RAMS, TEAM IMPACT JOIN FORCES TO SIGN MORGAN VEGA

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Shaka Smart welcomes Morgan Vega (center) to the VCU Basketball program Thursday.

Shaka Smart welcomes Morgan Vega (center) to the VCU Basketball program Thursday.

“You’re part of the team now,” VCU Men’s Basketball Coach Shaka Smart told 17-year-old Henrico native Morgan Vega Thursday afternoon.

Vega, who has battled serious, lifelong health issues as a result of cerebral palsy, was introduced as the newest member of the Rams during a press conference at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Surrounded by the Smart, the basketball team, and friends and family, Vega signed a National Letter of Intent and was was presented with official VCU Basketball gear.

“You always want people to be part of your organization who have a passion and an enthusiasm about what you’re doing. Morgan is a young man who has certainly had some adversity, but he’s got a great attitude, he’s got a great smile. He loves VCU Basketball and we’re excited to having him here,” Smart said.

Vega is a participant in Team Impact, which aims to “improve the quality of life for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses through the power of team”, according to the organization’s official website. Earlier this fall, Team Impact and VCU Field Hockey joined forces to sign 4-year-old Lauryn Lewis.

Afterwards, Vega posed for pictures with the men’s basketball team and received hugs and well-wishes from friends and family.

“I think it’s a good reminder for our players that there are a lot of people out there that look up to them, and in this case, Morgan is really not much younger than our guys. I think for our guys it’s a humbling reminder of just the perspective that’s out there and the reality that in our small world of VCU Basketball, there’s a lot of people that are watching what we’re doing,” Smart said.

To learn more about Team Impact, visit GoTeamImpact.com.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN: SHAKA SMART AT A-10 MEDIA DAY

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Videographer Mike Voyack followed Shaka Smart around at Atlantic 10 Media Day in Brooklyn this week. He offers this behind the scenes report.

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Also, Shaka Smart’s knowledge of the 1986 World Series Champion New York Mets is pretty impressive.

BROOKLYN & BACK: A-10 MEDIA DAY

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Atlantic 10 Conference Men’s Basketball Media Day has come and gone. Here’s a sampling of the day that was at Barclays Center.

SHAKA SMART REALLY LOVES PANCAKES

THE RAMS ARE THE UNANIMOUS PRESEASON FAVORITES

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WITH TOUTED FRESHMEN ON BOARD, SMART PREACHES PATIENCE

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Shaka Smart is set to open his sixth season as VCU coach.

Shaka Smart is set to open his sixth season as VCU coach.

RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart understands the hype around his freshman class. He did recruit Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams, Michael Gilmore and Terry Larrier, after all. But he’s also seen enough freshmen struggle to know that caution is often the best path.

“We have four freshmen who have done a really nice job since they got here in June,” Smart said Wednesday. “Right now they’re going through the typical freshman fall ups and downs and transitioning to getting physically ready for real college practice and the competition that comes with that every day.”

Smart will get a closer look at his freshman class’ transition soon. The Rams kick off full team practices Friday, six weeks prior to their season-opener on Nov. 14 against Tennessee in Annapolis.

No VCU recruiting class has garnered as much attention as this far-reaching quartet, which Smart and his staff tapped from Detroit (Tillman), New York (Larrier), Jacksonville (Gilmore) and Richmond (Williams). ESPN rated the class No. 14 in the country last year. Larrier, Gilmore and Tillman were all ranked in ESPN’s Top 100 players.

Larrier has received the bulk of the preseason hype. A consensus four-star and top-50 recruit, Larrier’s choice of VCU over UConn was seen by many as a coup for the Rams. A 6-foot-8 guard, Larrier possesses an advanced offensive game, as well as the length Smart covets in his high-energy, full court press.

“He’s going to help us a lot this year,” Smart said. “I think he’s going to have a big role. I would say similar to a Treveon Graham, a Melvin Johnson did as freshmen. Maybe a little bit more if he can put it together. It’s always interesting to see how freshmen are able to deal with everything that goes into being a freshman, and he’s just getting started with that.”

