ALABAMA NOTES: JPR, MELVIN! AND THE PROFESSOR

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Junior center D.J. Haley finished with a season-high six points and six rebounds Saturday.

Junior center D.J. Haley finished with a season-high six points and six rebounds Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – With junior Juvonte Reddic fighting foul trouble, classmate D.J. Haley stepped up and delivered his best performance of the season.

Haley, who came into the game averaging 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds per game, was a game-changer in the paint for the Rams. He recorded season-highs in points (6), rebounds (6) and minutes (15). He also blocked two shots.

“I really wanted to come out and make sure I was doing all I could for my teammates,” the 7-footer said. “The main things I focused on were being focused and being aggressive and it paid off today.”

Opportunities have been hard to come by of late for Haley, who has been averaging fewer than seven minutes per game in his last five appearances. VCU Coach Shaka Smart has cut into Haley’s minutes of late as mental lapses and other miscues have piled up. But Saturday, Haley was assertive and proved to be a difference-maker for the Rams.

“That’s the D.J. that we know and love,” Smart said. “If we can find a way to get him to bring that energy and talk and enthusiasm every day then he will be a very, very good player for us. It started in practice, though. He had a great week of practice.”

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VIRGINIA UNION PREVIEW

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RICHMOND, Va. – The 2012-13 men’s basketball season begins anew tonight. YOOOOOUUUURR VCU Rams will renew the best pseudo-fake rivalry in college basketball when they welcome neighboring Virginia Union in an exhibition at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

The Rams have won their three exhibition games, including two with Virginia Union, under Shaka Smart by an average of 22.3 points. The goal – the hope – is that the game is competitive to a point. Smart likely wants his players to be tested and to have to work through some adversity, but nobody will be comfortable with losing, exhibition or not.

A few years ago, when Union was at the height of its powers under Dave Robbins and VCU was in a solid, but unspectacular state, the Panthers made this an interesting series. From 2002-2005, VCU and Virginia Union met four times. The teams split those four games and all of them were decided by six points or less. There was a buzz around the game you would feel in the city.

The last few years, not so much.

The Rams and Panthers did not meet last season, but from 2006-2010, VCU won five games by 15 points or more, including blowouts of 28, 29 and 30 points.

Virginia Union was 15-14 last season in its first season under Juqman Jaaber, who played point guard in a Panthers win over VCU in 2004. The Panthers have some nice pieces back that could give the Rams trouble. The most intriguing, on paper, will be Union power forward Damion Harris against the Rams’ bigs. At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, Harris has the heft to mix it up in the post, but can also step out and knock down an occasional 3-pointer. He averaged 13.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last season and hit 14-of-41 from beyond the arc. It could be a good test for VCU forwards Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley (and others).

Other notable returnees for Virginia Union are senior guard Juan Wilson, who averaged 9.1 points and shot .565 from the field last season, and junior Cordero Holt, a 6-8, 195-lb small forward. Holt averaged 7.0 points per game last year.

The Panthers rebounded the ball pretty well last season (+2.7), but turned it over 15.6 times per game. You know how we feel about turnovers around here.

From VCU’s perspective, Smart will likely use this opportunity to tinker with lineup combinations and new sets. Don’t be surprised if Briante Weber, Teddy Okereafor, Darius Theus, Rob Brandenberg and Melvin Johnson are all on the floor at the same time (just kidding, that’s not happening).

Last year, against California (Pa.) in an exhibition, Smart played his starters between 24-30 minutes. It was also a good trial run for Treveon Graham, who showed VCU fans his potential with 16 points in the Rams’ 71-48 win over a solid Vulcans squad that finished the year 17-12. VCU turned Cal (Pa.) over 24 times last November.

MEDIA DAY SOUND BITES

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I’ll have women’s hoops notes Monday, but for now, here are some interviews from basketball media day.

SHAKA SMART

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ROB BRANDENBERG

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TREVEON GRAHAM

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D.J. HALEY

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JUVONTE REDDIC

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TROY DANIELS (#TreD3)

SECOND HELPING OF MEDIA DAY SCRIBBLES

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Rams’ coach Shaka Smart says VCU is ahead of where it was last October, but not yet where it needs to be.

PROGRESS REPORT
RICHMOND, Va, – Last October, VCU Coach Shaka Smart was driving home the narrative that the Rams were a young (nine freshmen and sophomores) team trying to find its way. Early in the season, VCU played like it.

The Rams opened with a lukewarm win over lightly regarded Saint Francis (Pa.) and followed with ugly losses to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech. However, by March VCU was a locomotive, chugging to 18 wins in its final 20 games. Those two losses were decided by a total of three final points and one of them came by virtue of a 25-foot buzzer-beater.

