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Kirill Pishchalnikov defends Arkansas' Charles Thomas during the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

Kirill Pishchalnikov defends Arkansas’ Charles Thomas during the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.


The post-Dagger days began in Puerto Rico.

It was in San Juan in 2007, at the first Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where we tried to find out if VCU, as a Goliath exterminator, had staying power. Nearly a week after rolling designated milk jug Maryland-Eastern Shore in the 2007-08 season-opener, VCU headed to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Anthony Grant, was, as Shaka Smart is today, THE rising star among college coaches. Eric Maynor, whose “Dagger” with 1.8 seconds left gave VCU its unforgettable, 79-77 upset of Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the previous March, was a certified star. You could have sold his image on commemorative plates on QVC alongside those bearing Dale Earnhardt’s, if the NCAA allowed that sort of kitsch.

But while Grant and Maynor were known quantities, magnetic drawing cards with the goods to back it up, the rest was up in the air. People love NCAA Tournament upsets, they embrace the Princetons and the Bryce Drews, the Eric Maynors, the Cleveland States and the La Salles for weeks each March. But when the lights go out, most of them fade from the national consciousness. We rode high on the hog for months, but secretly, we wondered if Maynor’s “Dagger” was VCU’s 15 minutes; If the illogical food chain of college hoops would gobble us up and cast us back from whence we came, back to the obscurity of mid-majordom.

The tournament began in earnest. Grant’s recruiting class that year included Larry Sanders, Joey Rodriguez, Lance Kearse, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell and Myk Brown, and transfer Kirill Pishchalnikov was also on board. Much of the publicity, and for a VCU recruiting class up to that point, it was significant, focused on Kearse and Rodriguez. Sanders was intriguing, but very much an unknown.



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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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VCU fans rush the floor after the Rams upset 17th-ranked Oklahoma at the Siegel Center in 2009.

VCU fans rush the floor after the Rams upset 17th-ranked Oklahoma at the Siegel Center in 2009.

RICHMOND, Va. – When VCU hosts Alabama Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, the game will officially fall into a category of events rarer than Anthony Grant smiles during press conferences.

It will be just the 10th time the Rams will have hosted a school that is a current member of a BCS Conference (Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big East, ACC, Big 12) since the Siegel Center opened in 1999. But even that number is a bit misleading. At the time of those games, two schools weren’t yet members of those power conferences. That means just seven out of VCU’s 194 games in the Siegel Center have been against schools operating under BCS banner.

It’s not for a lack of trying, Shaka Smart says.

“We try to schedule these games. Every once and a while, we’re successful,” he said. “Typically, people don’t want to come here, and I think that’s a testament to the fans here and the success the program has had over the past several years since 1999 that the Siegel Center has been open, and other teams know that.”

The Rams are 166-28 all-time at the Siegel Center, a winning percentage of .856. VCU is 3-1 at home this season. Schools from BCS Conferences are often wary of playing road games at schools from less prominent leagues, especially ones like VCU, who are tough to beat at home. VCU’s frantic style of play, compounded by the often deafening roar of 7,500-plus fans, can make other schools skittish about scheduling the Rams at “The Stu”.

“Those BCS schools aren’t just playing 13, 14 guys, they’re actually playing thousands of people. They’re coming to the Siegel Center. They have to play against us and the crowd,” said VCU senior Troy Daniels.

VCU's pressure defense proved too much for Big East member South Florida last season.

VCU’s pressure defense proved too much for Big East member South Florida last season.

Many BCS schools view the games as no-win situations because they’ll be expected to win, and if they don’t, they’ll face additional scrutiny.

The last BCS school to visit the Verizon Wireless Arena was South Florida last season, a game VCU won 69-46. Even when VCU has been successful in luring a BCS school to Richmond, it has rarely been a marquee name (see: South Florida). Saturday’s game with Alabama is part of a clause in Grant’s VCU contract that guaranteed the school a home-and-home series if the coach accepted another job. Grant left VCU for Alabama in 2009, and the two schools met last season in Tuscaloosa, Ala. with the Crimson Tide earning a 72-64 win.

VCU also received a home-and-home series with Oklahoma after Jeff Capel accepted that job. In 2009, the Sooners visited the Siegel Center as the 17th-ranked team in the country and left with an 82-69 loss. To date, it is the only time the Rams have hosted a ranked opponent at the Siegel Center.

Overall, the Rams are 7-2 in games at the Siegel Center against schools currently residing in a BCS Conference, including 5-2 against schools that were BCS-affiliated at the time of the contest.  So, while VCU’s opportunities have been limited, the Rams have often made the best of them. They’ll hope to do the same Saturday against Alabama. The Crimson Tide will likely be a top 100 RPI team all season, so a win would be a nice addition to VCU’s NCAA Tournament resume.

Here are VCU’s previous meetings with BCS schools at the Siegel Center:

1-*Louisville, W, 79-74 (11/19/99)
2-Colorado, W, 82-78 OT (11/28/99)
3-Mississippi, L, 84-88 OT (11/25/00)
4-Texas A&M, W, 107-106 2OT (12/2/00)
5-Pittsburgh, W, 76-73 OT (12/17/00)
6-*TCU, W, 91-78 (12/21/02)
7-Mississippi, L, 62-63 (12/29/04)
8-#17 Oklahoma, W, 82-69 (11/21/09)
9-South Florida, W, 69-46 (11/30/11)

* – Louisville was a member of Conference USA in 1999, as was TCU in 2002.


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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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