PORTLAND NOTES: RUSSELL OFFICIALLY CRAFTY, BROOKS BREAKS OUT FOR VCU

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Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Much of the talk surrounding VCU’s NCAA Tournament Round of 64 match-up with Ohio State has centered on Buckeyes’ star guard D’Angelo Russell, and for good reason.

Russell, a 6-foot-5 freshman, was recently named All-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The Louisville, Kentucky native ranks first nationally among freshmen in scoring (19.3 ppg) and is third in assists (168). Should he declare this spring, Russell is likely a top-five NBA Draft pick. NBADraftExpress.com has him third in its most recent mock draft.

VCU’s game plan will likely dedicate a chunk of attention to slowing down Russell, who has shown little difficulty adjusting to college basketball. A deft ball handler, Russell has also hit 90 three-pointers this year and leads Ohio State in rebounding (5.6 rpg). But it’s his passing skills that have people talking. From one-handed, laser bounce feeds to eye-popping spin passes in traffic, Russell’s vision, and the ability to get the ball into small spaces makes him especially dangerous.

VCU’s Michael Gilmore can vouch for Russell’s skills. They were AAU teammates with Each1 Teach1 in Florida. Gilmore soon realized that Russell wasn’t like other point guards.

“There would be times [in the huddle] where he’d just yell at me, roll, roll, roll after I set screens for him because after a couple of times where I didn’t think I was open,” Gilmore said. “I started trusting him with it. He’s a very good passer.”

Gilmore also has first-hand knowledge of how Russell’s scoring and passing ability play off of each other.

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RAMS FIND SOMETHING IN RESERVE, TOP UNI 93-87

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Sophomore Doug Brooks hit a critical 3-pointer in double overtime Saturday.

Sophomore Doug Brooks hit a critical 3-pointer in double overtime Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – The shot you’ll remember will be Treveon Graham’s clutch fadeaway 3-pointer in the second overtime. That dramatic shot with 2:14 left finally sent 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa to the ropes, but it was the work of Graham’s supporting cast that kept the Rams fighting long enough to pull out a heart-pounding 93-87 win over the Panthers at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center Saturday.

Graham, VCU’s leading scorer and a legitimate All-America candidate, knocked down a pair of free throws with seconds remaining and finished with a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds. Graham put in yeoman’s work Saturday night, but it was what he didn’t have to do that was notable about VCU’s win.

Especially on offense, the Rams have been a two-man show of late between Graham and Melvin Johnson. But against the previously unbeaten Panthers (9-1), VCU received points from 11 different players. The Rams did so by moving the ball. VCU assisted on 20 of its 33 field goals Saturday night.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to the last three games, when Johnson and Graham accounted for 61 percent of the Rams’ scoring. Against UNI, that duo scored just 35 percent (33 of 93) of VCU’s points. The Rams’ bench provided 31 points, the second-highest total all season. Only the 64 bench points VCU scored in a runaway rout of overmatched Maryland-Eastern Shore earlier this season topped Saturday’s reserve output.

“Our bench production is what won us the game,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “Our bench was better than it has been earlier in the year. We still have to keep improving, but today was a step in the right direction.”

Earlier in the week, Smart commented on VCU’s need to find additional scoring options to Graham and Johnson, and the Rams responded. The contributions came from everywhere.

Touted freshman Terry Larrier, mired in a shooting slump, scored nine points in nine minutes. Larrier hit his final two 3-point attempts to snap out of a 1-of-12 slump from beyond the arc.

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LARRIER BUILDS CONFIDENCE IN BLOWOUT

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Terry Larrier scored 21 points in Thursday's win. He is the first VCU freshman to score 20-plus since 2011.

Terry Larrier scored 21 points in Thursday’s win. He is the first VCU freshman to score 20-plus since 2011.

RICHMOND, Va. – By the time Terry Larrier scored his first points Thursday, VCU had pretty much already smothered any hope Maryland Eastern Shore had of an upset bid.

But Larrier, and VCU’s other freshmen, kept flying around the court, making plays, and provided himself with a boost of confidence in an otherwise lob-sided affair. The Rams won in a 106-66 landslide, cracking the 100-point barrier for the first time since Jan. 2, 2013, but it wasn’t even really that close. All 14 Rams played, and no VCU starter was on the floor for more than 15 minutes. Most of the night, UMES faced a mish-mash of Frankenstein lineups.

