THE HEART OF THE MATTER…

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MFF_2014_LogoBy Mike Litos

SAN DIEGO – The plane leaving Richmond for San Diego last night was delayed. Considering it was originally a 7:30pm departure that was due to land more than five hours later, that could’ve been a painful wait. You know how it goes, the feeling of it’s going to be a long night, and this makes it longer.

It turns out not so much.

Without that delay, I would not have seen Juvonte Reddic gleefully playing with assistant coach Jeremy Ballard’s son. Reddic’s wide smile matched that of the toddler’s as he flew higher and higher into the air and then settled into the 6-9 Reddic’s arms again and again.

I would not have seen a 5’2″ security agent wanding Mo Alie-Cox. Picture that for a moment. Ditto Doug Brooks, who instead of spreading his arms wide for the scan flexed his biceps. Jarred Guest was wearing a throwback VCU baseball hat, and by throwback I mean to the 1980s. Melvin Johnson was there, too, and he still has both legs intact.

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RAMS COUNTER-PUNCH IN BUDDING A-10 RIVALRY

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Briante Weber provided 13 points and four steals in VCU's win Saturday.

Briante Weber provided 13 points and four steals in VCU’s win Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – They call him the Freight Train, and that’s what Treveon Graham resembled as his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame rumbled down the sideline midway through the second half Saturday night.

Graham was chasing down a rebound, and despite his heft, the junior guard slipped past two Saint Louis players, grabbed the ball at midcourt and drew a hip-check foul. His momentum carried him into the path of 5-foot-9 VCU Coach Shaka Smart, who corralled him with an enthusiastic bear hug. The normally stoic Graham broke character and flashed a healthy smile.

It turns out, Smart was about the only person who could catch a Ram Saturday night. Saint Louis, ranked 10th in the country, certainly could not, as VCU staged a wire-to-wire 67-56 victory behind an opportunistic defense and a 49th straight sellout crowd at the Verizon Wireless Arena that lurched towards frenzy at every opportunity.

The victory was meaningful on a number of levels, for history – it was the highest-ranked team VCU had ever defeated at home – for the Rams’ NCAA Tournament resume, for its Atlantic 10 seeding, but it may have mattered most for pride. Since the Rams joined the A-10 last season, the Billikens were the only remaining member of the league VCU hadn’t cracked. Saint Louis defeated the Rams twice last season, once in St. Louis and once for the A-10 crown in Brooklyn, and then again at the Billikens’ Chaifetz arena on Feb. 15.

“It was definitely important. We had a mindset of payback from last year when they beat us in the championship game. Of course that’s always on our mind,” admitted junior guard Briante Weber, who provided 13 points and four of VCU’s 12 steals. “They had yet to come to VCU, and we wanted to give them the impression of what VCU’s like when you come in here.”

VCU upset 10th-ranked Saint Louis Saturday night before the 49th-straight sellout at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center,

VCU upset 10th-ranked Saint Louis Saturday night before the 49th-straight sellout at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center,

Amid a pulsating sea of gold – the product of an advertised “Gold Out” – VCU (22-7, 10-4 A-10) whipped itself into an aggressive, defiant state.

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MO WAS MONEY…AND OTHER NOTES

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Freshman Mo Alie-Cox sparked VCU with 10 points and six rebounds Saturday.

Freshman Mo Alie-Cox sparked VCU with 10 points and six rebounds Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Sorry, Mo Alie-Cox, we didn’t know any better.

Generally, whenever a power forward or center finds himself on an island beyond the 3-point arc, the audience treats it like a stunt from Jackass. They egg the big guy on until he agrees and lets the shot fly, then they gasp in horror. And much like the guy who rides down a steep hill in a shopping cart while on fire, the audience goes nuts when he sticks the landing.

It continues this way until the audience is convinced that this isn’t just a parlor trick, that it’s an actual feature of the player’s game. There are a lot more Chris Kamans in the world than Arvydas Sabonises, so it takes longer for the big guys to gain the public’s trust.

So when Alie-Cox, a chiseled, 6-foot-6, 250-pound power forward, found himself marooned with the ball atop the 3-point line with 14 minutes remaining in a six-point game Saturday night, he was met with the usual roar of curious encouragement. Calmly, Alie-Cox sized up the shot and buried it.

“That’s been a shot I’ve been working on all summer. Coach told me, if I’m wide open, shoot it. Or if I’m not, just go ahead and reverse it. They left me wide open, so I just hoisted up the shot and it went in,” Alie-Cox said afterwards.

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BRANDENBERG, GUEST HOPE EUROPE TRIP IS A PASSPORT TO SUCCESS

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Rising senior Rob Brandenberg averaged 10.4 points per game and sank 49 three-pointers last season.

Rising senior Rob Brandenberg averaged 10.4 points per game and sank 49 three-pointers last season.

RICHMOND, Va. – The passports of Rob Brandenberg and Jarred Guest will pick up a couple more stamps this summer, but they hope that’s not all they bring home with them.

The VCU duo is set to participate in a nine-day exhibition tour of Germany and the Czech Republic Aug. 11-19 with the Global Sports Academy (GSA). The team will be coached by Bill Brown of California (Pa.), a mentor of VCU’s Shaka Smart. For Brandenberg and Guest, it’ll be their second straight summer abroad. Both players were members of the Rams’ exhibition tour of Italy last August.