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MOONEY PIES? SHAKA SMARTFOOD?

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Ewoks love BBQ.

Ewoks love BBQ.

On April 17 at 6 p.m., Shaka Smart and Chris Mooney will start their ovens and square off in what can only be billed as the most important basketball-themed culinary showdown in Richmond this spring, the 2014 Coaches’ Cook-Off, which will be held at the Science Museum of Richmond.

So as not to bury the lede, the competition will benefit Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe, a terrific organization which trains people with disabilities to work in the food service industry. So if you have an opportunity to attend this great event, please consider it. Find out more, including how to purchase tickets, here.

I’ve got to give Mooney credit. Shaka Smart already owns three wins over the Richmond coach this year, but he’s back for more. Despite his track record, don’t expect Smart to take this match-up lightly. I know for a fact he’s been dissecting film of “Chopped” and “Cutthroat Kitchen” this entire week.

VCU Video Coordinator Dwight Perry says Smart has been working around the clock to prepare for the kitchen showdown.

“I spent all of last night cutting risotto clips. Today, it’s chutney. I didn’t even know what chutney was until yesterday,” said Perry, clutching a 64-ounce espresso. “Two days ago, he kept screaming ‘Havoc!’ throughout an entire episode of ‘Barefoot Contessa’. He’s totally dialed in right now.”

As of press time, rumors that Guy Fieri interviewed this week for the open position on Smart’s staff, vacated when Mike Rhoades accepted the job at Rice (coincidence? I think not), remain unconfirmed.

In the competition, Smart and Mooney will each team with a chef to create dishes that will be rated by a panel of judges. Mooney edged Smart last year in this competition, but I love Shaka’s squad this time around. He’s teaming up with Buz Grossberg of Buz and Ned’s BBQ. Seriously. Just call it off now. Shaka is nearly unbeatable when paired with BBQ. I checked with men’s basketball SID Scott Day for Smart’s record when barbequing.

“What is wrong with you,” Day replied via a tersely worded text message.

It should be fun. I’m expecting laughter, tears, joy, exasperation, triumph and cole slaw. I hope you can make it.

2013 COACHES’ COOK-OFF

THE LAST WORTHLESS EVENING…

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I had to furrow my brow a bit when VCU came out of the locker room for its public shootaround yesterday. Normally the Rams charge onto the floor with its trademark spirit and ebullience, but this was different. It was more of a mosey.

It was atypical and a bit concerning, to be honest, but once the whistle blew and called the meeting to order, somebody turned on the wattage. It was a bouncy, loose, fun shootaround. I had someone from another university comment to me that “my God you guys are loose” and he wondered if we were always this loose.

Yes, we are. And our coach participates:

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The practice ended, somewhat perfectly, with Juvonte Reddic giving Torrey Burston a bit of help in his leap to dunk the ball.

Yeah, I”d say the team is loose.

Last night the team went to dinner but was back early to watch more basketball and take it easy. (Side note: how much fun was that?) Our hotel had a faux fire alarm while they were out that stirred up the place, but it turned out to be nothing. All in all, it was a pretty standard pregame evening. That’s exactly as we want it.

But that was yesterday.

Today, it’s a different kind of meeting, and Shaka Smart will be in suit and tie, although he won’t be wearing his jacket for very long. The guys will sleep in and then begin the gameday routine they’ve gone through 34 times already this year.

They will approach the SFA game with great seriousness but simply go play basketball, which is more fun for them than anything else.

Gameday.

VIDEO: VCU PRESSERS & OPEN PRACTICE

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OPEN PRACTICE

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SHAKA SMART

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VCU PLAYERS

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STEPHEN F. AUSTIN COACH BRAD UNDERWOOD

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STEPHEN F. AUSTIN

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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VCU MEDIA MINUTES (MARCH 17)

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On Monday, Shaka Smart, Rob Brandenberg and Treveon Graham met with members of the Richmond media to discuss the Rams’ NCAA Tournament match-up with Stephen F. Austin, the Atlantic 10 Tournament and other topics.

SHAKA SMART

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ROB BRANDENBERG

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TREVEON GRAHAM

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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