Treveon Graham was the first VCU sophomore to average better than 15 points per game in more than 10 years.

Treveon Graham was the first VCU sophomore to average better than 15 points per game in more than 10 years.

TRE AND THE U.S.A.
RICHMOND, Va. – Rising junior Treveon Graham stands to gain valuable experience later this month when he participates in the World University Games Training Camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., according to VCU Coach Shaka Smart, himself a veteran of the USA Basketball experience.

Graham was one of 29 players invited to attend the camp June 24-30 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Twelve players will be selected for the team that will compete at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia July 7-16. Among Graham’s competition are Luke Hancock of Lousiville, Creighton All-American Doug McDermott, Quinn Cook of Duke and Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Kendall Williams of New Mexico.

“First of all, it’s very, very high level competition in the trials,” Smart said. “The guys he’s competing with just to make the team are high level players from very high level programs. I think anytime you play against high level competition it pushes you to be better and exposes you to some of the areas where you need to improve, so that’ll be terrific for him.”

In addition, the coaching staff reads like a Who’s Who of hot names in Division I. Davidson’s Bob McKillop will serve as head coach. He will be assisted by Michigan Head Coach John Beilein – fresh off an appearance in the National Championship Game – and Frank Martin of South Carolina.

Graham, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound forward, led the Rams in scoring in 2012-13 at 15.1 points per game, and the Washington, D.C. native was also second on the team in rebounding (5.8 rpg). Despite the vast improvements in Graham’s game from his freshman to sophomore seasons, Smart has let it be known he expects more from the Rams’ primary offensive weapon in the future.

Paramount to Graham’s success, Smart says, is adopting an alpha dog mentality, a confident, take-charge approach. While Smart was pleased with Graham’s progress in that regard, he says the soft-spoken junior still has a ways to go to separate himself from the shy freshman that arrived on campus two years ago.

“Tre’s really grown in confidence since he got here,” Smart said. “My biggest emphasis with him is, we believe in you, and when you go out there, to believe that you’re just as good, if not better, than any of the other guys out there, so go after it… His thing has always been about being more assertive and taking control. He’s gotten better at that.”

If Graham is selected to the final squad, he’ll be up against stiff international competition, as well as some rules differences. But Smart also believes Graham stands to benefit. One of the major differences between college hoops and international play is the shot clock. In international play, FIBA employs a 24-second shot clock, compared to the 30 seconds to which Graham is accustomed. But in VCU’s up-tempo style of play, that could be another valuable training exercise.

“When the shot clock gets shorter, you had better be able to go score at the end of the clock in a one-on-one situation or in a ball screen situation,” Smart said.

VCU’s primary option in late shot clock situations last year was senior point guard Darius Theus, who excelled at breaking a defender down one-on-one. Perhaps Graham’s experience this summer will allow him to fill that void in 2013-14.

The last Ram to make a USA Basketball team was Eric Maynor, who participated in the 2007 Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In recent years, former VCU Women’s Basketball stars Quanitra Hollingsworth (2006, U18; 2007, U19) and Courtney Hurt (2011, University Games) also attended USA Basketball team trials, but did not make the final rosters.

Shaka Smart returns to the USA Basketball fold this summer.

Shaka Smart returns to the USA Basketball fold this summer.

SMARTS AND STRIPES
Smart will also wear the red, white and blue this summer.

The VCU coach, along with Virginia’s Tony Bennett, will serve as an assistant to Florida’s Billy Donovan for the USA Men’s U19 World Championship Team. Smart will take part in the team’s training camp June 14-19 in Colorado Springs before heading to the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship for Men June 27-July 7 in Prague, Czech Republic.

It’s Smart’s third tour of duty with USA Basketball. In 2012, he was an assistant to Gonzaga’s Mark Few for the gold-medal winning U18 National Team, while in 2011, Smart served as a court coach for the USA’s World University Games training camp.

Smart’s approach to the offseason appears similar to what he asks of his players; to use the time to sharpen your skills.

“It’s a great learning opportunity, No. 1,” said Smart. “For one, being around some terrific coaches, Billy Donovan…last summer I got to be around Mark Few…Tony Bennett, who’s just a phenomenal coach. That’s a terrific opportunity. When you coach high level players, you learn from them too. You learn a lot from them, experience that you can bring back to your own players and your own team. “

The event also is an opportunity for Smart to reunite with Donovan, for whom he served as an assistant at Florida during the 2008-09 season. The two men have remained close over the years as Smart has guided the Rams to three straight NCAA bids.

“He’s awesome to work with. He’s the best,” Smart said of the longtime Florida coach. “His emphasis on the mental side of the game, it’s something that he’s very, very interested in. It’s something that I’ve taken a great interest in during the past five years or so.”

