 games, compared to 2.8 in their nine nonconference games.
Richmond, by KenPom.com’s experience metric, is the 10th-most experienced team in the country. The Spiders start four seniors.
VCU, on the other hand, is 306th in the experience stat with just two seniors on the roster total and a rotation that features a heavy dose of freshmen and sophomores.
Richmond, in large part because of its experience, was picked to win the A-10 in the league’s preseason poll, released in November. VCU, in large part because of its inexperience, was picked ninth.
Ace Baldwin, VCU’s freshman starting point guard, said he feels all the Rams felt disrespected by the preseason prognostication. He feels they had a chip on their shoulder coming in.
But they’ve earned their respect, as the league’s top dog to this point.
And they continue to answer the question that matters.
“Coming in, young team, but just trying to have that chip on our shoulder like Ace said,” Hyland said. “And just coming in wanting to dominate and prove everybody wrong.”