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VCU’s run more impressive than George Mason

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And we all thought that Butler’s run was incredible.

VCU has now done something that no other team has done before. The Rams, who took part in the first ever at-large play-in game just 16 short days ago, is now headed to the Final Four after capping off their astonishing run through the bracket with a 71-61 win over No. 1 seed Kansas. It was their fifth straight win in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first team to ever do so before reaching the Final Four.

The Rams knocked off teams from five of the six BCS conferences. They were the underdog in each of the five games. Their star point guard nearly transferred in the offseason after former head coach Anthony Grant took the job at Alabama. Their star center is a cast-off from Wake Forest. Hell, head coach Shaka Smart, who played basketball at D-III Kenyon College, didn’t even gather his team to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show because he did not believe they were getting in.

Like George Mason in 2006, the Rams have gone from a questionable addition to the tournament to two wins from a national title.

But unlike George Mason, VCU has a real, honest-to-god shot at winning this thing.

VCU didn’t luck into the Final Four. They aren’t headed to Houston because they were given the benefit of a friendly whistle or took advantage of a soft bracket. VCU smothered USC on the defensive end of the floor. They ran both Purdue and Georgetown off of it. After squeaking by Florida State in the Sweet 16, the Rams overcame a hot start by Kansas to take down the tournament’s most talented remaining team.

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And this is where VCU’s story starts to differ from George Mason.

When the Patriots made the Final Four in 2006, they knocked off some impressive opponents, but they did so in dramatic fashion. Against a talented-but-enigmatic UConn team that had been struggling throughout the tournament — if you remember, that team nearly lost to Albany in the first round — George Mason overcame a 12 point halftime deficit to win in overtime when Denham Brown’s last second three bounced off the rim.

VCU needed no such luck. And VCU didn’t need to make a comeback.

After the Jayhawks scored the first six point of the game, VCU responded with a 19-4 run that they stretched out to a 39-15 surge. They were up by 14 at the half. Kansas made couple runs at the Rams in the second half, at one point getting as close as two, but VCU had an answer every time.

And while Jamie Skeen will look like the hero, finishing with 26 points and 10 boards, VCU’s real savior was the diminutive Joey Rodriguez. His stat line was, frankly, pretty ugly. He finished with nine points, five boards, five assists, four turnovers, and 2-8 from the field.

But it was Rodriguez who sparked VCU’s final push.

After airballing a three the previous possession and seeing Kansas get within 57-52 with less than five minutes left, Rodriguez stepped up and buried a three early in the shot clock. (In hind sight, it was a pretty dumb shot, one that surely had Smart doing the old “No, no, no, YES!!”) A minute later, Rodriguez dribbled his way under the rim, somehow finding Brad Burgess at the top of the key for a wide open three that pushed the lead to nine points. Two minutes later, Rodriguez again found Burgess, this time on a nifty pass that led to a layup, to put VCU up 65-57 with less than two minutes left.

You see, the thing about VCU in this game — in this tournament — is that they played like the favorite. They were the ones that jumped all over Kansas. They were the team that made the Jayhawks fall back on their heels. The Rams were playing confident, physical basketball. They were jawing after baskets and diving on loose balls.

Kansas?

They spent the first half looking hesitant and unconfident. They took quick, ill-advised shots early in the possession. They turned the ball over and missed free throws (15-28 on the game). The Jayhawks were flustered. They looked ill-prepared for playing on this kind of stage.

VCU may not have been the more talented team, but they were the better team on Sunday afternoon.

And the beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that being the better team on one afternoon is all you need to advance.

That’s why a team that didn’t even think they would get a shot to dance will now be performing on the sport’s biggest stage.

Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament moving to Orlando amid Zika concerns

Lon Kruger
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Amid concerns over the Zika virus, the annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off announced a change in venue on Monday. Rather than staying on the island, the tournament will move to Orlando and all games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney.

The dates and teams will remain the same for the event as it will be played Thursday, Nov. 17, Friday, Nov. 18 and Sunday, Nov. 20. The field for the event includes Arizona State, Clemson, Davidson, Missouri, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma, Tulane and Xavier.

“We enjoy the beauty and accommodations that are afforded in Puerto Rico and wanted to make every effort in playing the event in San Juan, but the concern for student-athlete and spectator welfare became the primary driver in the decision,” Pete Derzis, senior vice president of ESPN Events said in the official release.  “We intend to return to Puerto Rico in the future.”

Puerto Rico is currently under a Level 2 alert for Zika according to the CDC. Since there have been cases of Zika on the island with native mosquitoes, it’s probably a smart move to eliminate all concerns over the virus if they can easily move the tournament elsewhere. It probably isn’t ideal for fans who purchased travel packages to Puerto Rico to watch the event, but it’s a small price to pay for the safety of everyone involved.

PHOTO: Purdue unveils statue of John Wooden outside Mackey Arena

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John Wooden will forever be associated with the UCLA program for what he did while coaching there.

