Shaka Smart and the 5-2 Texas Longhorns head to Virginia Commonwealth University for their first road trip of the season, fulfilling one of the buyout provisions of Smart's contract at VCU. Coach Mike Rhoades and the Rams are 5-3 to start the year and are looking for a big non-conference win, so far having dropped contests against Virginia, Marquette, and Michigan.
This is Rhoades' first season as the head coach of VCU. A former assistant of Shaka Smart, Rhoades spent the past three seasons leading Rice, but was brought back to Richmond when Will Wade (another former Smart assistant) left to coach LSU.
Rhoades' team is led by senior point guard Jonathan Williams, a player who played for VCU during Smart's final season. Aside from being the college basketball player who most closely resembles the Mahna Mahna Muppet, Williams is a solidly built point guard who appears to have progressed as a shooter over the off season.
Though the first three years of his career Williams seldom attempted perimeter shots, and had made a total three shots from beyond the arc. This season he is 8-19 from three point range, and has already attempted more threes than he has in any previous season of his college career. He has also progressed as a free throw shooter throughout his career (this season he has connected on 84 percent of his free throw chances) and is the key playmaker for the Ram offense. His perimeter partner De'Riante Jenkins is the best perimeter shooter on a team that has been knocking down threes at a 41 percent clip.
6'8 senior Justin Tillman is another player who once played for Smart and who has also finally discovered his long range shooting stroke. The athletic forward was 0-3 from beyond the arc during his first three seasons of college basketball, but has started off the season 10-19 from long range. Still, he does the bulk of his damage inside, where he is an effective scorer in the low post. He and 6'7 senior center Khris Lane combine to form a somewhat undersized but rather effective front court.
VCU has been a bit thin in recent weeks, with injuries to both forward Issac Vann and guard Malik Crowfield. This has pushed Xavier Jackson into the starting lineup — where he has been struggling — and has left the Rams with a thin bench. This group doesn't have anything approaching the depth of some of the best VCU teams of recent seasons.
The Siegel Center is one of the more lively environments in D-I basketball, and with Smart returning to Richmond, the crowd is likely to be pretty fired up. It should be a fun atmosphere, and will give the Longhorns their first taste of what a road game is like.
The game tips off in Richmond at 6 PM CST, and airs on ESPN2.