It would be nice if the Rams, who return all but one player from that team, could just pick up where they left off and start blitzing through the schedule, but Smart says it doesn’t work like that.

“It’s never easy,” Smart said. “The offseason, even though we have experience, I’ve never been involved with a team in college coaching that could carry over the habits through the offseason. You have to rebuild that stuff every year. That’s one of the facts of coaching.”

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LOFTY EXPECTATIONS DON’T GET GRAHAM DOWN

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RICHMOND, Va. – It’s been a while since a VCU sophomore received the type of preseason pub Treveon Graham is getting these days. Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated labeled Graham the No. 1 sophomore breakout threat in the country. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports Network, in addition to his volcanic musings, wrote that Graham was likely to emerge as the “go-to scorer” of this year’s team; one that is of top-25 quality, according to many national writers.

Don’t expect VCU coach Shaka Smart to be the guy to pump the brakes on those expectations. He’s even willing to go a step further.

“I’ve always had extremely high expectations for Tre,” Smart, entering his fourth year with the Rams, said. “When we recruited him, I told him I felt like he could be the all-time leading scorer at VCU. He might have thought that was just a recruiting line, but I really meant that.”

Treveon Graham averaged 7.0 points and 16.7 minutes per game last season.

Eric Maynor set the school scoring record with 1,953 points from 2005-09, which means Graham is just 1,701 short of VCU immortality. But it wasn’t until Maynor’s sophomore season in 2006-07 that his career took off. That season, he averaged 13.9 points per game and led the Rams to a conference championship and a first round upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament. He followed with seasons of 17.9 points and 22.4 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively. Graham would be okay with a similar career arc.

A 6-foot-5 swingman, Graham will likely fill the role vacated by Bradford Burgess, who led the Rams in scoring (13.4 ppg) and intangibles last year. A rugged scorer, Graham can knock down 3-pointers, but is most comfortable driving to the paint and absorbing contact.

After a 1-of-16 shooting slump to start the year – “nerves”, Graham says – the Washington, D.C. native recovered to average 7.0 points in 16.7 minutes per game. He also drew a team-high 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes last season. Everyone, from Shaka Smart to the janitors at the Siegel Center, expects those numbers to go up this year, and that’s fine by Graham. He says Smart’s talk of chasing Maynor didn’t bother him. Instead of chalking it up to recruiting-speak, Graham says Smart’s confidence empowered him.

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THEUS BULLISH ON 2012-13 SEASON

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(From left to right): Troy Daniels, Darius Theus, Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley all return for VCU in 2012-13.

RICHMOND, Va. – The expectations swirling around the 2012-13 VCU Basketball season are higher than probably any point during the last 25 years. This week alone, The Sporting News, CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated all tabbed the Rams a preseason top 25 team. Although none of those entities are responsible for either of the “official” polls, it’s notable because VCU hasn’t been ranked during the regular season since 1985.

Despite the potential for unwanted scrutiny, senior Darius Theus says the Rams aren’t running from the attention.

“I think that the same expectations they have, we have for ourselves,” said Theus, who averaged 8.5 points and 4.7 assists per game last season. “We’re going to try our best to meet them all. But Coach [Shaka Smart] wants us to stay humble, stay level-headed. Whatever we can control on the court is what we can control. But we’re setting high expectations for ourselves.”

Theus may be a biased observer, but he also has as much information to reference as anybody. One of three returning seniors and the most experienced player on the squad, Theus is in a position to assess VCU’s potential.

The 6-foot-3 point guard got a good look at this year’s team over the summer, when the Rams participated in a nine-day, four-game exhibition tour of Italy. VCU won all four games by an average of 55 points. Although it wasn’t world-class competition, VCU did rout a BC Atletas team that beat Georgia and challenged Tennessee.

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SURVIVING THE POST-BRAD ERA

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Bradford Burgess averaged 13.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per game last season for VCU.

We’re still 28 days from hoops season, but what the heck. Atlantic 10 Conference Media Day is Thursday, so that’s reason enough to blog about basketball. Chris “Pavarotti” Crowley was asking about this on Twitter this morning, so I figured I’d try to answer as best I could.

Bradford Burgess was so important to the Rams last year, and now that he’s gone, VCU fans are wondering how Shaka Smart and Co. will fare without their leading scorer from 2011-12. Honestly, it’s an impossible question to answer. There are so many moving parts and so many intangibles in play, but we can make some educated guesses.

Burgess averaged 32.3 minutes per game and appeared in 1,164 of 1,450 possible minutes last year. That means there were about 286 minutes last year when Burgess wasn’t on the floor. Below I’ve listed the six most popular lineups for VCU when Burgess wasn’t in the game. All of these players return for the 2012-13 season and will be heavy rotation guys.

