Kirill Pishchalnikov defends Arkansas' Charles Thomas during the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

Kirill Pishchalnikov defends Arkansas’ Charles Thomas during the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

2013 PUERTO RICO TIP-OFF (pdf)

The post-Dagger days began in Puerto Rico.

It was in San Juan in 2007, at the first Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where we tried to find out if VCU, as a Goliath exterminator, had staying power. Nearly a week after rolling designated milk jug Maryland-Eastern Shore in the 2007-08 season-opener, VCU headed to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Anthony Grant, was, as Shaka Smart is today, THE rising star among college coaches. Eric Maynor, whose “Dagger” with 1.8 seconds left gave VCU its unforgettable, 79-77 upset of Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the previous March, was a certified star. You could have sold his image on commemorative plates on QVC alongside those bearing Dale Earnhardt’s, if the NCAA allowed that sort of kitsch.

But while Grant and Maynor were known quantities, magnetic drawing cards with the goods to back it up, the rest was up in the air. People love NCAA Tournament upsets, they embrace the Princetons and the Bryce Drews, the Eric Maynors, the Cleveland States and the La Salles for weeks each March. But when the lights go out, most of them fade from the national consciousness. We rode high on the hog for months, but secretly, we wondered if Maynor’s “Dagger” was VCU’s 15 minutes; If the illogical food chain of college hoops would gobble us up and cast us back from whence we came, back to the obscurity of mid-majordom.

The tournament began in earnest. Grant’s recruiting class that year included Larry Sanders, Joey Rodriguez, Lance Kearse, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell and Myk Brown, and transfer Kirill Pishchalnikov was also on board. Much of the publicity, and for a VCU recruiting class up to that point, it was significant, focused on Kearse and Rodriguez. Sanders was intriguing, but very much an unknown.

The tournament wasn’t a disaster, but it can hardly be called a success, either. Let’s call it a resounding “meh”.

At that stage, the Rams offensive options were, in order: Eric Maynor, Jamal Shuler, call timeout. In the first game, a 73-72 win over a so-so Houston team, Maynor struggled, shooting 1-of-12. In the following two games, a 69-63 loss to Miami (Fla.) and a 70-60 defeat at the hands of 18th-ranked Arkansas, the Rams’ issues became more evident. Grant had the Rams playing tough defense and hanging around, but the rotation was largely unsettled, Wil Fameni’s knees were being held together with duct tape and Elmer’s Glue, and there weren’t enough scorers to take the load off Maynor and Shuler.

After the Arkansas game, outside the locker room, a frustrated Grant chatted with Razorbacks’ Coach John Pelphrey, friends from their days as Florida assistants. Grant felt the team wasn’t picking up the offense, which wasn’t a secret, given the Rams’ shooting performances (37 percent vs. Miami, 33 percent vs. Arkansas).

The vaunted freshman class barely got on the floor. Larry Sanders played a total of 12 minutes in three games. Brandon Rozzell was expected to redshirt that season and never took off his warmups. Rodriguez and Kearse found steady roles in off the bench, but for the rest, the jury was out.

I remember feeling stung, worried that the stratospheric heights of the Duke game and the almost-upset of Pitt that followed, would be as good as it would get.

But the missteps of Puerto Rico proved to be an important moment for that team. It was obvious this was not going be the flashy offensive team from the previous year. Puerto Rico more or less revealed that. In 2006-07, flanked by Jesse Pellot-Rosa, B.A. Walker and Shuler, Maynor could facilitate and be patient. But in 2007-08, the team was just too young. Grant, undeterred, molded the Rams into a more deliberate, defensive-oriented club, one in stark contrast to the previous season. And it worked. Two weeks after Puerto Rico – and days after a gut-check loss at Hampton – Maynor effectively dissected future NBA point guard Greivis Vasquez, Shuler hit six 3-pointers and the Rams beat Maryland 85-76.

The Rams would eventually win the CAA regular season title for the second straight year. Despite a CAA Tournament semifinal loss to William & Mary, one that exposed some of the inherent limitations of that year’s club, VCU reached the NIT. Rodriguez became a starter by year’s end, Rozzell, Sanders, Nixon, Kearse and Pishchalnikov became key contributors.

There would be no fading into obscurity, no return to college basketball limbo. The following year, VCU, with Sanders, Rodriguez, Rozzell and Nixon playing major roles, returned to the NCAA Tournament. Sanders headed to the NBA in 2010, but what was left of that recruiting class that made that Puerto Rico trip in 2007, Rozzell, Rodriguez and Nixon, helped lead the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. That moment lasted more than just 15 minutes.

This year, the Rams will return to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off a different program. Six years ago, the Rams were still a March one-hit wonder. When VCU lands in San Juan this fall, it will probably do so as one of the top 25 basketball programs in the country. It turns out, the Rams had staying power.

***

ESPN released the bracket for this year’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off today. The Rams will open with Florida State – the first time VCU and FSU have met since Brad Burgess’ bucket in OT lifted the Rams over the Seminoles and into the Elite Eight in 2011. Terrance Shannon, need I remind you, was a member of that Florida State team and is now a Ram (storylines!). A win could yield a rematch with Michigan. There’s some VCU-Michigan history too. I’m sure you remember (storylines!).

The field is terrific. Not as unreal on paper as the Battle for Atlantis last year, but not far off. If you scroll down the ESPN writeup, you’ll notice that all but two reporters picked VCU to win the tournament; a tournament with Georgetown, Michigan, Kansas State and Florida State. That means nothing on the court, but it does show how far the program has come in terms of perception (and how much talent returns in 2013-14). That’s pretty exciting.

ESPN.com Writers’ Picks
Eamonn Brennan:
VCU over Georgetown
Jeff Goodman: VCU over Northeastern
Seth Greenberg: Michigan over Georgetown
Andy Katz: Michigan over Georgetown
Jason King: VCU over Kansas State
Dana O’Neil: VCU over Kansas State

From a more practical standpoint, the Rams will again have precious RPI-building opportunities. There are no “bad” teams in the tournament, and six of the eight finished in the top 100 in RPI last year. Between the Rams’ possible Puerto Rico matchups and games with three other ACC schools (Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College) VCU will not lack NCAA resume-building opportunities.

PUERTO RICO TIP-OFF
School                         RPI                  KenPom
Michigan                     11                           5
Georgetown              15                         13
Kansas State              23                         33
VCU                               26                         16
Charlotte                     81                        129
Florida State              93                        124
Long Beach State    119                       178
Northeastern           156                       184

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