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.

Quinnipiac set to hire Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy as new head coach

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Quinnipiac will introduce Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Dunleavy has helped the Wildcats to a national championship and multiple Big East championships as the team’s associate head coach. A former walk-on for Villanova who transitioned into a director of operations and later an assistant coach, Dunleavy is the son of Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. Baker’s brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr., is still playing in the NBA as well.

The 34-year-old Dunleavy has experience with a championship program at Villanova so it will be interesting to see what he can do running his own program for the first time. Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy to replace Tom Moore, who was fired after 10 years with the program.

The Bobcats went to an NIT and made a few other postseason appearances under Moore but the program has never been to the NCAA tournament since making the transition to Division I in the late ’90s.

Report: Duquesne hires Akron’s Keith Dambrot as new head coach

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Duquesne has hired Akron head coach Keith Dambrot to the same position, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman.

The 58-year-old Dambrot has been head coach at Akron since 2004 as he’s helped the program to three NCAA tournament appearances.

The former high school coach of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Dambrot won two Ohio state championships with James before becoming an assistant coach at Akron in 2001. Dambrot eventually took over the head job over from Dan Hipsher.

Dambrot is reportedly getting a seven-year deal from Duquesne so the Dukes are making a major investment in him to turn around the basketball program.

Duke’s Christian Laettner shouts out North Carolina’s Luke Maye on Twitter after winning jumper over Kentucky

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Duke and North Carolina don’t have much in common.

But the historic college basketball rivals now have the distinction of earning late Elite Eight wins over Kentucky that involved a No. 32 making the winning shot.

Blue Devil legend Christian Laettner is famous for his 1992 buzzer-beater over Kentucky in the Elite Eight and he made sure to give some love to North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye after his own Elite Eight shot knocked out the Wildcats.

Rice’s Marcus Evans becomes one of top available transfers

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Rice sophomore guard Marcus Evans will transfer and play his final two seasons elsewhere, he announced on Monday.

The 6-foot-2 Evans has been a major scorer the last two seasons for the Owls as he averaged 19.0 points per game this season after putting up 21.4 points per game as a freshman.

With Rice head coach Mike Rhoades taking the VCU opening and the program struggling to consistently win, Evans seeking to play elsewhere should not come as much of a surprise.

Evans will have to sit out a transfer season before having two more years of eligibility but he should be one of the best options available this offseason. A proven scorer who has become more well-rounded this season, Evans could be a high-quality addition to any program this offseason.

A native of Chesapeake, Virginia, it will be interesting to see if Evans decides to play closer to home.

NBA Draft Stock Watch: Who has helped themselves in the NCAA Tournament?

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The term ‘prisoner of the moment’ is never more fitting than when weighing just how valuable an NCAA Tournament star turn is for a kid’s potential success as an NBA player.

We see it every year. Big tournament performances during deep runs in the dance is a great way to inflate draft stock while disappointing exits are an easy way to hurt it, even if it goes against the season-long data that is telling us something about a player. 

Who are the players that helped themselves the most this March? And who may have put a damper on their chances of hearing their name called early on draft night?

STOCK UP

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has played his way into the discussion as a potential first round pick by leading South Carolina to the Final Four. He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender in the NBA, and he certainly has the toughness and physicality, but it’s his shot-making that is the game-changer for him. He shot 39.4 percent from three on the season and is hitting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament, and while the knuckle-ball action on his jumper is concerning, at some point it’s fair to wonder whether or not his less-than-ideal form is less important than the fact that it goes in. Thornwell, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season, will be an interesting 3-and-D candidate come draft night, and the spotlight on him from averaging 25.7 points while leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four will only help.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox solidified his standing as a potential top five during the tournament. The red flags are still there — Can he make threes in the NBA? — but at the end of the day, the NBA Draft is about whether or not you want one guy or the other guy. This is a draft that is absolutely loaded at the point guard spot, and for the second time this season, Fox outplayed a guy that many have slotted above him, Lonzo Ball. In the Sweet 16, he put up 39 points, the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, as Kentucky skated by UCLA more easily than most of us expected. Ball should probably still be considered the better, but when you’re sitting in that room making those decisions, it’s not going to be easy to bypass the guy that bested him twice.

Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell, a senior, has been one of the best defensive players in the country all season long, and never was that more apparent than when he went for 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists against Kansas in the Elite 8. He totally changed that game, making Landen Lucas look like an eighth grader without any confidence and forcing the Jayhawks to miss a number of shots in the lane simply because they were aware that Bell could be lurking. He was probably worth a second round pick already, but that game very likely ensured that he will here his name called at some point on draft night.

Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey is a shot-maker. That’s what he brings to the table offensively. He can score. He’s gone for at least 20 points in all seven tournament games — Pac-12 and NCAA — that Oregon had played this year, and he hit innumerable big shots in the process, including a game-winner against Rhode Island in the second round and a pair of absolute daggers against Kansas. Undersized scorers come a dime-a-dozen at that level, but Dorsey ensured that he will get a shot this spring.

D.J. Wilson, Michigan: Wilson has been one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball this season given his size, athleticism and skill-set, and the attention that Michigan got as the darling of the conference tournaments and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly didn’t hurt. I’m not convinced he’s in a position to be a first round pick, but I am certain that, if he opts to declare for the draft and sign with an agent, there will be a team willing to bet on the meteoric rise he had this year continuing.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

STOCK DOWN

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: With all the hype surrounding the Ball family heading into his showdown with De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you would’ve expected Lonzo, who has been terrific this season, to shine on the biggest stage. But that’s not how it went. He was completely overshadowed by Fox, who went for a career-high 39 points when they went head-to-head, bowing out of the tournament with nothing but a Sweet 16 to show for it. There’s a risk in making over-arching judgements on a player based off of one or two games when a season’s worth of data is telling you something else, but it is fair to note that Ball was outplayed in both of his matchups with another potential top five pick at his position.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: We’ve seen all season long what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court, and one bad game where he got into foul trouble in the first four minutes is not going to change the way that scouts view his ability on the court. The concern with Jackson has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the off-the-court stuff, and it’s his temper. The biggest red flag surrounding him right now is an incident at a bar where he did more than $1,000 worth of damage to a person’s car. He got a few technical fouls this season. Against Oregon, he got into it with Duck players. Whether that affected his play, only Jackson will know, but it’s not all that hard to connect those dots. It’s easier to teach a 19-year old that cares too much to tone it down — the maturity that comes with getting older certainly helps — than it is to get a guy with no heart to be intense and tough, but that’s something NBA teams are going to have to consider when they decide whether to take Jackson in the top three of a draft this loaded.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is incredibly talented and loaded with promise, but after seeing the dip in his production once Mo Watson went out with a torn ACL — 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on a 74 percent shooting vs. 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting post Watson — is concerning. Throw in that he was totally underwhelming against an undersized front line of Rhode Island in a first round loss, and there will be questions asked about whether or not he is a guy that is worth a first round pick.

Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard, by all accounts, had a terrific season. He’s a skilled scorer that can get his buckets in a number of different ways. He’s a lights-out shooter with an advanced array of moves to create space to get his shot off and a knack for scoring around the rim with both hands. But the concerns with him is whether or not he will be able to do so against guys that are as athletic and strong as NBA wings are. Picking a second round matchup with a South Carolina team loaded with those kind of defenders to have his worst game of the season wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart does everything well, and he certainly proved throughout the season that he had improved on the things that he needed to improve — shooting, playmaking, ability off the dribble. But the concern with Hart is whether or not he’s going to be able to get his own shot when the guys he plays against are bigger, quicker, more athletic and just as tough as he is, and the way Villanova bowed out of the tournament — with Hart being unable to create a shot or draw a foul on a drive to the rim — is a perfect summation of the concerns NBA teams have about him.