Top 25 Countdown: No. 21 VCU Rams

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-7, 15-3 CAA (2nd); Lost to Indiana in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Shaka Smart

Key Losses: Brad Burgess

Newcomers: Mo Alie-Cox, Jordan Burgess, Melvin Johnson, Justin Tuoyo

Projected Lineup:

G: Darius Theus, Sr.
G: Troy Daniels, Sr.
F: Treveon Graham, So.
F: Juvonte Reddic, Jr.
C: DJ Haley, Jr.
Bench: Briante Weber, So.; Rob Brandenburg, Jr.; Melvin Johnson, Fr.; Jordan Burgess, Fr.

Outlook: It’s almost impossible to underrate VCU at this point.

They are 18 months removed from playing in the Final Four. They have a head coach that gets massive, high-major contract offers about as often as I get a cup of coffee. They parlayed that success into an invitation from the stronger Atlantic 10, and have since been crowned a favorite to win one of the deepest, most balanced conferences in the country despite it being their first season in the league. Heck, we ranked them 21st nationally. That’s quite a measure of respect.

And still, it feels like the Rams are going to end up being better than projected heading into this season.

Shaka Smart runs a system at VCU much the same way that Bo Ryan does at Wisconsin or that John Thompson III does at Georgetown. Smart loves to press, and while some programs do that specifically do speed up the tempo or to force the offense to burn time off of the shot clock on every possession, the Rams have one goal in mind defensively: force turnovers. They led the nation in both steal percentage and defensive turnover rate in 2011-2012, according to Kenpom, a stat that shouldn’t change all that much this season given the fact that the Rams bring back all but one member of last season’s team.

Seniors Darius Theus, the point guard, and Troy Daniels, the shooter, will likely start in the back court with junior Rob Brandenburg, sophomore Briante Weber and freshman Melvin Johnson coming off the bench. All five of these guys have specific strengths — Theus is easily the best creator, followed by Weber; Brandenburg is a slasher and the best athlete; Weber is probably the best on-ball defender; Daniels is the best shooter, followed by Johnson, who has the rep of a big-time scorer out of New York City — but, for all intents and purposes, they are more-or-less interchangeable on the perimeter.

In the front court, Smart usually starts both DJ Haley and Juvonte Reddic. Reddic is a better fit for the system, as he’s got the mobility and speed to get up and down the floor in this system while still being able to rebound, defend the rim and score around the basket thanks to his 6-foot-9 frame. Haley’s role is as more of a shot-blocker and a guy that can bail out defenders pressuring on the perimeter if they get beaten off the dribble.

While both Haley and Reddic start, Smart doesn’t usually use them at the same time, opting instead use four smaller players. That’s where the loss of Brad Burgess hurts this group. At 6-foot-6, Burgess was simply a terrific all-around basketball player. He could guard guards on the perimeter, he could hang in the paint and rebound the ball, he hit threes, he was a pure-bred leader. His role for the Rams was similar to the role that Kim English played for Missouri last season, and his value creating mismatches cannot be overstated.

The guy that many expect to fill that role this season will be sophomore Treveon Graham. A 6-foot-5 sophomore, Graham averaged 7.0 points and 3.2 boards in just under 17 minutes as a freshman. He’s shown promise and potential as a scorer, but that 31.3% three-point shooting is a bit of a red-flag. The other guy that will see time at the four spot this season is Jordan Burgess, a top 100 recruit that just so happens to be Brad’s younger brother. The similarities in their game go beyond a shared last name.

There is one thing that VCU could stand to improve on that would take them from being a good team to potentially being an elite team: three-point shooting. The Rams take a lot of them; it’s built into their system and what Smart wants them to do on the floor. The problem? They shot 33.4% from beyond the arc as a team last season and only return one guy — Daniels, at 38.1% — that shot better than Graham’s 31.3% from three. That’s a number that needs to get better for a team that shoots more than 22 three-pointers a night.

Predictions?: Simply based on the strength of what is coming back, the Rams are going to be competing for the Atlantic 10 title and, most likely, heading to the NCAA tournament with a more favorable seed than they have in the last two seasons. There is room for them to grow, especially if Graham — and the younger Burgess — can adequately take on the “power forward” role on this team and, as a team, they improve their accuracy from deep. With how wide open college basketball is this season, a return to the Final Four is not out of the realm of possibility if those things happen, although I think winning the A-10 and reaching the Sweet 16 are more realistic goals (expectations?).

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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