10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. Not bad, right?

What some people may forget is that before he got into coaching, Wooden was one of the best basketball players in the world. He played his collegiate ball at Purdue, where he was a three-time all-american and the 1932 National Player of the Year.

To honor Wooden’s legacy as one of the greatest Boilermakers ever, Purdue built a statue of Wooden and unveiled it in front of Mackey Arena this weekend:

“Not many people think of Johnny Wooden as a Boilermaker, but when I got here in 1957, some of the old-timers still remembered him as a player,” Jim Hicks, the alumnus that donated the statue, said. “I’m so delighted that people will see this statue and read his Pyramid of Success because I think the pyramid was his most important contribution.”

One of the neat touches of the statue: Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is right there for all to see.

North Carolina lands third commitment in 2017 class

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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North Carolina picked up their third commitment in the Class of 2017 on Monday in big man Brandon Huffman.

A four-star prospect who will play his final season of high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina, Huffman’s strength at this point in his development is as a defensive presence around the basket. He stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and should be able to help replace Kennedy Meeks, who graduates this spring.

Huffman’s development on the offensive end of the floor isn’t quite there yet. A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman is still learning how to be more influential on that end.

Huffman joins Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek in UNC’s 2017 class.

VCU lands third commitment in Class of 2017

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VCU landed their third commitment in the Class of 2017 over the weekend, as 6-foot-8 forward Sean Mobley announced that he will play his college ball for the Rams.

A three-star prospect, Mobley is a nice program piece for the Rams. He’s not an overpowering athlete or a menace on the low block, but he is good rebounder, a guy that can space the floor with his jump shot and a smart player that should be able to find and fit into a role.

Mobley picked VCU over Dayton and West Virginia, joining top 75 point guard and big man Marcus Santos-Silva in Will Wade’s recruiting class.

Top 25 Non-Conference Games

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats and head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks greet each other prior to the game at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Non-conference scheduling has rightfully been much maligned in recent years with many programs opting to keep their non-league slates as a tune-up rather than a challenge, but there are still plenty of gems out there in the season’s first two months. Neutral-site event games again provide some of the strongest matchups, but there are plenty of on-campus contests that will be among the year’s best as well.

THE TOP 15

1. Kansas vs. Duke – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (9 p.m.): The Champions Classic has easily become the most anticipated non-conference event most years (until the PK80 next year), and this year’s matchup between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils is the premier non-conference game of the season. Both teams return a ton from last year’s successful seasons and also add stellar recruiting classes. It’s not hard to envision this as a Final Four or national title preview, and there’s a very real chance that it could end up being a matchup between No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Kansas.

2. Michigan State at Duke – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9:30 p.m.): This game gets the nod over similarly interesting matchups because it’s going to be played on campus in Durham at Cameron Indoor. It pits two Hall of Fame coaches operating near the height of their powers with teams expected to contend for a national championship. It’s sure to be an electric evening.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

3. Kentucky at Louisville – Dec. 21 (7 p.m.): John Calipari has another powerhouse on his hands while Rick Pitino’s squad is expected to continue its upward progression and be a potential top-10 team. This in-state rivalry game will have all the gravitas it normally has along with the national implications that come when two potential No. 1 seeds meet in the non-conference.

4. Kansas at Kentucky – Jan. 28 (6 p.m.): The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is largely irrelevant this season because the Big 12 is down and the SEC looks like a mid-major conference outside of Kentucky. But the Wildcats, who nearly beat Kansas in overtime in Phog Allen last season, and the Jayhawks are both preseason top five teams loaded with NBA talent and positioned to make a run towards another national title.

5. Michigan State vs. Kentucky – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (7 p.m.): The other half of the Champions Classic, the Spartans and Wildcats will provide nearly just as much entertainment. The matchup between Michigan State’s super-recruit Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s squadron of them could be the highlight of the night.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 19: London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers dribbles the ball against Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 19, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
UVA’s London Perrantes guarded by Villanova’s Josh Hart (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

6. Virginia at Villanova – Jan. 28 – (1 p.m.): Virginia deserves credit as one of the elite programs that’s unafraid to challenge themselves with home-and-home series, but I can’t imagine that, when Tony Bennett signed up for this, he knew he’d be taking his team on the road, in the middle of ACC play, to square off with the reigning national champs. It will be an intriguing matchup of styles, both in terms of basketball and the suits worn by the opposing head coaches.

7. UCLA at Kentucky – Dec. 3 (12:30 p.m.): Two of the most storied programs in the sport, the Bruins and Wildcats both figure to have interesting seasons as Steve Alford looks to satiate uneasy UCLA fans and Calipari looks to add another national championship to his resume. UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball facing off against Kentucky’s backcourt in Rupp Arena will garner a lot of headlines. And we shouldn’t forget that the Bruins picks off Kentucky in LA last December.

