POST ‘DAGGER’ ERA MOLDED IN SAN JUAN

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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.

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RAMS IN THE PROS: SANDERS SURGES

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Former Ram Larry Sanders (center) is averaging 8.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game this season.

Former Ram Larry Sanders (center) is averaging 8.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game this season.

It looks like Larry Sanders is starting to figure out this NBA thing.

The 24-year-old former VCU star and current Milwaukee Buck is enjoying a breakout season. Selected 15th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft, Sanders is beginning to deliver on the promise Milwaukee saw on film and in workouts.

Through a quarter of the season, the 6-foot-11, 235-pound center was averaging career-highs of 8.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Sanders is shooting 54 percent from the floor, and as of this writing, his 3.0 blocks per game average was tied for the league lead.

Last season, Sanders averaged just 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. But a strong preseason and training camp earned him increased playing time from Bucks’ Coach Scott Skiles. Sanders responded with 10 points and seven rebounds in an opening-night victory over the Boston Celtics.

On Nov. 30, Sanders recorded his first career triple-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocked shots in a loss at Minnesota. His 10 blocks tied the franchise record, set by Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar later took to Twitter to congratulate Sanders.

Sanders followed with 18 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks against the Celtics the next night.

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IS JAMIE SKEEN NFL DREAMING?

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Jamie Skeen was named NCAA Southwest Regional MVP during VCU's march to the Final Four in 2011.

Jamie Skeen was named NCAA Southwest Regional MVP during VCU’s march to the Final Four in 2011.

I had a chance to talk to former Ram Jamie Skeen last week. He’s playing professionally in Israel, and it’s been a difficult year over there for Skeen, one of the heroes of VCU’s Final Four run. You can read more about that by picking up a game program at the Longwood or Fairleigh Dickinson games later this month.

But I saved one tidbit for the blog because I was short on space and it didn’t necessarily fit with the tone of the program piece. At some point in our conversation, he told me he planned on trying out for the NFL this summer. I chuckled at first, not sure if he was being facetious. I mean, Jamie can be pretty funny when he wants, and I already knew he was a huge Carolina Panthers fan. But Skeen insisted he was 100 percent serious.

After a minute or so, I thought, well, why not?

Skeen measured 6-foot-8 (in shoes) and 242 pounds at the NBA Draft combine last year, which means he’s got the size of an NFL tight end. Coupled with his athleticism and soft hands, he has many of the necessary skills. Of course, Jamie didn’t play football in high school or college, so that’s going to be a big problem.

However, this situation is not unprecedented. Antonio Gates played basketball, not football at Kent State, but became an All-Pro tight end for the San Diego Chargers. Earlier this year, Les Brown, an accountant who played Division III basketball, earned a contract as a tight end with the Miami Dolphins, but was cut in training camp. Tony Gonzalez, who will be in the Hall of Fame the minute he’s eligible, was a football and basketball star at California.

VCU fans will no doubt remember when former Ram Jesse Pellot-Rosa was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Jets in 2007. Pellot-Rosa, hampered by a hand injury for much of training camp, played in one preseason game before he was cut by the team. Before choosing basketball, Pellot-Rosa was a star wide receiver in high school.

Whatever his chances, Skeen believes he has the connections to get himself a tryout this summer. He says he’s eying Carolina and the Atlanta Falcons. We will be watching closely.

VIDEO: VCU ROLLS TIDE

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FREE PIZZA C/O JESSE PELLOT-ROSA

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ALABAMA COACH ANTHONY GRANT

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SHAKA SMART

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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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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WE WERE MERELY FRESHMEN

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Larry Sanders averaged 4.9 points and 5.2 rebounds as a freshman in 2007-08

They say youth is wasted on the young. I just think those of us in the post-30 crowd hate that The Jersey Shore has taken over MTV. When I was a college freshman, I could run a sub-5:00 mile, sleep three hours a night and had great hair (true story). Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, and I didn’t care.  The experience, one painful lesson at a time, was all worth it. It made me better personally and professionally (at least, that’s what I’m going with).

There are six freshmen on this year’s VCU Men’s Basketball team. Statistically speaking, the Rams are the 10th-youngest team in the country. They’re all great basketball players. They wouldn’t be here otherwise. But there are going to be mistakes, plenty of youthful mistakes. Enough to cause Shaka Smart to lose some of his hair…wait…let’s move on.

The point here is that these guys are all great talents, it’s just a matter of getting the best out of them. It’s going to take time. You’ll see it some nights and others you might shake your head. It’s rare to find a guy ahead of the curve, who can come in and dominate right away. Just like I didn’t come in and just dominate the blogging game. It took years of experience to be this awesome.

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