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Junior Rob Brandenberg scored 10 points in VCU's 73-54 win over Alabama.

Junior Rob Brandenberg scored 10 points in VCU’s 73-54 win over Alabama.

RICHMOND, Va. – Eight days ago in Norfolk, despite a 13-point road win over Old Dominion, Shaka Smart hardly looked like a coach satisfied with his team’s performance. Smart lamented his team’s inability to hold big leads. He said they lacked a “killer instinct”.

Saturday night, in a 73-54 rout of Alabama, Smart and the Rams found what they were looking for.

VCU overwhelmed Alabama’s guards in the first half with full-court and half-court pressure and forced 13 turnovers on the way to a 33-18 lead. In the second half, the Rams would be tested. The Crimson Tide cut VCU’s lead to 11 points on a Trevor Releford bucket with 16:04 remaining. It was a litmus test. How would the Rams respond?

In similar situations against Old Dominion the Rams built a big lead, only to watch the Monarchs chip away. On Dec. 1 against Belmont, VCU looked unbeatable on the way to an 18-point halftime lead, but allowed the Bruins pull within five points late in the game.

That was not going to happen Saturday night. The Rams staged a 15-4 run in just 2:51, punctuated by back-to-back 3-pointers by Melvin Johnson and Troy Daniels, to blow the game wide open. VCU’s lead would actually reach 26 before Alabama stopped the bleeding. Crimson Tide Coach Anthony Grant, normally intense and animated on the sideline, sat quietly, hands on chin, for much of the rest of the game.



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Alabama junior center Carl Engstrom (left) will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.

Alabama junior center Carl Engstrom (left) will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.

RICHMOND, Va. – Alabama will be down to eight scholarship players when it visits VCU at the Verizon Wireless Arena Saturday (4 p.m.). Crimson Tide Coach Anthony Grant announced that senior guard Andrew Steele had surgery to repair a sports hernia Thursday. It had been previously announced that junior Carl Engstrom, who was injured Dec. 1 against Cincinnati, had a torn ACL and would miss the remainder of the season.

Steele averaged 4.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assist per game this season in 19 minutes per game. Engstrom, a 7-foot-1 center, was averaging 3.3 points and 2.7 rebounds for Alabama this year. He started three games.

The Tide also have three walk-ons, Julian Goode, Keon Blackledge and Dakota Slaughter, on the bench, although they’ve played a combined 30 minutes this season. Alabama’s lack of depth could be an issue against VCU’s high-intensity “Havoc” defense. In addition, Grant’s own “94-Feet, Both Ways” style calls for multiple presses and rugged man-to-man defense. But he says Alabama won’t alter its game plan despite its short bench.

“It won’t take anything off the table from that standpoint,” Grant said Thursday. “Obviously, every game will require different things and you’ve got to game plan for each opponent differently. So for us, I think our guys understand we’ve got to put ourselves in a position to win every game.”

The loss of Engstrom also means the Crimson will have just one available player over 6-8 on their roster, 7-footer Moussa Gueye. Alabama hasn’t been a particularly strong rebounding team this season. The Crimson Tide have been outrebounded by an average of 0.6 boards per game, and guard Rodney Cooper leads the team on the glass with 4.7 per game.

Meanwhile, VCU senior point guard Darius Theus continues to recover from the right knee injury he suffered in VCU’s win over Stetson on Nov. 28. Theus missed the Rams’ win over Belmont Dec. 1, but came off the bench and played 16 minutes Dec. 7 at Old Dominion.

VCU Coach Shaka Smart says Theus, who is averaging 7.4 points and 4.1 assist per game, isn’t back to full strength, but is getting closer.

“He’s really progressing. He’s not 100 percent yet, but he’s really progressing,” Smart said Wednesday. “You can always tell when a guy who is hurt is feeling better because he starts jumping around on his own when he’s shooting and doing things on the court.”

In his absence, sophomores Teddy Okereafor and Briante Weber have shared point guard duties.


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Anthony Grant led VCU to a 76-25 record and two NCAA Tournament bids from 2006-09. He returns to the Siegel Center for the first time with Alabama Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – The tales of Anthony Grant’s legendary focus are not born from whimsical bouts of mythology. It’s real. With blinders of coaching affixed to his temples, a fiery motivator smolders beneath a Rushmoresque stoic façade. What you see is what you get.

The only game in Grant’s day planner is the next one. He’s famously resistant to any effort to discuss a game other than the next one on his team’s schedule, not to local media and national pundits, not on his own coaches radio show, not to anyone. It’s like coaching in a pre-Christopher Columbus world. Ships that sail around the next game on the schedule immediately fall off the face of the earth and into an abyss. Okay, maybe a little mythology.

His approach to the game at hand is similarly singular, free of distraction and emotional attachment, other than the desire to win the game.



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Shaka Smart has led the Rams to unprecedented success, but he's quick to acknowledge the groundwork laid by former coach Anthony Grant.

Shaka Smart has led the Rams to unprecedented success, but he’s quick to acknowledge the groundwork laid by former coach Anthony Grant.

RICHMOND, Va. – There were a number of reasons the VCU head coaching job was attractive to Shaka Smart in 2009. Many of those same factors have helped Smart lead the Rams through three of the most successful seasons in program history.

Smart didn’t have to build VCU Basketball from the ground up, and few people are more acutely aware of the role others played before his arrival than Smart himself. Alabama Coach Anthony Grant is one of those people, and Smart is quick to credit his predecessor.

“I think what Anthony did here was phenomenal,” Smart said Wednesday. “I think he really set the bar higher than it had ever been. I think Jeff Capel before Anthony set the bar very high and I think Anthony raised the bar.”

Grant coached the Rams to a 76-25 record from 2006-09. He led VCU to Colonial Athletic Association Championships and NCAA bids in 2007 and 2009. His .753 winning percentage is the highest in school history, slightly ahead of Smart’s .743 (90-31) mark. But it was his 2006-07 team’s upset of Duke that remains the seminal moment of his tenure. The win, VCU’s first NCAA Tournament victory in 22 years, thrust the Rams into the national spotlight and served as a launching pad for the program.

“The game against Duke was certainly a watershed moment in this program’s history,” Smart said.

Grant also recruited Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell, Larry Sanders, Jamie Skeen (transfer) and Bradford Burgess. Sanders eventually became the highest NBA Draft pick in school history, while Rodriguez, Nixon, Rozzell, Skeen and Burgess formed the backbone of VCU’s 2011 Final Four squad.

Smart says that after he accepted the VCU job, he contacted both Capel, who coached the Rams from 2002-06, and Grant, who helped familiarize him with his players and the landscape of the school.

Grant is 69-41 in four seasons with the Crimson Tide. Last season, he led Alabama to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. In 2010-11, the Crimson Tide captured the SEC West Division title and reached the NIT Championship Game, where they fell to Wichita State.

“I’ve got tremendous respect for him and the program he’s built,” Smart said. “I think Anthony’s one of the top coaches in the country.”

Meanwhile, if Grant raised the bar originally set by Capel, Smart has since raised the expectations once set by Grant. Smart won 27 games and the College Basketball Insider Tournament in his first season, then followed with the Rams’ stunning Final Four run in 2010-11. Last year, VCU won a school-record 29 games and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament. It marked the first time since 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons that VCU earned NCAA bids in consecutive years.

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