8. North Carolina vs. Kentucky – Las Vegas – Dec. 17 (5:45 p.m.): UNC is coming off a season where they finished as the national runners-up. Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will hurt, no doubt, but there is still some talent on the roster. Kentucky, as we’ve mentioned, is once again loaded. Both teams will likely be ranked in the top-10 when they meet in Sin City in yet another clash of the sport’s heavyweights.

9. Michigan State vs. Arizona – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (7 p.m.): Not a bad way to tip off the season with the Spartans and Wildcats squaring off in Hawaii on opening night. The game was originally to be played at Pearl Harbor, but was moved to the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii. Arizona may have lost Terrence Ferguson to the pros, but it’ll have plenty of firepower to match up against Michigan State with Allonzo Trier, Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Atkins.

10. Louisville vs. Indiana – Indianapolis – Dec. 31 (12:30 p.m.): This border battle game will be played off-campus at the home of the Pacers, but with Indy’s close proximity to both schools and a pair of fervent fanbases, this one should have that big-time collegiate feel with two top-15 teams.

11. Kansas vs. Indiana – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (9 p.m.): The nightcap of the Armed Forces Classic is another incredibly strong game that will pit the two midwestern powers against each other. Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby will provide quite the test for Kansas’ revamped frontcourt while the Hoosiers will have to contend with one of the country’s strongest backcourts in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.

12. Wisconsin at Creighton – Gavitt Games – Nov. 15 (8:30 p.m.): The country knows how strong the Badgers will be this year after the transition to coach Greg Gard propelled them into the Sweet 16, but Creighton is flying a bit under the radar despite having some top-level talent in Mo Watson and Marcus Foster. The Blue Jays also have one of the more underrated home crowds in the game. This one will be a treat in the season’s opening week.

13. Arizona vs. Gonzaga – Naismith Memorial HOF Game (Los Angeles) – Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.): Two West Coast powers face off in L.A. a month into the season with perhaps a seed line at stake. Gonzaga will likely open the season in the top-15 on the strength of getting senior center Przmek Karnowski back and the Nigel Williams-Goss eligible after transferring from Washington.

t-14. North Carolina at Indiana – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30 (9 p.m.)

t-14. Syracuse at Wisconsin – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9 p.m.): The ACC/Big Ten Challenge provides two more top games with the Tar Heels visiting Bloomington and the Badgers hosting the Orange. The Bryant-Kennedy Meeks matchup will be one to watch, while NBA scouts and draftniks will be tuning in to this one to see how Tyler Lydon and Nigel Hayes matchup. The game itself will provide college hoops fans plenty with the Badgers being a Big Ten favorite and Syracuse bolstering its ranks with Nebraska graduate transfer Andrew White.

15. Washington at Gonzaga – Dec. 7 (11 p.m.): The Huskies aren’t a lock to make the NCAA tournament this year, but this game will still be a must-watch thanks to Gonzaga’s strength, Markelle Fultz’s talent and it being an in-state rivalry game played on campus. Don’t underestimate how much these two fanbases dislike each other.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

TEN MORE TIMES YOU’LL NEED TO SET YOUR DVR

16. UConn vs. Syracuse – New York City – Dec. 5 (7 p.m.): Madison Square Garden will play host to this former Big East rivalry game. This is the loudest you’ll hear the Garden all season long, and that includes the games that the Knicks play.
17. Valparaiso at Oregon – Nov. 17 (9 p.m.): Valpo might be the best mid-major in the country and has a potential All-American in Alec Peters. The Ducks may not have Dillon Brooks for this one, but will still likely be ranked in the top-10.
18. Indiana vs Butler – Crossroads Classic – Dec. 17 (5 p.m.): A Hoosier State rivalry game that’s sure to be closely contested.
19. Villanova vs. Notre Dame – Never Forget Games (Newark, N.J.) – 12 p.m.: The defending champs take on one of the ACC’s best.
20. Purdue at Louisville – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30: Another strong game courtesy of the cross-conference challenge.
21. Villanova at Purdue – Nov. 14 (7 p.m.): This game got more difficult for the ‘Cats without Omari Spellman to combat Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
22. Northern Iowa vs. Xavier – Nov. 16 (12 p.m.): A sneaky-strong game with Xavier being a team that figures to push Villanova in the Big East and the Panthers featuring potential MVC player of the year Jeremy Morgan.
23. Oregon at Baylor – Nov. 15 (3:30 p.m.): This will be the Ducks’ only true road game in the non-conference. Baylor’s Johnathan Motley figures to be a tough guard for the Pac-12 favorites.
24. Arizona vs. Texas A&M – Dec 17 (1 p.m.): The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s team, but will still be a top-25 contender.
25. Florida State at Florida – Dec. 11 (4 p.m.): The Seminoles will bring quite a bit of talent with them to Gainesville in Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac for this intrastate rivalry game.

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks over Javion Ogunyemi #0 of the Siena Saints during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)