However, Thursday was about more than padding stats. Larrier scored a game-high 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range, and became the first VCU freshman to score more than 20 points in a game since Rob Brandenberg dropped 23 against Georgia State on Jan. 19, 2011.

Larrier’s sharpshooting was a welcome sight. VCU’s highest-rated recruit since Kendrick Warren, Larrier was 3-of-14 from the field in VCU’s first two games, including 1-of-9 from three. If you (unfairly, perhaps) lump in VCU’s exhibition game with Cal (Pa.), the Bronx native was 2-of-13 from long distance as a Ram.

But Thursday, Larrier’s stroke appeared more fluid as the game wore down and shots continued to fall. Maryland Eastern Shore is in the midst of a total rebuild and won just six games last year, but despite an obviously overmatched opponent, Larrier was happy to find his stroke.

“It definitely felt good, just getting it going, getting my confidence up. It felt real good,” Larrier said afterwards.

Larrier, a 6-foot-8, 185-pound wing, has been searching for a comfort level as he negotiates the faster, more physical style of play, as well as attempts to nestle into a role on a team replete with scorers. He certainly appeared to take a step in the right direction against the Hawks.

“Coming to college, it’s a totally different game,” Larrier said. “Guys are much bigger, faster, so I’ve still got to get accustomed to it. My confidence right now, my confidence is at a good level, but it needs to keep going up.”

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MBB PHOTO DAY: AN IPHONE PREVIEW

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IMG_3312

Disclaimer: These photos were taken on a late-model iPhone by an untrained photographer (me) in occasionally sub-standard lighting. We had actual real photographers on site to capture actual professional photos. You’ll see those (probably) Wednesday. This is just a behind-the-scenes preview.

 

Shooting the men's intro video #LetsGoVCU

A video posted by @vcuathletics on

Mo Alie-Cox picks his one-on-one match-up. #LetsGoVCU

A video posted by @vcuathletics on

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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CALIFORNIA (PA.) EXHIBITION NOTEBOOK

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Despite the offseason chatter, fouls slid into the background of VCU's 92-54 win.

Despite a lot of offseason chatter fouls slid into the background of VCU’s 92-54 win.

BOX SCORE

RICHMOND, Va. – It’s a bit of a fishing expedition to find a reasonable narrative in these mismatched Division I-Division II exhibition games.  There’s a desire to look at the scoreboard, which showed that VCU earned a 92-54 win over California (Pa.) Saturday night, and extrapolate 100 superlatives from the wreckage of the box score. More often than not, it’s fool’s gold.

But Saturday, even as I waded through some impressive, if not gaudy, statistics, I was still struck by the depth of talent on this VCU team. If Shaka Smart truly desires a 10 or 11-man rotation, it sure looks like he’s got the horses to do it.

Smart essentially rotated 11 players in the first half and 10 in the second after Rob Brandenberg exited with back spasms. While there were moments of youthful frustration, there was hardly a dramatic drop-off in ability.

Freshman Doug Brooks led VCU in scoring with 14 points in 13 minutes of play. For most of those 13 minutes, he looked like Briante Weber with a better jumper and a disinterested barber.

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BLACK AND GOLD GAME SCRIBBLES AND OBSERVATIONS

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Sophomore Melvin Johnson led all players with 25 points Sunday.

Sophomore Melvin Johnson led all players with 25 points Sunday.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU held an intra-squad exhibition Sunday night before 3,187 excited souls at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. It was many people’s, myself included, first chance to get a look at the 2013-14 Rams. While the Gold team came away with a 72-56 win, the score was little more than a matter of academics.

Here are some observations from courtside.

1-Guards, guards, guards and guards
To any fan who has followed this team of late, this is no surprise. VCU was expected to be deep in the backcourt this year. But until we got a chance to see a Jairus Lyles no-look pass or one of Doug Brooks’ four steals, it was hard to know how deep. If Sunday is any indication, uh, the Rams are insanely deep at the wings.

Returnees Rob Brandenberg, Briante Weber, Melvin Johnson and (if we’re calling him a guard today) Treveon Graham were pretty much the guys we knew they were. But JeQuan Lewis, Lyles, Doug Brooks and Jordan Burgess all had moments and illustrated how difficult a choice Shaka Smart will have when doling out minutes.

Lyles was magnetic for long stretches of the second half and he might end up being the Rams’ fourth option at point guard. Think about that. Lyles finished with eight points, six assists (two turnovers) and three steals.

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