MEDIA MINUTES (JAN. 31) – RICHMOND LOOMS LARGE

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It’s rivalry week. Big, huge, enormous game with Richmond Wednesday.

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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SAINT LOUIS NOTEBOOK; GRAHAM LOOKS SHARP AGAIN

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Senior Treveon Graham scored a team-best 16 points in Tuesday's win over Saint Louis.

Senior Treveon Graham scored a team-best 16 points in Tuesday’s win over Saint Louis.

RICHMOND, Va. – It’s unclear who had more spring in their step Tuesday, Treveon Graham or VCU fans after seeing the Rams’ star look sharp in a 74-54 rout of Saint Louis at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Graham has been nursing a high ankle sprain, originally suffered Jan. 13 at Rhode Island and re-aggravated Feb. 4 at George Mason. The injury has cost Graham three games this season, and VCU has lost two of them.

It’s clear the ailment has affected Graham’s explosiveness of late, a source of concern for fans aware of his importance to this team, especially given the loss of Briante Weber two weeks ago.

But Graham looked much like his old self in Tuesday’s win. He scored VCU’s first eight points against the Billikens. He appeared to have good lift on his jumpers and out-jumped several other players for an early tip-in. Graham finished with a team-high 16 points and six rebounds.

“Yeah, I felt pretty good today,” Graham said afterwards. “Every day I’m getting better and better. I just wanted to come out and be aggressive. If I came out aggressive, I felt like my teammates would come [along].”

VCU Coach Shaka Smart assured people that his trained eyes also saw a more dynamic Graham Tuesday night.

“It’s a big lift he gave us, because our other guys were struggling to score early in the game. I thought tonight was the best that he’s moved since he sustained the injury. So that was good,” said Smart. “He and our athletic trainer have been working really hard around the clock with treatment and different modalities to work on that thing. Sometimes it’s frustrating because it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much, but I thought tonight it was a different bounce that he had and explosiveness.”

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BELMONT NOTEBOOK: TILLMAN ELECTRIFIES

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Freshman forward Justin Tillman finished with a career-high 16 points Tuesday.

Freshman forward Justin Tillman finished with a career-high 16 points Tuesday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Justin Tillman provided the lasting memory of VCU’s 78-51 rout of Belmont Tuesday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center, but there was certainly more to his performance than one play.

Tillman, a 6-foot-8 freshman from Detroit, turned in his most impressive game of the young season with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including a pair of thunderous dunks. It was the second straight solid effort for Tillman, who is giving Coach Shaka Smart plenty of reasons to find him more minutes.

He came into Tuesday’s game averaging 3.9 points and 2.1 rebounds, but in his last two contests, Tillman has averaged 12.0 points, while shooting 11-of-13 from the field. His emergence, combined with the continued growth of sophomore Mo Alie-Cox, give VCU a reason to be optimistic about replacing the production of Juvonte Reddic in the post.

For Tillman, Tuesday’s effort was the culmination of a solid 10-game stretch to begin his college career. While each of VCU’s four freshmen has given the Rams’ encouraging moments, Tillman has been the most consistent. Smart believes that’s because Tillman keeps it simple.

“There is no pretense to Justin. There’s no nonsense. There’s no worrying about things that don’t matter,” Smart said. “He just plays, tries to follow the plan. If he makes a mistake, he’s hard on himself, but he doesn’t lose confidence. He just does what you want him to do. I think for that reason, in addition to his physical, gifts he’s going to be a terrific player here.”

Following Saturday’s double-overtime win over Northern Iowa, a game in which Tillman scored eight points, Smart said that the Detroit native had made the quickest adjustment from high school to college basketball of VCU’s touted recruiting class. It appears there are reasons for that. Despite his relative youth, Tillman says his approach is pretty straightforward.

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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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