TITLE GAME LOSS NOT THE ARBITER OF VCU SEASON’S WORTHINESS

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VCU fell to Saint Joseph's Sunday in the A-10 Championship Game, but the Rams are dancing anyway.

VCU fell to Saint Joseph’s Sunday in the A-10 Championship Game, but the Rams are dancing anyway.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Two years ago, this column would have been a eulogy. Today, it’s merely a reminder of how far the VCU program has come and where it’s headed.

VCU suffered a cruel blow Sunday at Barclays Center with a 65-61 loss to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game. It was a near repeat of 12 months ago, when Saint Louis dealt the Rams a similarly close championship game loss on the same floor.

Emotion caught up to the weight of those two losses Sunday. At the final horn, which cut short VCU’s furious attempt at a comeback, senior Juvonte Reddic crouched down near the VCU basket and buried his head in his shirt. It wasn’t until teammate Jarred Guest and Assistant Coach Mike Rhoades came over to comfort Reddic that he finally left the floor.

It’s understandable that Reddic would be crestfallen. For a second straight year, VCU came within a couple of bounces of a championship. That’s hard to handle, for sure.

But the tonic for what ails Reddic and VCU fans right now should be this: In the two years since the Rams last won a conference championship, the 2012 CAA title, the program has blossomed into a consistent national force. That doesn’t blunt the pain of a championship loss on Sunday, but it does make for a better Monday. That’s because by then, VCU will be making travel arrangements for a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament trip.

In 2011, VCU had to sweat out the NCAA Selection Show after losing to Old Dominion in the CAA Championship Game. Actually, many of the players didn’t bother to watch the show at all. Today, all they had to worry about was whether or not they needed to pack shorts or fleece. The answer is shorts, by the way, as VCU drew a 5-seed and will play Stephen F. Austin in San Diego Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

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VIDEO: VCU BEATS SAINT JOSEPH’S

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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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VCU-SAINT JOSEPH’S HALFTIME NOTES/RAPID REAX

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Score: VCU 33, Saint Joe’s 23

Of note: With Spike Lee courtside rooting for the Rams, VCU stormed out of the gate to a 14-6 lead on the strength of 6-of-9 shooting and six Saint Joseph’s turnovers. The Hawks actually turned the ball over six times in seven possessions at one point.

Early foul trouble was an issue for the Rams. Treveon Graham picked up his second foul at the 11:45 mark of the half and Juvonte Reddic picked up his second a short time later. In their absence, the Rams got important minutes from senior walk-on David Hinton (3) and freshman Justin Tuoyo (4). Although neither player scored, they played sound defensively and kept Saint Joseph’s out of the lane.

Freshman Melvin Johnson, a Bronx native, continued his late-season surge, scoring eight first-half points in front of more than 50 friends and family. Senior Darius Theus led the Rams with nine points in the first, including a high-arching floater off the glass to beat the first half horn.

Although Saint Joseph’s had a 12-5 advantage in fouls, the Hawks were just 8-of-15 at the line. Carl Jones was the only Hawk to score the last nine minutes of the half and had eight points in all.

VCU shot 48 percent (14-of-29) in the first half, while Saint Joe’s shot 37 percent (7-of-19).

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SIZING UP VCU’S POTENTIAL A-10 QUARTERFINAL OPPONENTS

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Travis Taylor averages 11.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game for Xavier.

Travis Taylor averages 11.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game for Xavier.

No. 7 Xavier Musketeers (17-13, 9-7)
Coach:
Chris Mack (fourth season)
RPI/KenPom: 78/80
A-10 Tournament Championships: 4 (1998, 2002, 2004, 2006)
All time vs. VCU: series tied 2-2
This season: VCU 75, Xavier 71 (Feb. 23 – Cincinnati, Ohio)
Player to watch: Semaj Christon, Fr., Guard (15.4 ppg, 4.7 apg)
The rundown: Should the Rams draw the Musketeers in Friday’s quarterfinals, Christon would likely play a critical role in the outcome of the game. The last time these two teams met, the A-10 Rookie of the Year committed 10 turnovers against VCU’s Havoc full-court press. Yes, 10.

