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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VCU FINDS A LITTLE OF ITS OLD SELF; HAS LAST LAUGH ON RICHMOND

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Melvin Johnson hit five threes and scored 23 points in VCU's 70-67 win over Richmond Friday.

Melvin Johnson hit five threes and scored 23 points in VCU’s 70-67 win over Richmond Friday.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It was a game against Richmond that originally jolted VCU into its darkest stretch under Shaka Smart, and it might have taken a game against Richmond to shock the Rams back to life.

After two crushing losses to the Spiders this season – a third if you count Briante Weber’s knee – VCU found a way to look a little more like itself Friday on the way to a heart-pounding, come-from-behind, 70-67 Atlantic 10 Quarterfinal victory at Barclays Center.

The win sends the fifth-seeded Rams back to the A-10 semifinals, where they’ll face top-seeded Davidson at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

Bronx native Melvin Johnson enjoyed a strong shooting performance for the second straight night and finished with 23 points for the Rams. He hit 5-of-6 threes in the first half as VCU grabbed a 37-36 lead. When his jumper abandoned him in the second half, Johnson found other ways to bolster the Rams, including a steal and breakaway layup and later an assist on a go-ahead 3-pointer as VCU scored its biggest triumph, emotionally and practically, since January.

It was a VCU victory with a cathartic bent.

The Rams were nationally ranked and in the midst of a 12-game winning streak when a game with the rival Spiders on Jan. 31 altered the course of the season. Not only did VCU lose that game at the Siegel Center, it also lost Weber to a torn ACL in the waning moments. The Rams closed the regular season with a 5-6 stretch and lost heartbreakers to St. Bonaventure (at the buzzer), La Salle (in double overtime) and again, Richmond (also in double overtime). Once 7-0 in league play, the Rams slipped to the A-10 Tournament’s No. 5 seed.

VCU has spent the last six weeks trying to find itself without Weber, who was not only the Rams’ starting point guard, but their emotional cornerstone.

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SECOND CHANCES, JOHNSON’S RETURN TO FORM FUEL SECOND SEASON

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Melvin Johnson hit 4-of-7 three-pointers and scored 16 points to help lift VCU past Fordham Thursday.

Melvin Johnson hit 4-of-7 three-pointers and scored 16 points to help lift VCU past Fordham Thursday.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – An unfortunate consequence of poor shooting is the tendency to worry about more poor shooting. The key to breaking out, Melvin Johnson believes, isn’t more thinking, but less.

Johnson, who has battled shooting slumps this season, looked confident and comfortable Thursday as he stroked 5-of-8 shots, including 4-of-7 from three, to help pull fifth-seeded VCU to a 63-57 win over 12th-seeded Fordham in the second round of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament at the Barclays Center.

In his last two games, Johnson is 7-of-13 from three. He finished with 16 points Thursday and hit a critical trey with 2:31 remaining as VCU kept a persistent Fordham at bay.

His revival comes at a good time for VCU, which is looking to break out of a shooting funk, and needs scoring from any player not named Treveon Graham. As a whole, the Rams (23-9) didn’t find their shooting stroke Thursday. VCU shot .301 (18-of-59) from the floor, a fact which kept Fordham (10-21) knocking at its door for 39 minutes. But Johnson and Graham ultimately provided just enough baskets and VCU was able to track down enough of its misses to secure the victory.

The Black & Gold grabbed 20 offensive rebounds and turned those into an 18-12 advantage in second chance points. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough.

The win sets up a third meeting this season with rival Richmond Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Barclays.

Johnson, a Bronx native playing in front of friends and family, is VCU’s most prolific 3-point shooter. But when shots stopped falling for him earlier this season, it got to him. The more he obsessed over missed shots, the more he missed them. He says it took a fresh perspective to help the ball start finding the bottom of the basket.

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FORDHAM POSTGAME

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JUSTIN TILLMAN BLOCKED SHOT

VIDEO: VCU THUMPS ETSU 84-60

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Come for the shooting and the roar of the crowd. Stay for the steals and high-flying dunks from Terry Larrier and Jonathan Williams.

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SHAKA SMART

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ETSU COACH MURRY BARTOW

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VCU PLAYERS

RAMS LOOK FOR BALANCE AS #23 UNI VISITS

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Senior Treveon Graham is averaging a team-leading 17.4 points per game.

Senior Treveon Graham is averaging a team-leading 17.4 points per game.

RICHMOND, Va. –VCU is going to need all the help it can get to beat No. 23 Northern Iowa Saturday night. The Panthers (9-0) roll into Richmond unbeaten and likely riding a wave of confidence. The Panthers also own a 77-68 win over VCU last season in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“I think that Northern Iowa is playing better than they were last year…in fact, I know they are,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “We’re certainly going to need to play better than we did last year.”

To beat the Panthers, VCU will likely need to utilize most, if not all of the offensive resources at its disposal. The Rams’ offense has been nearly as prolific as last year, but less balanced. Saturday, and moving forward, VCU Coach Shaka Smart knows the Rams will be better off if they can find scoring punch outside of senior Treveon Graham and junior Melvin Johnson, who are averaging a combined 34.5 points per game. That duo has accounted for 46 percent of VCU’s points this season. That’s due in part to Johnson and Graham’s outstanding play, but also because the Rams haven’t yet seen a reliable third option emerge.