While there will be plenty of sights along the way, Brandenberg and Guest won’t exactly be singing “Holiday Road”. They say their primary focus is the same as every offseason, to become better players.

“Jarred and I have been working real hard, extremely hard for the season, so I think it’s going to be a chance for us to assert ourselves and show what we’ve been practicing and work on it in game form,” Brandenberg said.

Each player will have his own goals, his own checklist things to work on during the tour. For Brandenberg, who started 28 of 35 games last year and averaged 10.4 points, it means a focus on the intangibles. A rising senior, he’s aware that his teammates will look to him during the 2013-14 season for more than just his blazing speed or scoring punch.

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GUEST INVITES HIMSELF TO VCU ROTATION

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Sophomore Jarred Guest has carved out a role in VCU's eight-man rotation this season.

Sophomore Jarred Guest has carved out a role in VCU’s eight-man rotation this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – It can’t be more than three blocks from Franklin Street Gym, where the VCU Men’s Basketball team holds the bulk of its practices, to the Verizon Wireless Arena, where it plays games before thousands of rabid fans.

But for some players, it can seem like a thousand miles. That’s because skills showcased during practice often don’t always easily translate to the arena on game night. In recent years, VCU Coach Shaka Smart talked about senior Troy Daniels’ walk down that road. Daniels appeared to mentally cross that bridge last season, and is now one of the nation’s best long-range shooters.

Sophomore Jarred Guest can probably relate. He’s in the midst of his own practice-to-game transition. Guest, a gazelle-like forward, aims to display more of his Franklin Street talents at the Siegel Center.

“We’re just trying to get him to be our energy guy,” Smart said recently. “[He’s] just been phenomenal in practice for most of the year; probably our leading rebounder in practice. He’s a guy that needs to just settle down and play when he gets in the game.”

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BACK TO BASICS: STETSON NOTEBOOK

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Juvonte Reddic led all players with 20 points Wednesday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Juvonte Reddic said it was about getting back to basics. If he meant, basically running Stetson out of the gym, then Wednesday night was mission accomplished for VCU, which dismantled the Hatters 92-56 at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

In their first game back from the rugged Battle 4 Atlantis, the Rams looked like a baseball player who spent the weekend swinging a bat with a weighted donut, only to remove it in time for Wednesday’s game. VCU unloaded on the overmatched Hatters (2-3), dominating every facet of the game. If not for VCU’s dreadful 3-point shooting (5-of-22), the Hatters would be wearing their Stetsons much lower on their way back to Florida.

After a 1-2 showing at the “Battle”, where they played three top-25 teams in three days, the Rams looked loose against a team that is clearly not of the same ilk, no offense to Stetson. It makes the win difficult to assess, if the prism we’re viewing VCU through now is that of a team on par with the Dukes and the Missouris and the Memphises. But the Rams appeared to do everything they were supposed to do, and more.

“It’s always fun to play here. We had a tough little stretch in the Bahamas going 1-2, so we told ourselves to reset, come back to Siegel,” said junior Rob Brandenberg, who finished with 17 points.

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YOU SHOULD SEE THE OTHER GUY

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We’ve already told you that VCU Associate Head Coach Mike Rhoades likes to practice with the team, and that he, quite frankly, more than holds his own. But if you thought that Rhoades was just Cadillac-ing around the perimeter all day, you’d be wrong.

The photo below is from Monday’s practice after Rhoades was on the wrong end of a Jarred Guest elbow while fighting for a rebound. Dude is smiling minutes after he had his two front teeth knocked out. He can play for my hockey team any day.

MAULING MODESTLY: VIRGINIA UNION NOTES

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Sophomore Briante Weber scored 10 points, eight in transition, and ripped eight steals in VCU’s 94-44 rout of Virginia Union.

RICHMOND, Va. – It must be rough to be Shaka Smart sometimes. It’s his job look at the film from Thursday’s 50-point win and find out what the Rams did wrong. Good luck with that, Coach. Maybe somebody left their shirt untucked.

For most observers of the Rams’ 94-44 systematic obliteration of Virginia Union, VCU was nearly flawless. At one point, the Rams led by 62. Sixty-two points! Even as Smart tried to position himself for a preemptive strike against overconfidence, he conceded a little of the obvious: The Rams dominated the Panthers in every facet of the game.

“I would give it a pretty good,” Smart offered. “It’s about as well as you’re going to do this time of year. We’ve got some things to work on. We’ll watch the tape and see what we need to improve on and get better at.”

It appears VCU was flawless in coachspeak Thursday as well. Of course he can’t give away too much now. He can’t give into the desire to celebrate a win that really isn’t a win at all. On Thursday morning, VCU’s record was 0-0. On Friday morning, it’s still 0-0. Smart’s paid to think big picture, and big picture is March.

Smart’s real task will be to separate VCU’s good from the talent gap between the two teams. Virginia Union was overwhelmed by the Rams’ press to the tune of 22 turnovers. Thirty-three of the Rams’ points came off Union giveaways. Was that because VCU was that good? Was Virginia Union that bad? A little bit of both? That’s going to be Smart’s chore. From my perspective, it was more of VCU’s defensive bloodlust than it was Union’s inadequacy.

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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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