DIFFERENT TEAM, SAME OLD GRANT PREPARES FOR VCU HOMECOMING

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Anthony Grant led VCU to a 76-25 record and two NCAA Tournament bids from 2006-09. He returns to the Siegel Center for the first time with Alabama Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – The tales of Anthony Grant’s legendary focus are not born from whimsical bouts of mythology. It’s real. With blinders of coaching affixed to his temples, a fiery motivator smolders beneath a Rushmoresque stoic façade. What you see is what you get.

The only game in Grant’s day planner is the next one. He’s famously resistant to any effort to discuss a game other than the next one on his team’s schedule, not to local media and national pundits, not on his own coaches radio show, not to anyone. It’s like coaching in a pre-Christopher Columbus world. Ships that sail around the next game on the schedule immediately fall off the face of the earth and into an abyss. Okay, maybe a little mythology.

His approach to the game at hand is similarly singular, free of distraction and emotional attachment, other than the desire to win the game.

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ALABAMA GAME A RARE OPPORTUNITY

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VCU fans rush the floor after the Rams upset 17th-ranked Oklahoma at the Siegel Center in 2009.

VCU fans rush the floor after the Rams upset 17th-ranked Oklahoma at the Siegel Center in 2009.

RICHMOND, Va. – When VCU hosts Alabama Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, the game will officially fall into a category of events rarer than Anthony Grant smiles during press conferences.

It will be just the 10th time the Rams will have hosted a school that is a current member of a BCS Conference (Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big East, ACC, Big 12) since the Siegel Center opened in 1999. But even that number is a bit misleading. At the time of those games, two schools weren’t yet members of those power conferences. That means just seven out of VCU’s 194 games in the Siegel Center have been against schools operating under BCS banner.

It’s not for a lack of trying, Shaka Smart says.

“We try to schedule these games. Every once and a while, we’re successful,” he said. “Typically, people don’t want to come here, and I think that’s a testament to the fans here and the success the program has had over the past several years since 1999 that the Siegel Center has been open, and other teams know that.”

The Rams are 166-28 all-time at the Siegel Center, a winning percentage of .856. VCU is 3-1 at home this season. Schools from BCS Conferences are often wary of playing road games at schools from less prominent leagues, especially ones like VCU, who are tough to beat at home. VCU’s frantic style of play, compounded by the often deafening roar of 7,500-plus fans, can make other schools skittish about scheduling the Rams at “The Stu”.

“Those BCS schools aren’t just playing 13, 14 guys, they’re actually playing thousands of people. They’re coming to the Siegel Center. They have to play against us and the crowd,” said VCU senior Troy Daniels.

VCU's pressure defense proved too much for Big East member South Florida last season.

VCU’s pressure defense proved too much for Big East member South Florida last season.

Many BCS schools view the games as no-win situations because they’ll be expected to win, and if they don’t, they’ll face additional scrutiny.

The last BCS school to visit the Verizon Wireless Arena was South Florida last season, a game VCU won 69-46. Even when VCU has been successful in luring a BCS school to Richmond, it has rarely been a marquee name (see: South Florida). Saturday’s game with Alabama is part of a clause in Grant’s VCU contract that guaranteed the school a home-and-home series if the coach accepted another job. Grant left VCU for Alabama in 2009, and the two schools met last season in Tuscaloosa, Ala. with the Crimson Tide earning a 72-64 win.

VCU also received a home-and-home series with Oklahoma after Jeff Capel accepted that job. In 2009, the Sooners visited the Siegel Center as the 17th-ranked team in the country and left with an 82-69 loss. To date, it is the only time the Rams have hosted a ranked opponent at the Siegel Center.

Overall, the Rams are 7-2 in games at the Siegel Center against schools currently residing in a BCS Conference, including 5-2 against schools that were BCS-affiliated at the time of the contest.  So, while VCU’s opportunities have been limited, the Rams have often made the best of them. They’ll hope to do the same Saturday against Alabama. The Crimson Tide will likely be a top 100 RPI team all season, so a win would be a nice addition to VCU’s NCAA Tournament resume.

Here are VCU’s previous meetings with BCS schools at the Siegel Center:

1-*Louisville, W, 79-74 (11/19/99)
2-Colorado, W, 82-78 OT (11/28/99)
3-Mississippi, L, 84-88 OT (11/25/00)
4-Texas A&M, W, 107-106 2OT (12/2/00)
5-Pittsburgh, W, 76-73 OT (12/17/00)
6-*TCU, W, 91-78 (12/21/02)
7-Mississippi, L, 62-63 (12/29/04)
8-#17 Oklahoma, W, 82-69 (11/21/09)
9-South Florida, W, 69-46 (11/30/11)

* – Louisville was a member of Conference USA in 1999, as was TCU in 2002.

