FRIEND AND FOE; FORMER ROOMMATES SQUARE OFF FRIDAY

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VCU Coach Dave Giffard will face his friend and former roomate, Jared Embick, Friday.

VCU Coach Dave Giffard will face his friend and former roomate, Jared Embick, Friday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Jared Embick has come a long way from being the guy sleeping on Dave Giffard’s couch.

On Friday, Giffard will find out just how far when he squares off against Embick, his friend and former roommate when 19th-ranked VCU (2-1) meets seventh-ranked Akron (3-1) in the University of Akron Tournament at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Rams will also play Niagara on Sunday to cap the weekend tournament.

Giffard was already a year into his stint as an assistant under Caleb Porter at Akron in 2007 when Embick was added to the staff. Embick says he didn’t have much time to look for an apartment, so he asked Giffard if he could crash on his couch for a few weeks until he found his own place. Nearly a year later, Embick was still on the couch.

“We just worked all the time, so we would just come home, take a ride over to dinner, come back, go to sleep and do it again the next day,” Giffard says of the arrangement. “You know, we had a few barbeques in between.”

The following spring, Embick graduated from the couch when he and Giffard moved into a two-bedroom apartment. They’d stay there until Giffard was named VCU coach following the 2009 season.

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VIDEO: VCU THROTTLES AKRON

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VCU-AKRON REACTION THROUGH TWITTER EYES

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HAVOC UNRAVELS AKRON, DEMANDS ENCORES

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Juvonte Reddic wore out Akron inside Thursday night to the tune of 21 points in the Rams' 88-42 rout.

Juvonte Reddic wore out Akron inside Thursday night to the tune of 21 points in the Rams’ 88-42 rout.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – If VCU was trying to get Michigan’s attention Thursday – not just the team, but the entire state – it did a terrific job of shining a light on itself.

In a rout for the ages, fifth-seeded VCU hammered 12th-seeded Akron 88-42 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 in one of the most lob-sided games you’ll see in March. It was the largest margin of victory in a 5/12 game NCAA Tournament history and was the most one-sided NCAA loss by a MAC team in conference history.

Afterwards, Akron Coach Keith Dambrot could do little but accept a reality colder than the Michigan winter: that the Zips had no answer for VCU.

“This is a big-boy game,” he said. “You’ve got to take your butt-whuppin’ sometimes.”

And it was. With VCU’s Havoc defense churning out turnovers, the Rams attacked Akron’s defense – ranked second in the MAC in points allowed and first in field goal defense – with ease. Despite a decided size advantage inside, including 7-foot center Zeke Marshall, Akron could not keep the Rams out of the paint or away from the rim. The Rams got 21 points from forward Juvonte Reddic in 23 minutes and scored 40 points in the paint in all.

“Zeke Marshall’s a great shot blocker, but the last thing you want to do when a team has size or shot-blocking ability is over-respect them,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “You want to go at them. If they block shots, they block some shots. It’s not the end of the world. But you want to make sure you get in the paint. You put pressure on their defense.”

Last season, VCU slipped past Akron in a 76-75 overtime barnburner. Dambrot said he watched the tape of that close loss three times this week and came away convinced the Zips could compete with the Rams. But they could not.

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VCU-AKRON RAPID REACTION: VCU 88, AKRON 42

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Overview: VCU absolutely pummeled the 12th-seeded Zips Thursday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills, 88-42. Akron took a 6-4 lead in the first half, and then the Rams put Akron to sleep, staging a 17-3 run to grab a 21-9 lead with 13:16 left. VCU never looked back.

The Rams did as they wished on the offensive end all night. Despite Akron’s sizeable front line of Zeke Marshall and Demetrius Treadwell, VCU took the ball hard to the rim early and often. When they weren’t getting into the paint, the Rams were watching Troy Daniels bomb away from three. Daniels scored 23 points in just 21 minutes of play and hit 6-of-11 threes on the night.

Akron, playing without suspended starting point guard Alex Abreu and reserve guard Deja Ibitayo, were unable to defend VCU’s quicker, more athletic guards or protect the basketball.

Overall, the Rams put together a masterful shooting performance, knocking down 54 (35-of-65) of their attempts. VCU also forced 22 turnovers via its trademark Havoc full-court press and outscored Akron 34-7 off turnovers.

Senior Juvonte Reddic scored 21 points in 19 minutes and became the 32nd Ram to score 1,000 career points with a bucket midway through the first half. Rob Brandenberg added 14.

Turning point: Given the lobsided nature of this one, you could probably say tip-off, but with 18:28 remaining, Juvonte Reddic sparked the Rams with back-to-back buckets, including a right-handed slam. Moments later, Reddic, gliding up the floor in transition, threw down a two-handed coast-to-coast jam that made it 12-6. It was pretty much over at that point.

Player of the game: Daniels, who made Bill Raftery swoon with his series of 3-pointers that put the game out of reach.

Key stat: Akron turnovers (22) versus VCU turnovers (7). Hard to beat a team when you’re minus 15 in turnover margin.