While that’s not a big sample size, those six lineups were 26 points better than their opponents last year over what equates to roughly three full games.

This doesn’t mean the Rams will continue to perform at exactly the same rate this season and doesn’t factor in a 100 other possible variables or VCU’s new additions. But what we can safely draw from this information is that the Rams are in capable hands.

SUMMER HOOPS NOTES: WORKOUT RULES CHANGE; GRAHAM EYES 2012-13

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VCU players will be seeing a lot more of this man this summer.

RICHMOND, Va. – It’s hard enough to get Shaka Smart to take a vacation, but now? It’s going to take one heck of an advertising pitch to pull the VCU coach away from Richmond now.

In years past, the summer was a steady stream of pickup hoops and loosely-tethered together workouts. Coaches were not allowed to run practices or have much contact with their players.

But this year, thanks to a change in NCAA legislation in January, teams are allowed to run full practices with coaching staffs for up to two hours a day and up to eight hours a week for eight weeks. All returning players in good academic standing and incoming freshmen enrolled in summer school are allowed to participate.

That the changes have been welcomed by coaches should come as no surprise, but many players see the value in them as well.

“I think it’s a lot more fun,” said senior David Hinton. “You get to see the coaches in the summer. You had that big gap before where the coaches worked you out in the spring, but you really didn’t see them again until the fall. [The coaches] won’t be as anxious in the fall. They monitor your progress all summer, and they help you out and improve your game more.”

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SUMMER HOOPS NOTES: HALEY’S HEALTHY OFFSEASON

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VCU center D.J. Haley has packed more than 40 pounds onto his 7-foot frame since his freshman year.

RICHMOND, Va. – They’re seeing a lot less of D.J. Haley over at Five Guys Burgers and Fries these days. The same goes for Extreme Pizza. Alas, Haley has taken his talents to a local grocer.

Haley, a rising junior center for the Rams, is taking fitness and nutrition to heart this summer. Since the end of basketball season, Haley says he’s packed 14 pounds onto his 7-foot frame and now weighs 264. That’s up considerably from his freshman year, when the Palmdale, Calif. native arrived on campus a lanky 220 pounds.

With more heft to throw around, Haley hopes to control the paint next season and beyond.

“As the years have gone on, I’ve found it easier and easier to move people in the post,” Haley, who averaged 3.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season, said. “It helps you with your post moves getting better position.”

VCU Strength and Conditioning Coach Daniel Roose says that Haley burns so many calories a day that he’s not under any restrictions in that regard. But over time, Roose felt Haley’s less-than-stellar eating habits occasionally led to sluggishness practices.

So Haley has cut out his burger binges and most fried foods and substituted pastas and lean meats. It’s not a strict diet as much as it is Haley making smarter choices. He’s going out to eat less and shopping at the grocery store more often. He’s also using an iPhone app recommended by Roose, MyFitnessPal, to track his meals. One handy feature allows the user to scan the bar codes of the groceries he consumes and logs the nutritional information. Roose says that while he’s tried to steer Haley towards healthier foods, it’s been Haley taking charge of his eating program.

“He’s always been like that. He gets it. He sees the whole picture,” Roose said.

In the meantime, Haley has hit the weight room hard this summer. During his freshman season, Head Coach Shaka Smart and Roose wanted Haley to put on weight as fast as possible in order to handle the larger, punishing bodies of college basketball. Haley tipped the scales at 252 pounds at the end of his freshman year, but Roose admits that the weight wasn’t “distributed ideally”.

But with improved eating habits and two years of hard weight training, Haley is beginning to sculpt his physique. During his first summer working with Roose, Haley could do exactly one chin-up, and he weighed around 220 pounds. Last week, Haley managed 19 pull-ups, despite adding more than 40 pounds to his frame.

When he arrived at VCU, Haley had set a weight goal of between 265-270 pounds. Now that he’s essentially reached that range, he hopes to add strength and quickness without sacrificing bulk.

Despite his dietary evolution, Haley admits that some habits die hard.

“I’ve kind of relaxed on Extreme Pizza, but I’m kind of still a regular, I won’t lie.”

“WELL, WE’RE ALL IN THE MOOD FOR A MELODY…”

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You may already know that D.J. Haley is a tall human. What you might not know is that D.J. Haley, a rising junior center on the VCU Basketball team, is also an accomplished musician. Haley plays the piano and the alto sax and has dabbled with other instruments. He’s also been known to bring a keyboard with him on road trips.

A special thanks to the folks over at VCU’s Singleton Center, who gave Mike Voyack and I access to a piano and free reign for about an hour. It’s not always easy to track down a piano. Contrary to popular belief, Shaka Smart does not keep a Baby Grand in his suite at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

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