RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart views tonight’s game with South Florida (7:30 p.m., Verizon Wireless Arena) as a big matchup in more ways than one.
It’s VCU’s first home game in 19 days and the Rams are 3-3 after a brutal five-game stretch that included a stop at 13th-ranked Alabama Sunday. A sellout crowd is expected and a win could energize the team and the fan base moving forward.
VCU has shown positive signs of late. The Rams were sharp in a 68-45 rout at Western Kentucky, as well as about 30 minutes of their 72-64 loss to Alabama. Another solid performance against a Big East opponent would cement the idea that VCU’s youthful squad is ready to compete for a championship this year.
But when he talked about Wednesday’s contest with the Bulls (5-2), he was thinking on a more literal sense. South Florida may be one of the biggest, longest teams the Rams face this season. Four of USF’s top four scorers are 6-foot-7 or taller, although 6-foot-10, 243-pound starting center Augustus Gilchrist has been listed as questionable for tonight’s game. Gilchrist averages 11.6 points and 6.8 rebounds.
The length of Gilchrist, Ron Anderson Jr. (6-8, 237), Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (6-8, 243) and Victor Rudd (6-7, 221) could post issues for VCU. Recently, the Rams have been using a starting lineup that features 6-foot-6 Bradford Burgess at power forward.
South Florida’s length bothered the VCU in a 60-59 overtime loss in Tampa, Fla. last season. In that game, the Rams were outrebounded by 10. The Bulls grabbed 19 offensive rebounds. Although this year’s team features six newcomers, the Rams haven’t forgotten about last year’s flat performance, which saw VCU dig an 18-point first-half hole.
“That should be a motivating factor, but our team is so different from last year,” Smart said. “Even the guys that played on last year’s team, they’re in much different positions. But I think there’s an understanding of what happened last year and a desire to rectify it.”
There will be added pressure on VCU’s primary big men, Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley, both sophomores, as well as Burgess. This season, the Rams are being outrebounded by an average of 1.9 per game. South Florida, meanwhile, is outrebounding opponents by 5.5 per game.
“They killed us on the boards last year,” Burgess said. “Everybody is going to have to rebound, 1-5 in order to compete with them because they’re definitely a better team than they were last year. That’s the major thing that’s going to influence this game is rebounding.”
“We need to play big and rebound well because they have a big team,” Smart said. “They start across the front line with a 6-foot-8 small forward and they get bigger from there. We’re going to have to do a terrific job on the inside. I think if we can really battle on the glass for 40 minutes we’ve got a great shot.”
SOUTH FLORIDA: AT A GLANCE
2011-12 Record: 5-2
Notable wins/losses: Lost to Old Dominion 68-66 (ot); Lost to Penn State 53-49
2010-11 Record: 10-23 (3-15, Big East)
2010-11 RPI: 159
The skinny: If there’s any game from the 2010-11 season that made Ram fans want to punch a clown, it was VCU’s 60-59, overtime loss to South Florida. It didn’t make any sense at the time and makes less sense now. But that’s what happens when you shoot 31 percent in the first half and get outrebounded by 10.
The Bulls’ length bothered VCU last year and it could be a problem again in 2011. Augustus Gilchrist, a 6-10, 243-pound post is back after averaging 13.4 points and 6.0 rebounds last year. He is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, but three other Bulls’ regulars stand 6-7 or taller.
About South Florida: Founded in 1956, South Florida has an enrollment of over 47,000, which makes it just the third largest university in the state of Florida. The school also produced current VCU President Dr. Michael Rao.
Fast fact: South Florida committed 150 more turnovers last season than its opponents.