The first meeting between these two was a tale of two halves. Xavier shot an incredible 74 percent (14-of-19) in the first half and took a 39-26 lead into the lockerroom. The Musketeers extended their margin to as much as 17 points with 18:57 left before the Rams started knocking down shots and the press began wearing Xavier down. In all, VCU turned Xavier over 22 times in the game, which the Rams converted into 23 points.

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VIDEO: VCU OUTLASTS SAINT JOSEPH’S IN OT

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REDDIC TO THEUS MAKES SPORTSCENTER TOP 10

SHAKA SMART PRESSER

PHIL MARTELLI PRESSER

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD

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Sophomore Treveon Graham scored six of his game-high 25 points in overtime Thursday.

Sophomore Treveon Graham scored six of his game-high 25 points in overtime Thursday.

RICHMOND, Va. – If you turned on Thursday’s VCU-Saint Joseph’s game and felt like you were watching an instant classic from some March of yesteryear, don’t worry, you weren’t the only one. This was a March appetizer on a January plate.

What you were actually witnessing was just another day in the life of the rough-and-tumble Atlantic 10 Conference, 22nd-ranked VCU’s new hoops home. This probably won’t be the last one of these. There are very few pushovers in one of America’s deepest leagues, and there are apparently no off nights in this 16-team gauntlet. While the Colonial Athletic Association was often a caste system of haves and have-nots, the A-10 feels like a balanced free-for-all.

What we learned from the Rams’ heart-pounding, how-did-they-do-it 92-86 overtime victory, in addition to expect more white-knuckle barnburners, was that VCU (15-3, 3-0 A-10) is also up to the challenge offered by the A-10.

When the Rams’ backs were against the wall, they found an answer. When they needed to counterpunch, and counterpunch, and counterpunch they did. When they needed something miraculous, they got it. It wasn’t perfect. Saint Joseph’s (9-6, 1-2 A-10) hit 9-of-22 threes and shot 52 percent for the game, but it was enough.

“If you want to win a conference you have to win games like this,” said VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. “Not every game is a masterpiece.”

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INTRODUCING THE HAWK

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The Hawk has been a fixture at Saint Joseph's basketball games since 1955.

The Hawk has been a fixture at Saint Joseph’s basketball games since 1955.

While the VCU Basketball team is ramping up its preparations for the Saint Joseph’s Hawks, I wonder if VCU fans are ready for The Hawk of Saint Joseph’s.

The Hawk carries a mascot tradition like no other. Whoever wins the right to serve as The Hawk earns a full scholarship. Seriously. The Hawk has to flap at least one wing the entire game and swoops around the floor in figure eights during home games. The Hawk travels to all home and away games. Somebody even named The Hawk the best mascot in college basketball at one point. So, Thursday won’t just be a challenge for the VCU Basketball team, it’ll be a challenge for Rodney the Ram as well. Step up your game, RR.

For all the whimsical, blob-like creatures that are passing as mascots these days (not to mention pantless bird men), The Hawk remains as basic as Pong (can’t they get him some gloves, though. It’s just weird for a hawk to have man hands. Just weird). The beauty of The Hawk is in its tradition and its insane arm workouts.

Be ready Rams fans. The Hawk is coming.

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER

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VCU and Butler met at the 2011 Final Four in Houston. Butler earned a 70-62 win, despite 27 points from VCU’s Jamie Skeen.

Last year, this would’ve been just another Tuesday in June at VCU Athletics HQ. Instead, the Atlantic 10 (16!) released men’s basketball home and road opponents for each school Tuesday, sending the Twitterverse into a type of frenzy normally reserved for March Madness and Kate Middleton.

In a 16-team league, VCU wasn’t going to get every team on its wish list at home. There’s only 16 games with which to see the league, eight of them on the road. How did the Rams do? In terms of Buzz Factor, pretty good.

The Rams will partner and play home and home with Richmond. That was essentially a given. After that, the only thing anybody cared about was which teams were coming to the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, sponsored by Goody’s, McDonald’s, M&M’s and Nationwide, brought to you by Gatorade?

Here’s who will be visiting: Butler, Dayton, Fordham, George Washington, LaSalle, UMass, Richmond and Saint Joseph’s.  That’s a pretty good slate right there. Butler, Dayton, UMass and Saint Joe’s all have varying degrees of name-recognition.

This is my quickie “must-see” meter for VCU’s A-10 home dates:

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