Miscellaneous: The victory was the Rams’ largest margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament. The previous high of 18 came in VCU’s back-to-back drubbings of Georgetown and Purdue in the 2011 NCAA second and third rounds.

VCU won a tournament game for the third straight season under Coach Shaka Smart. That has happened once previously in school history (1983-85).

The Rams’ win was also the largest margin of defeat for a MAC school. The previous record was 32.

What’s next: Fourth-seeded Michigan, which will be playing in front of a pro-Wolverines crowd on Saturday. Michigan overcame a slow start to handle South Dakota State 71-56 Thursday behind 21 points apiece from Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. The Wolverines have a stable of talented guards and have recorded the lowest offensive turnover percentage in the country this season. VCU leads the nation in defensive turnovers percentage. The winner heads to the Sweet 16 in Dallas next week.

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FIFTH-SEEDED RAMS AIM TO MAINTAIN UNDERDOG SPIRIT

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Once a popular NCAA Tournament pick as an underdog, VCU will enter its Round of 64 game as a favorite.

Once a popular NCAA Tournament pick as an underdog, VCU will enter its Round of 64 game as a favorite.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – What happens to the hunted when it becomes the hunter? Does it lose its killer instinct, its razor’s edge, the sharpness of which has been the difference between survival and irrelevance? Does it watch too much reality TV instead of going to the gym?

When VCU takes the court in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 Thursday against Akron at the Palace of Auburn Hills, it will do so in a world that has shifted its perspective of the Rams. VCU, once America’s Sweetheart, the loveable underdog, is a legitimate brand name. This year, the Rams (26-8) earned a No. 5 seed, the school’s highest in 28 years.

Some of the most memorable moments in VCU history have come with the Rams as a double-digit seed. When Eric Maynor and the Rams toppled Duke in Buffalo in 2007, they were seeded 11th. VCU was also an 11-seed in 2011, when it stormed all the way through the Southwest Regional to the Final Four. Last year, as a 12-seed, VCU upset Wichita State in the Round of 64 in Portland, Ore.

VCU, especially under Shaka Smart, has adopted the underdog philosophy better than anyone. In 2011, half the anchors employed by ESPN, including Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, dogged the NCAA committee’s selection of VCU. The Rams used it as bulletin board material on the way to five straight upset wins. So prominent was the chip on the Rams’ shoulder, that when VCU beat USC in the First Four in Dayton that year, Smart’s first words at his postgame press conference that night were: “You think Jay Bilas watched that game?”

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KEY MATCH-UP: ZEKE MARSHALL

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Akron 7-foot center Zeke Marshall ranks fourth nationally in blocked shots per game (3.7).

Akron 7-foot center Zeke Marshall ranks fourth nationally in blocked shots per game (3.7).

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Although VCU Coach Shaka Smart and Akron Coach Keith Dambrot share many basketball philosophies and favor similar playing styles, both of their teams play to their strengths.

VCU is loaded with athletic, speedy guards to fit its “Havoc” system of full-court pressing and open-floor playmaking. By contrast, Akron is geared more toward its strong post players Zeke Marshall, Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney.

Marshall is a particularly fascinating match-up. The senior from McKeesport, Pa. is arguably unlike any player the Rams have seen this season. Standing 7-feet tall with a 7-5 wingspan, Marshall is a rejection machine. He’s like government red tape in gym shorts.

Although still raw on the offensive end in many ways, Marshall has made continued progress over his career and is decidedly more effective than in the Rams’ previous meetings with the Zips in 2009 and last season. This year, Marshall has used an effective right-handed hook shot and short jumpers with stunning efficiency. In 32 games, he’s shooting 65 percent from the field, and he leads the Zips in scoring (13.1 ppg).

As valuable as Marshall has been on offense this year, it’s his shot-blocking ability that makes him special. Marshall is blocking 3.7 shots per game in about 28 minutes a night, a number which translates to about five per 40 minutes. Just the threat of Marshall in the paint is enough to alter game plans. VCU drivers will have to account for him. He’ll also own a decided height advantage over his most likely post match-up, 6-9 VCU forward Juvonte Reddic.

When these two teams met last season in Akron, Marshall made life difficult for VCU, blocking six shots while altering a number of others.

“It felt like 15 blocks,” Smart said Tuesday.

Marshall is averaging 7.0 rebounds per game, a reasonable, albeit not outstanding number for a player of his size. Although he’s added muscle over the years – he was noticeably thinner when the Rams faced him in 2009 – Marshall weighs in at 235 pounds, and stronger players may be able to move him away from the rim with proper positioning.

In all, Marshall presents the Rams with a unique challenge, one Smart is acutely aware of.

“I don’t know much about the NBA, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t find a way to stick at the next level,” said Smart.

VCU will likely attempt to negate Marshall’s skills by pushing the pace, rather than let him set up shop in the paint. It won’t be easy, as Marshall runs the floor well for a 7-footer. Akron, meanwhile, will play play from the inside out, and then back in again.

“They’re going to try to speed us up, make us try to make mistakes and we’re going to try to throw the ball to our big guys and it’s as simple as that,” Dambrot said.

