BLACK & GOLD SCRIMMAGE OBSERVATIONS

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Melvin Johnson (center) led all scorers with 26 points in Sunday's scrimmage.

Melvin Johnson (center) led all scorers with 26 points in Sunday’s scrimmage.

RICHMOND, Va. – It certainly didn’t feel like a scrimmage, what with the stands full of black and gold-clad fans, the pep band in mid-season, bar-raising form, and players crashing into the benches for loose balls.

VCU Coach Shaka Smart put his 2014-15 team on display Sunday night in the annual intra-squad Black and Gold Scrimmage at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. A crowd of 4,855 poured in to have a look, and they likely came away with plenty to talk about – and that’s without even talking about the basketball. It was an event with regular-season appeal, two weeks early.

On the floor, fans were treated to an up-and-down pace and some new faces, as well as a few familiar players who were anything but old hat.

Here are a few takeaways from the game, a 73-63 win for the Gold team, led by JeQuan Lewis and Briante Weber.

1-VCU fans are ridiculous in the best way possible. Much was made of last year’s Black and Gold Scrimmage audience of nearly 3,200. That’s pretty impressive for a intra-squad scrimmage. The first two schools I worked at in college athletics would’ve changed their mascots to the Fightin’ CPAs for a REGULAR SEASON crowd of 3,200 at one of their games. But 4,800? Are you serious? That’s better than the average attendance of seven Atlantic 10 Conference schools last year and just a shade below George Mason’s average crowd from 2013-14.

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BLACK & GOLD SCRIMMAGE: 6 THINGS TO WATCH

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Doug Brooks dribbles during last year's Black & Gold Scrimmage.

Doug Brooks dribbles during last year’s Black & Gold Scrimmage.

Up until now, you either needed CIA-level clearance from Shaka Smart or a grappling hook and a glass cutter to see the 2014-15 VCU Men’s Basketball team in action.

That changes on Sunday, Oct. 26 when VCU opens up the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center for the Black and Gold Game, a sort-of annual intrasquad scrimmage open to the public.

Here are six things to look for.

1-THE NEW GUYS: Remember the last time an incoming VCU recruiting class generated as much attention as this year’s freshman class? Yeah, me neither. The quartet of Terry Larrier, Justin Tillman, Michael Gilmore and Johnny Williams has received plenty of attention, and for good reason. ESPN ranked this group one of the 15 best in the country, so forgive us if we’re a little excited. Like, Briante Weber excited. Is Larrier rotation ready? Can Gilmore and Tillman solidify VCU’s frontcourt? Can Johnny Williams shoulder some of the point guard duties this season? The Black and Gold Game won’t answer those questions, but it’ll help us begin to form a picture.

2-MICROWAVE MELVIN: According to this recent feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, junior guard Melvin Johnson, who plays style of made-for-TV basketball, put some serious hours in at Franklin Street Gym this summer. Johnson says he was hoisting up about 500 three-pointers on most days, sometimes more. The Rams will need to replace the scoring punch of Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg. Johnson is a safe bet to pick up some of that slack.

3-OVERREACTIONS: Hey kids. I know none of us like to talk about this, but sometimes we tend to overemphasize the importance of things like an intra-squad scrimmage in October. Just because somebody blows up in an exhibition is no guarantee of a big season. Sure, Melvin Johnson hit five 3-pointers in last year’s Black and Gold Scrimmage, but I also gushed over Terrance Shannon’s heady performance and expected big things out of the Florida State transfer. While Shannon certainly provided some big plays for the Rams – plus one of the cooler put-back dunks I’ve ever seen – he never got entirely comfortable. I also loved Jairus Lyes quickness and playmaking in last year’s game, but he never could wrestle many minutes away from Briante Weber or JeQuan Lewis. Let the scrimmage serve as a piece of the bigger picture, not a predictor of greatness.

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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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SO THIS IS TERRY LARRIER…

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I don’t post a lot of mix tapes and dunk videos because they’re so overblown and generally of little use in actually evaluating a player’s on-court ability. You may have noticed that there are more than a few Division I basketball players that can dunk.

With all that get-off-my-lawn bluster aside, it’s hard not to enjoy watching this dunk from incoming four-star recruit Terry Larrier. Don’t project a career arc when you watch this. Just enjoy it for what it is. That doesn’t mean you should refrain from cooking up Terry Larrier nicknames. The season will be here before you know it.

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In other news, it is now completely impossible to dislike Kevin Durant. Last night, Durant gave probably the best MVP award acceptance speech ever. The best part is when Durant addresses his mom directly (about 2:55 mark). Watch it.

VCU AND A NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

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Barclays-Center

Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is also home to the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament in March.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When is a game more than a game? For VCU, it’s usually when the game is in New York.

On Saturday, another opportunity for the game within the game presented itself. VCU beat back ACC foe Boston College 69-50 at Barclays Center with an outstanding defensive performance. That’s an effort worthy of its own discussion, but that’s not what’s being discussed here. What was significant about VCU’s appearance at the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival is how the Rams, and the program as a whole, benefit from even playing that game to begin with.

If you’re a casual fan, or just someone that wants to focus on the happenings on the court, there was plenty to enjoy in VCU’s win. But if you’re interested in all facets of the program, then it’s a worthwhile venture to consider the value of events like this one.

Let’s deal with the obvious first. Saturday’s game was a chance for VCU to play a neutral site game against an ACC opponent. The Rams have experienced difficulty scheduling home-and-home series with schools from conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and the like. Rather than accept an inequitable 2-for-1 split – or worse – the next best thing has been to play teams on neutral floors. This is fast becoming a staple of the Rams’ non-conference schedule.

Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart said VCU learned of the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival through organizer Chris Spencer of Basketball Tournaments, Inc., who is one of the men behind the Las Vegas Invitational and other similar college basketball events. Assistant Coach Mike Morrell is in charge of scheduling for VCU, and looks for opportunities just like this one to give the Rams both balance and NCAA-resume building opportunities.

But there’s more to consider; everything from recruiting to media exposure to the Atlantic 10 Championship in March.

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