RUN IT AGAIN? A PLEA FOR MORE VCU-UVA

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Time will tell if VCU and Virginia will continue their highly entertaining series.

Time will tell if VCU and Virginia will continue their highly entertaining series.

RICHMOND, Va. – The result wasn’t what about 7,600 of the 7,647 folks in the stands at the Verizon Wireless Arena would’ve hoped for. But on their behalf, I’d like to ask Virginia Coach Tony Bennett personally, can we do this again?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough to stomach a 74-57 loss to an in-state rival on your home floor, but who wouldn’t sign up to play this thing again, every year?

The long-dormant VCU-Virginia series roared back to life last year in Charlottesville, when VCU scored a 59-56 victory. In that game, VCU’s Treveon Graham buried a game-winning 3-pointer with less than two seconds left. Saturday’s return game in Richmond wasn’t nearly that type of thriller, but it had many of the elements of an unforgettable college basketball game: An energized – check that, absolutely rabid – home crowd, two successful programs and, for the most part, a highly contested game.

Saturday’s final score implies a much less dramatic afternoon than actually transpired. Graham hit three consecutive second-half 3-pointers to pull VCU within 59-55 with 6:00 left. The Siegel Center crowd, possibly the loudest, most unhinged in the 16-year history of the building, became a sonic kiln, and fired itself into a deafening pitch. It wasn’t until seventh-ranked Virginia, which appears to be every bit of the top-10 team they’re advertised to be, struck back with an impressive, surgical 15-0 burst, that the result was decided.

These two schools, less than an hour apart, didn’t meet for 13 years until last season, and now that this Cadillac of a series is back, do we really want to park it in the garage wait to show it off to our grandkids. I’m not ready for that. Are you?

“Our fans were great. It was a great atmosphere. This is the type of college basketball game that guys want to play in,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart afterwards.

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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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LONG TIME COMING; RAMS, CAVALIERS END SERIES HIATUS

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Junior Treveon Graham will lead VCU into Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena Tuesday.

Junior Treveon Graham will lead VCU into Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena Tuesday.

RICHMOND, Va. – About 70 miles separate the campuses of VCU and Virginia, a little more than an hour for even the most conservative drivers. But it’s the figurative divide, not the physical, between the two schools that has kept their men’s basketball teams apart for 15 years.

On Tuesday, the series between VCU and Virginia, on sabbatical since Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart was a senior at Kenyon College, resumes at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. It’s a marquee match-up of ranked squads. The Rams are 14th in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 Poll, while the Cavaliers are 25th.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for both teams and for all the fans of college basketball in the area,” Smart said Monday at his weekly press conference. “There’s a lot of great basketball that goes on throughout the year in Virginia, in the Mid-Atlantic Region, but for this early in the year, for two teams that are in the top 25 to play one another…I think that’s what it’s all about.”

But the strength of the match-up might not be the most remarkable element of Tuesday’s contest. It’s that the game is happening at all.

Part of a home-and-home series between the two schools (UVA will visit VCU in ’14-15), the game likely owes its existence as much to the mid-major roots of Virginia Coach Tony Bennett and the friendship between he and Smart, as it does the standing of the two programs.

VCU and Virginia last met in a game on Nov. 13, 1998 in Richmond, an 86-70 Cavaliers’ win. That contest was originally scheduled as VCU’s grand debut in the Stuart C. Siegel Center, but construction delays prevented the arena from opening until the following season. Instead, it was played at Richmond’s Robins Center.

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VCU-VIRGINIA SERIES? IT’S POSSIBLE, SMART SAYS

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Shaka Smart: “Up to this point we haven’t been that successful getting people to come back to our building and play us…hopefully, our success rate with that will get a little better.”

RICHMOND, Va. – Are VCU and Virginia in line for a meeting on the basketball court? It could happen sooner, rather than later.

VCU’s gaudy record (163-27, .858 win %) at the Verizon Wireless Arena and reputation of springing upsets have long been roadblocks to getting home games against schools from Power Six conferences, including in-state foes Virginia and Virginia Tech. But VCU Coach Shaka Smart hopes VCU’s recent move from the CAA to Atlantic 10 will change that.

Smart revealed that when he arrived at VCU in 2009, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett agreed to play a home-and-home series with the Rams, but the two schools couldn’t agree on dates for the games. However, those talks may heat up again, according to Smart.

“Because of some of the complexities involved in scheduling, we haven’t been able to schedule that over the last couple of years,” Smart said Friday. “But they’re one of the schools that we’ve talked to and that we would love to play home-and-home. I think they’re open to potentially doing that. But it has to make sense for them too.”

Richmond and Charlottesville are separated by just 70 miles, but VCU and Virginia have not met since 1998. The Rams have never hosted UVA inside the Verizon Wireless Arena, although the Cavaliers have played a couple of neutral site games in the building since it opened in 1999. Clearly, the GPS can find it.

As a matter of principle, VCU has declined to play schools from leagues such as the Big Ten, ACC, SEC and Big East without the promise of a return game at the Verizon Wireless Arena, which usually ended those discussions. The Rams’ home game with Oklahoma two years ago, as well as the Rams’ upcoming contest with Alabama in 2012, were the result of clauses in the contracts of former coaches Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant.

VCU has not met Virginia Tech on the basketball court since 1995, but will face the Hokies in during the 2013-14 season in the Governor’s Cup at the Richmond Coliseum. That game, however, was arranged by the office of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

“We’re excited about that. They weren’t excited about that, but we are,” Smart said of the Virginia Tech match-up.

But the A10’s sturdier RPI and nationally-recognized brand may help bridge the scheduling gaps VCU has faced in the past. The A10 was the nation’s seventh-rated RPI league last season and received four NCAA Tournament bids. The mid-major stigma may be fading from VCU’s name.

Since the Verizon Wireless Arena opened for the 1999-2000 season, VCU has hosted nine games against schools currently residing in one of the Power Six (Big East, Pac 12, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and ACC) conferences: Louisville, Colorado, Pittsburgh, TCU, Mississippi (twice), Texas A&M, Oklahoma and South Florida.  The Rams hold a 7-2 mark in those match-ups. At the time of those games, however, Louisville, Houston and TCU were members of Conference USA. VCU has hosted a ranked team in the arena just once (#17 Oklahoma, 2009).

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