Last year, five Rams averaged 9.4 points per game or better. Right now, only Graham and Johnson meet that threshold. There’s a steep drop-off between Johnson, VCU’s second-leading scorer (16.9 ppg) and Jordan Burgess, the Rams’ third-best scoring option (8.5 ppg) at this point.

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RAMS AIM TO CRACK CODE ON UVA DEFENSE

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VCU, which is averaging 77 points per game this season, faces one of the nation's top defenses Saturday.

VCU, which is averaging 77 points per game this season, faces one of the nation’s top defenses Saturday.

RUSTY: If I’m reading these right — and I think that I am — this is probably the least accessible vault ever designed. Oops. Actually, you know what, I’m wrong. It’s definitely the least accessible vault ever designed.

DANNY: Yep.

— Ocean’s Eleven

RICHMOND, Va. – In the end, the vault in “Ocean’s Eleven” wasn’t impenetrable, and neither is Virginia’s “Pack Line” defense, but they’re both pretty close. Shaka Smart’s game plan for Saturday’s match-up with the Cavaliers might not need to be as elaborate as Danny Ocean’s, but it’s up there.

Pioneered by former Wisconsin and Washington State Coach Dick Bennett, the “Pack Line” defense has become an effective system for a number of programs across the country. Of late, it’s been the driver of success for one program in particular, Virginia, coached by Bennett’s son, Tony.

Last season the Cavaliers ranked fifth nationally in defensive efficiency and rode the system to an ACC title and the Sweet 16. This year, Bennett’s defense could be even better. In Virginia’s eight games, just one, Maryland, has scored more than 56 points. Rutgers may be in the Big Ten basement, but it’s still a high-major program. The Cavaliers (8-0) held the Scarlet Knights to 26 points on Nov. 29, including just eight in the second half of a 45-26 win. UVA currently ranks third in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rating.

The Pack Line is a variation of traditional man-to-man defense. One defender pressures the ball, while players on the wings sag and clog the lane, while post players are fronted. The defense makes dribble penetration difficult and often forces teams to the perimeter. This season UVA opponents are shooting just .331 from 2-point range, the third-best rate in the country.

While VCU overcame the defensive-minded Cavaliers for a 59-56 win in Charlottesville last season, the Rams hardly set the nets on fire, shooting 41 percent from the field. VCU turned the Cavaliers over 19 times in that contest, and Treveon Graham grinded out a workman-like 22-point performance, including a long 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds remaining.

The Rams know this year’s game could be even more challenging. Despite the loss of Joe Harris to graduation and the NBA, Virginia’s has looked, so far, better than ever. So, how do you crack the code on the Pack Line?

“No one knows,” said junior Melvin Johnson. “It’s a great defense. They lose a pro and surprisingly they get better on defense. I don’t know…we’re going to have to, today in practice, see what coach’s plan is and try to execute and hopefully Treveon will do what Treveon does.”

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PRESS CONFERENCE JAMBAROO

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On Thursday, we settled into the media room for a parade of press conferences as the VCU Men’s Basketball team prepped for Virginia and the VCU Women’s Basketball squad readied for Old Dominion.

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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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ELECTRIC WEBER RETURNS, SHOCKS TOLEDO WITH VIRTUOSO PERFORMANCE

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Senior Briante Weber powered VCU with 18 points, 9 steals, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

Senior Briante Weber powered VCU with 18 points, 9 steals, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

RICHMOND, Va. – Before he clipped Toledo Tuesday, Briante Weber made a stop at the barbershop.

Weber had recently noticed a haircut on Instagram, a fade with a lightning-bolt-like shape in the back, and paid a local barber a visit before he joined his team at the arena Tuesday afternoon. By the game had started, Weber had morphed into something of a charge of electricity himself. Repeatedly, the supercharged guard in a headband rose up to shock Toledo, until the 15th-ranked Rams were left with an 87-78 victory at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

By the time they powered down the kinetic Weber Tuesday evening, what remained was this smoldering stat line: 18 points, 9 steals, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and zero turnovers.

“I hate when college coaches talk to opposing players, particularly before or after game, but tonight I couldn’t help myself,” admitted Toledo Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk. “He is a game-changer. He is an absolute game-changer. I had to stop him when we were going through the line to tell him how much respect I have for him. If he’s not the best defensive player in the country, I don’t know who is.”

It wasn’t just the gaudy box score that made Weber’s performance unforgettable. It was the senior guard’s penchant for making plays in moments that Toledo will not soon forget – ones the Rockets won’t be able to erase from their memories, even if they run the DVDs over with the team bus.

Weber’s masterpiece of basketball theater culminated in two game-altering sequences late in this March Madness-quality slugfest. First, with Weber came up with a steal, then hit a 3-pointer from the right wing off an offensive rebound, to push the Rams in front 73-68 with 4:25 left. It was, at the time, VCU’s largest lead of the game, and a blow that finally wobbled a Rockets team that is a safe bet to ruin a few office pools in March.

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