SMART CREDITS GRANT’S INFLUENCE ON VCU PROGRAM

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Shaka Smart has led the Rams to unprecedented success, but he's quick to acknowledge the groundwork laid by former coach Anthony Grant.

Shaka Smart has led the Rams to unprecedented success, but he’s quick to acknowledge the groundwork laid by former coach Anthony Grant.

RICHMOND, Va. – There were a number of reasons the VCU head coaching job was attractive to Shaka Smart in 2009. Many of those same factors have helped Smart lead the Rams through three of the most successful seasons in program history.

Smart didn’t have to build VCU Basketball from the ground up, and few people are more acutely aware of the role others played before his arrival than Smart himself. Alabama Coach Anthony Grant is one of those people, and Smart is quick to credit his predecessor.

“I think what Anthony did here was phenomenal,” Smart said Wednesday. “I think he really set the bar higher than it had ever been. I think Jeff Capel before Anthony set the bar very high and I think Anthony raised the bar.”

Grant coached the Rams to a 76-25 record from 2006-09. He led VCU to Colonial Athletic Association Championships and NCAA bids in 2007 and 2009. His .753 winning percentage is the highest in school history, slightly ahead of Smart’s .743 (90-31) mark. But it was his 2006-07 team’s upset of Duke that remains the seminal moment of his tenure. The win, VCU’s first NCAA Tournament victory in 22 years, thrust the Rams into the national spotlight and served as a launching pad for the program.

“The game against Duke was certainly a watershed moment in this program’s history,” Smart said.

Grant also recruited Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell, Larry Sanders, Jamie Skeen (transfer) and Bradford Burgess. Sanders eventually became the highest NBA Draft pick in school history, while Rodriguez, Nixon, Rozzell, Skeen and Burgess formed the backbone of VCU’s 2011 Final Four squad.

Smart says that after he accepted the VCU job, he contacted both Capel, who coached the Rams from 2002-06, and Grant, who helped familiarize him with his players and the landscape of the school.

Grant is 69-41 in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. Last season, he led Alabama to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. In 2010-11, the Crimson Tide captured the SEC West Division title and reached the NIT Championship Game, where they fell to Wichita State.

“I’ve got tremendous respect for him and the program he’s built,” Smart said. “I think Anthony’s one of the top coaches in the country.”

Meanwhile, if Grant raised the bar originally set by Capel, Smart has since raised the expectations once set by Grant. Smart won 27 games and the College Basketball Insider Tournament in his first season, then followed with the Rams’ stunning Final Four run in 2010-11. Last year, VCU won a school-record 29 games and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament. It marked the first time since 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons that VCU earned NCAA bids in consecutive years.

CATCHING UP WITH… DOMONIC JONES

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Domonic Jones scored 1,616 points for VCU from 2000-04. He was named CAA Player of the Year in 2004.

This winter is probably going to feel different to Domonic Jones. For the first time in a long time, he won’t be playing organized basketball. The former VCU star retired from professional hoops in the spring. Will he miss it?

“I wasn’t at that moment and not right now,” said the 31-year-old Jones, the 2004 Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year. “That’s not to say that won’t change once basketball season rolls around.”

Jones hasn’t had much trouble filling the basketball void. He’s had a number of other life-shifting events to tend to. On May 19, Jones married the former Amanda Cunningham after a nearly three-year courtship. The couple met through mutual friends a few years ago and managed to grow closer, even as Jones was spending half of his time in Europe.

This spring, Jones decided it was time to move onto the next chapter of his life. No more long distance relationship, no more correspondence from thousands of miles away. He wanted to be home. Home in Richmond. Home with Amanda. After nine professional seasons, mostly in Germany, he called it quits.

“I tried to do what was best for us at the end of the day,” Jones said. “It’s not easy trying to make a relationship work halfway across the world. It’s definitely good to be home,” he said. “I get to spend a lot more time with friends and family.”

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TURNING POINT: THE MICHAEL DOLES GAME

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VCU averaged a Verizon Wireless Arena-record 6,645 fans per home game in 2010-11.

Mike Litos relays a fond, albeit embarrassing memory from his freshman year at VCU. It was 1986, J.D. Barnett had already packed up and left for Tulsa. Although they did not know it at the time, the Rams were sliding into an extended period of mediocrity. Like Haley’s Comet, the program would emerge to win a conference title in 1996 before heading back into another orbit of so-so basketball around the sun, or something like that.

Litos grew up on Tobacco Road, where basketball is religion and your affiliation with Duke or North Carolina (no offense, N.C. State) is akin to being a Hatfield or a McCoy. Schools always packed the house and you had to get to the game at least an hour ahead of time to get a seat in the student section.

Those experiences are what caused Litos to convince his roommate and a couple of other guys to catch the first bus down to the Richmond Coliseum for the Rams’ home-opener that season. After much prodding, they relented.

“When we got there,” he says sheepishly. “We joined the other four students in the building in the student section.”

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