RAMS’ YOUTH, BENCH HELP DELIVER A-10 QUARTERFINAL WIN

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Freshman Melvin Johnson (12 points) was one of several of VCU's young reserves who were key Thursday.

Freshman Melvin Johnson (12 points) was one of several of VCU’s young reserves who were key Thursday.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – There was freshman Justin Tuoyo, all alone on the right wing. He’d barely played the last month and had missed 12 of his previous 14 three-pointers this season. From behind my position, a Saint Joseph’s fan, who had apparently done some advance scouting, shouted, “He can’t shoot a three, let him shoot it.”

Tuoyo promptly sized up the three and canned it.

Instead of hesitating or letting nerves overcome him on a big stage, the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals, Tuoyo stuck to the aggressive, attacking principles that Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart preaches.

At the time the bucket didn’t seem terribly significant. It gave the Rams a 64-47 lead with 8:11 remaining. But Saint Joseph’s, namely Carl Jones (29 points) and Langston Galloway (25 points), wouldn’t quit and managed to whittle the final margin to 82-79.

After the game, Smart was quick to remind Tuoyo of that bucket.

“I told him in the locker room after the game, I know it’s just one shot, but I don’t know if you noticed, but we won by three, and you hit a three,” Smart said. “So we needed every basket, and I think overall, just the contribution that he made in 14 minutes says a lot about his future.”

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FIVE KEYS TO THE 2012-13 SEASON

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1-CAN WE HAVE MORE HAVOC?
For two seasons we waited for the full manifestation of Shaka Smart’s HAVOC, a supposedly chaos-inducing full-court press. For two seasons, it was…good. Not great, but good. In a way, we were lulled into thinking that HAVOC was about offense, that it was about running and lighting up the scoreboard. But Smart continued to teach and recruit the type of athletes he needed to play his system. In 2011-12, HAVOC became “fully operational”.

VCU was a historically good defensive team last season. The Rams limited opponents to under 60 points per game (59.8) and ranked 22nd nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Defense metric. VCU led the nation in steals (381) and turnover margin (+6.5).

The question is, can they duplicate that type of performance this season? There are plenty of reasons to believe VCU can. The Rams return everybody but Bradford Burgess from last year’s team, and have added another HAVOC-type athlete in Justin Tuoyo (read: long, athletic, quick) to the mix. Consider me encouraged.

2-A SCHEDULE WITH (MORE) TEETH
The move to the Atlantic 10 was predicated on better opportunities. Better opportunities for exposure. More nights on national TV. More buzz. And, most importantly, increased opportunities for NCAA bids through greater competition. Look, the A-10 is a better than the CAA. It just is. Even if we try to conveniently forget that the A-10 ranked seventh in RPI last year, while the CAA ranked 14th, the A-10 has been the better league since…always.

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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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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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VCU BLAZING NEW TRAILS ON RECRUITING FRONT

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Jordan Burgess is one of two top-100 rated recruits in VCU’s 2012 recruiting class.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU’s late signing of top-100 guard Melvin Johnson was the Rams’ first since joining the Atlantic 10 on July 1. The evidence suggests it won’t be the last big splash for Shaka Smart and his staff.

The Rams will welcome a pair of four-star recruits this year in Johnson and swingman Jordan Burgess, as well as highly-regarded forwards Justin Tuoyo and Mo-Alie Cox to complete a recruiting class that has earned much praise.

It’s been a long time since VCU landed a four-star or top-100 recruit that wasn’t a transfer. Now the Rams will have two joining the program in the same year. But it’s not just significant locally. VCU is turning heads nationally.

“This is the first year I can remember where a [non-power six conference] program not named Gonzaga has had two top 100 players,” said Dave Telep, recruiting guru and ESPN senior national basketball analyst.

VCU has undoubtedly benefited in recruiting circles from its Final Four appearance in 2011, as well as its move from the CAA to the A10, but the biggest factor in the amount of talent the Rams are able to put out on the floor stalks the sidelines of the Verizon Wireless Arena.

“I think the personality and real charisma and star power Shaka Smart has really keeps [VCU] alive in a lot of instances,” Telep said.

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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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