SCHEDULE NOTES; ACC OPPONENTS ON TAP
Smart indicated Wednesday that VCU’s 2013-14 non-conference schedule was nearing completion.

“We’re pretty far along,” he said. “We’re still working on a couple of dates. We’re getting there.”

A number of the Rams’ 2013-14 opponents have been made known, among them, neutral site contests with Virginia Tech at the Richmond Coliseum (Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic) and Boston College at Barclays Center on Dec. 28 (Brooklyn Holiday Hoops Festival). Smart says while playing at Barclays Center, site of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, is nice for establishing familiarity with the building, the No. 1 reason for the game is “at great opponent.” Boston College, 16-17 a season ago, dressed 11 freshmen and sophomores in 2012-13.

“It’s a game on a neutral floor against a team that’s going to be really good and subsequently is going to have a very good RPI,” Smart said.

The Rams will also play Virginia for the first time since 1998, the first contest in a home-and-home series that will begin at the Cavaliers’ John Paul Jones Arena. In addition, VCU will play three games as part of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Nov. 21, 22 and 24. The field includes Northeastern, Charlotte, Florida State, Georgetown, Kansas State, Long Beach State and Michigan.

For the second straight year, VCU’s schedule boasts a number of big name opponents. In 2012-13, VCU met Memphis, Duke, Missouri and Alabama, not to mention under-the-radar RPI darlings Belmont, Lehigh and Wichita State, which made the Final Four. Once again, the Rams won’t be short on top-level competition, it would appear.

All those quality opponents – yielding wins over Alabama, Memphis, Belmont and others – helped the Rams fashion an RPI of 26 and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the school’s best since 1985.

A strong relationship with Virginia Coach Tony Bennett (pictured) helped Smart reboot the VCU-UVA series.

A strong relationship with Virginia Coach Tony Bennett (pictured) helped Smart reboot the VCU-UVA series.

RPI is one of the more well-known, albeit often misunderstood, criteria used by the NCAA to select the NCAA Tournament field. It behooves coaches to understand the factors that influence RPI and use that information in scheduling. Smart says his staff is no different.

“RPI is not only a statistic that is one of the many measures that the NCAA selection committee uses, but it also speaks to and is affected by a lot of the other measures that the NCAA selection committee uses,” Smart said. “So you do your best to play against teams that are going to give you opportunities for top 100, top 50, top 25 wins, but it’s not like you can go out and pick who you want to play. It takes two to tango.”

VCU’s four possible games against the traditionally strong ACC will no doubt have significant impact on the Rams’ RPI and NCAA at-large resume. Among those are the Rams’ contests with Virginia and Virginia Tech. Despite being separated by about an hour, it’s been 15 years since VCU and Virginia met. Meanwhile, the Rams and Hokies will clash for the first time since 1995. VCU has not met by Virginia and Virginia Tech in the same season since the 1989-90 campaign.

The explanations as to why the Rams couldn’t get a game with the two most well-known universities in the state of Virginia tend to vary, but they all eventually boil down to a mid-major versus major quandary.

Schools from ACC and other prominent conferences often dictate the terms when scheduling “non-BCS” conference schools. This arrangement usually means home games for the “BCS” school or a lob-sided home-and-home exchange (2-for-1, etc.). VCU’s rise to prominence over the last decade only inflated the scheduling dilemma. For an ACC school, the threat of losing to (or at) a so-called “mid-major” school wasn’t worth the public relations hit. In addition, VCU has been reluctant in the past to enter into unbalanced scheduling agreements with such schools in order to get a home game at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

But Smart and Bennett have developed a friendly relationship over the last three years. Given the Rams’ rising national profile and what appears to be Bennett’s willingness to play in-state schools (UVA played a home-and-home with George Mason recently), the stars aligned to rekindle a rivalry with the Cavaliers.

“I’m just really appreciative of their coaching staff, Tony Bennett and [assistant] Ritchie McKay specifically for giving us the opportunity to play them home-and-home, because we very rarely get that chance with a quote, unquote, high-major team, and they happen to be a school that’s an hour away, The University of Virginia.”

It’s a series VCU fans have long hoped to reboot. As the VCU program developed in recent years, it fueled the idea in the stands and chat rooms that the Rams were now on equal footing, or had exceeded, Virginia and Virginia Tech in basketball stature. For fans, it made those schools’ unwillingness to play the Rams a sore subject.

But Smart, while sensitive to his fan base, says he doesn’t get caught up in the emotional aspect of playing games of this nature. He’s most concerned, he says, with the level of completion the Rams are playing. Meeting two Virginia schools from the ACC – which he believes could again be the nation’s top basketball league next season – sells itself.

“I think there have been some things made in the past of in-state rivalries and comparing programs in the state,” he said. “That really doesn’t mean a great deal in reality. Because in college basketball, that’s just not how things work.”

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