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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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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VIDEO: VCU DEFEATS GEORGE WASHINGTON IN A-10 SEMIFINALS

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HIGHLIGHTS

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PRESSER

RAMS COUNTER-PUNCH IN BUDDING A-10 RIVALRY

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Briante Weber provided 13 points and four steals in VCU's win Saturday.

Briante Weber provided 13 points and four steals in VCU’s win Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – They call him the Freight Train, and that’s what Treveon Graham resembled as his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame rumbled down the sideline midway through the second half Saturday night.

Graham was chasing down a rebound, and despite his heft, the junior guard slipped past two Saint Louis players, grabbed the ball at midcourt and drew a hip-check foul. His momentum carried him into the path of 5-foot-9 VCU Coach Shaka Smart, who corralled him with an enthusiastic bear hug. The normally stoic Graham broke character and flashed a healthy smile.

It turns out, Smart was about the only person who could catch a Ram Saturday night. Saint Louis, ranked 10th in the country, certainly could not, as VCU staged a wire-to-wire 67-56 victory behind an opportunistic defense and a 49th straight sellout crowd at the Verizon Wireless Arena that lurched towards frenzy at every opportunity.

The victory was meaningful on a number of levels, for history – it was the highest-ranked team VCU had ever defeated at home – for the Rams’ NCAA Tournament resume, for its Atlantic 10 seeding, but it may have mattered most for pride. Since the Rams joined the A-10 last season, the Billikens were the only remaining member of the league VCU hadn’t cracked. Saint Louis defeated the Rams twice last season, once in St. Louis and once for the A-10 crown in Brooklyn, and then again at the Billikens’ Chaifetz arena on Feb. 15.

“It was definitely important. We had a mindset of payback from last year when they beat us in the championship game. Of course that’s always on our mind,” admitted junior guard Briante Weber, who provided 13 points and four of VCU’s 12 steals. “They had yet to come to VCU, and we wanted to give them the impression of what VCU’s like when you come in here.”

VCU upset 10th-ranked Saint Louis Saturday night before the 49th-straight sellout at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center,

VCU upset 10th-ranked Saint Louis Saturday night before the 49th-straight sellout at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center,

Amid a pulsating sea of gold – the product of an advertised “Gold Out” – VCU (22-7, 10-4 A-10) whipped itself into an aggressive, defiant state.

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TRIPLE PLAY; RAMS RIDE ARC OVER GW

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VCU hit 13-of-25 from beyond the 3-point arc in a 92-75 win over George Washington.

RICHMOND, Va. – Troy Daniels hit the first 3-pointers before the game even started, and the arc exhibition didn’t end until more than two hours later.

Whether or not the VCU grad inspired his former team is a matter of conjecture, but the Rams certainly followed his lead, riding a season-high 13 three-pointers (on 25 attempts) to a crucial 92-75 win over George Washington Wednesday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

Daniels, who set a school single-season record with 124 three-pointers for VCU last season, was in Richmond while the NBA D-League, where he plays with the Houston Rockets-affiliated Rio Grande Valley Vipers, is on its all-star break. Daniels was called on for a pregame promotion which challenges participants to hit shots to win pizza. After a successful layup and free throw, Daniels swished his 3-point attempt. Then, from halfcourt, he banked home his second attempt to win free pizza for the entire arena.

The fans weren’t the only ones feeding off of 3-pointers, however. Once the game started, VCU feasted by hitting 8-of-14 in the first half alone to roll to a stunning 45-28 advantage. In the second half, the Rams were less prolific and more opportunistic, beating back a George Washington comeback with timely treys. Meanwhile, the Colonials were 0-of-8 from three in the first half and 6-of-18 for the game.

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RANDOM NOTES: FORDHAM

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RICHMOND, Va. – It wasn’t a work of art, but it was a win. VCU turned Fordham over 18 times and held the Bronx-based Rams to 37 percent shooting on the way to a 76-60 win. It was VCU’s fourth straight victory and eighth in the last nine games. Here are some tidbits from the victory.

INJURY UPDATES
VCU junior and leading scorer left the game early in the second half with an apparent injury and did not return. He retreated to the training room for a period of time, but reappeared midway through the period and sat on VCU’s bench for the remainder of the game. He scored nine points in 15 minutes and was limping noticeably on his left leg.

Coach Shaka Smart says he believes Graham has a sprained toe, but stopped short of offering a timeline for his return.

“He’ll be getting as much treatment as possible, and I can’t tell you exactly when he’ll be back, but I’d guess it will be soon.”

Graham is averaging 15.7 points per game this season.  VCU returns to action on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Siegel Center against Richmond.

Meanwhile, senior forward Terrance Shannon (sprained knee) did not play for a third straight game, although he was in uniform.

“He’s good,” Smart said. “His knee’s not all the way back yet, but he’s making progress. He’s done some things in practice. He’s not been 100 percent full-go in practice yet, but I anticipate hopefully he’ll be back, full-go soon.”

Shannon is averaging 3.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game this season.

TIDBITS
VCU shot .338 in the win (22-of-65). It’s the Rams lowest shooting percentage in a victory since shooting .328 (21-of-64) in a 63-57 win over St. Francis (Pa.) on Nov. 11, 2011. VCU is 4-4 when shooting less than 40 percent this season… Briante Weber grabbed four steals to move within two of tying Rolando Lamb’s school record of 257, established in 1985…The game marked VCU’s 45th straight sellout at the Siegel Center… VCU’s 17-4 start is the best of Shaka Smart’s five-year tenure and the Rams’ best since 2007… After opening the season 1-of-14 from 3-point range, Weber is 6-of-16 (38 percent) in VCU’s last five games.

SMART, RAMS TALK AFTER LA SALLE COMEBACK

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RAMS ICE SBU, LOOK PRIMED FOR A-10 PLAY

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Senior Juvonte Reddic provided 11 points in VCU's non-conference finale Friday.

Senior Juvonte Reddic provided 11 points in VCU’s non-conference finale Friday.

RICHMOND, Va. – The Stony Brook basketball team got the jump on snowstorm Hercules by taking the team bus to Richmond early Thursday morning. In the process, the Seawolves escaped howling winds, frigid temperatures and five inches of snow. But what Stony Brook walked into at the Verizon Wireless Arena VCU Friday night was possibly much worse.

Instead of Old Man Winter, Stony Brook got Shaka Smart and a raging Havoc storm front that removed all doubt early in the second half and handed the Seawolves an 81-63 defeat. Instead of Jack Frost, there was Briante Weber coolly directing a VCU team that appears to be rounding into form.

Perhaps it would have been better for Stony Brook to take a snow day.

After a Weber leaner at the first half buzzer gave the Rams a 36-35 lead, the Rams erupted with a 15-0 blitz out of the lockerroom – the type of dizzying run for which VCU has become known – and never looked back on the way to their fourth straight win. It was also the fourth consecutive game in which VCU swept in like a cold front and iced the opposing team’s offense.

The Seawolves may have caught the Rams at the worst possible time. After stinging losses to Florida State and Georgetown earlier this year, the Rams have won eight of nine to close conference play.

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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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