FRIENDS SMART, DAMBROT SQUARE OFF THURSDAY

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VCU Coach Shaka Smart calls Akron's Keith Dambrot, "my best friend in coaching."

VCU Coach Shaka Smart calls Akron’s Keith Dambrot, “my best friend in coaching.”

RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart probably expected to spend his first day of work at Akron watching film or browsing the school’s recruiting database. Instead, he helped Keith Dambrot work out LeBron James at lunch.

It was the Spring of 2003, and Smart was a precocious 26-year-old basketball junkie who had just landed his first Division I assistant coaching gig. Dambrot was also an assistant under Zips’ Coach Dan Hipsher and had previously coached James at Akron Saint Vincent-Saint Mary’s High School. James was a couple of months away from being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and was already one of the best basketball players on the planet. Although they’d never met before, Smart helped Dambrot work our James for the next couple of months.

“I didn’t really say much for the first few times because I was in awe,” Smart said of James. “But that was a great experience. But that’s the type of guy [Dambrot] is.”

Smart and Dambrot became fast friends. When Dambrot was tapped to replace Hipsher in 2004, Smart stayed on as one of his assistants. Although Smart left in 2006 for Clemson and then eventually worked at Florida before becoming VCU’s head coach in 2009, he and Dambrot remained close.

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HAVOC WON’T SNEAK UP ON DAMBROT, ZIPS

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Keith Dambrot, 210-93 at Akron, is a close friend of Shaka Smart and says he regularly watches the Rams on TV.

Keith Dambrot, 210-93 at Akron, is a close friend of Shaka Smart and says he regularly watches the Rams on TV.

AKRON, Ohio – If anybody knows what he’s in for, it’s Keith Dambrot.

VCU Coach Shaka Smart worked as an assistant under Dambrot from 2004-06, and the two remain close friends. Smart and Dambrot play styles that are similar, and as long as they’re not facing each other, they’ve been known to closely watch each other’s games and openly root for one another.

“The bad thing is, he could coach our team, and I could probably coach his team. That’s how much we know about each other,” Dambrot said Monday, ahead of 12th-seeded Akron’s Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game with the fifth-seeded Rams, which will be played Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Dambrot knows all about VCU’s full-court pressure, “Havoc”, and its prolific reputation for taking the ball away from the opposition. The Rams set a school record for steals this year and lead the country in that category. VCU (26-8) also leads the nation in turnover percentage for the second straight season.

“Look, I’ve watched them play more than any team in the country other than us,” Dambrot said. “They’re going to try to speed us up, make us try to make mistakes, and we’re going to try to throw the ball to our big guys and it’s as simple as that. It’s a simplistic game.”

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MONDAY MORNING NCAA TOURNEY NOTES

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MFF_2013_FINAL_LOGOSetting the scene: Surely you’ve heard by now, but just in case, VCU has received a five seed for the NCAA Tournament and will take on 12th-seeded Akron Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich. at approximately 9:50 p.m. VCU and Akron will follow No. 4 Michigan and No. 13 South Dakota State. The winners of those two games will meet on Saturday in the round of 32.

The series: It seems like VCU and Akron can’t avoid each other, that the universe is conspiring to make them play every year. The Rams and Zips drew each other for ESPN’s BracketBusters event in 2007-08 (in Akron) and 2009-10 (in Richmond). They also played the contractually obligated return games. That means this will be the fifth meeting between the two schools since 2008, none of which were actually scheduled by the schools. Ain’t life grand?

VCU won all four of the recent meetings between the schools and leads the all-time series 6-0. The Rams topped the Zips 76-75 in overtime on Dec. 29, 2011 in the last meeting. A baseline drive and layup by Darius Theus in the final seconds provided the final margin.

Here is the final 1:10 of that contest:

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The friendship: Shaka Smart was an assistant coach for Zips Coach Keith Dambrot from 2003-06. The two remain extremely close and openly root for each other when they’re not playing. It was clear after last season’s meeting that both men agonized over the prospect of meeting as opponents.

Here’s what Shaka Smart said following the Rams’ win last last season at Akron’s James A. Rhoades Arena:

I’d rather not coach against him because he’s someone that I have such a history with and have such respect for…but I can promise you this, we won’t be scheduling Akron anymore because I’d rather on a night like tonight, both of us win, and tonight that was impossible.

Dambrot even revealed that he cried when VCU upset Kansas to reach the Final Four in 2011.

VCU and the NCAA Tournament: This will be the Rams’ 12th NCAA appearance. VCU is 11-11 all-time in the tournament, including 6-2 under Shaka Smart.

This marks the fourth time VCU has reached the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team (1983, 1984, 2011, 2013).

The Rams’ five-seed is its highest since VCU earned the No. 2 seed in the West in 1985, and is tied for the second-highest ever by the school. VCU was also a five-seed in 1981 and 1983.

VCU has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in eight of its previous 11 appearances.

The Rams are 2-0 as a five-seed against a 12-seed.

Finally, here is a photo of Dambrot in a VCU t-shirt. Good times:

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