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.

Self says he’s “optimistic” about Preston playing for Jayhawks

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There hasn’t been much new good around Lawrence lately with Kansas dropping its last two games, but the Jayhawks apparently have reason for hope.

Kansas coach Bill Self said he is “optimistic” that freshman Billy Preston, who has been held out of competition while the school investigates the financial background of a car he has been driving, will play for the Jayhawks this season, according to the Kansas City Star.

“I think our school has done a great job in creating, getting, all the information that could possibly be pertinent to his situation,” Self said, according to the Star. “The other thing you don’t know … they (NCAA officials) could come back and say, ‘We need more information.’ They could come back and say, ‘OK good to go.’ They could come back and say, ‘No it’s not good to go.’.

“Who knows what the response will be because it will be determined by somebody else. The reality of it is us putting a total package together from every scenario … we’ve done a good job. Hopefully, whatever information that is given to the deciding parties, it’ll be a quick turnaround … but we don’t know that yet either.”

Preston, a top-20 recruit in 2017, has yet to play for the Jayhawks after being suspended for the team’s season opener and then because questions were raised about a car he was driving when he was involved in a single-car accident. The Jayhawks could use the 6-foot-9 Preston in the lineup to help right the ship after these back-to-back losses that have, in part, shown just how thin up front the Jayhawks are.

There is also the possibility that Silvio De Sousa, a 6-foot-9 2018 commit, could enroll this semester.

“There are questions, but the answers will probably take place I would say in the next week to 10 days.”

Former NBA star Mark Price fired by Charlotte

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The college basketball coaching carousel now has three openings just over a month into the season, as Charlotte announced that head coach Mark Price has been “released from his contract.”

“We appreciate all that coach Price has done for our program,” said athletic director Judy Rose. “His background and knowledge were assets to our young players and we appreciate him sharing his talents with our team. This was a difficult decision, especially as we make plans to open conference play, but we do feel it is in the best interest of our basketball program.”

Assistant coach Houston Fancher has been tabbed as the interim coach.

Charlotte is 3-6 this season. Through two and a half years, Price had a record of 30-42 with the 49ers and was 16-20 in Conference USA play.

East Carolina’s Jeff Lebo and UTEP’s Tim Floyd both resigned earlier this season.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part II: Maryland through Seton Hall

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Maryland to Seton Hall.

Let’s get into it.

MARYLAND: Check

The Terrapins don’t lack for young talent, with the sophomore class of Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson being joined by talented freshmen Darry Morsell and Bruno Fernando. But the turnover issues of last season are still present, with Maryland turning the ball over on more than 23 percent of its possessions. Given how tight the Big Ten stands to be in the middle of the conference standings, giving away possessions could be the difference between earning a double-bye in the conference tournament and being in a spot where a team needs to go on a run to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid. Maryland’s been better with the turnovers of late, but I’d like to see this be the case against high-level competition before raising my bet. Also, while none of Maryland’s losses have been particularly “bad,” the losses to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse mean that this team has just one noteworthy non-conference win on its resume (Butler). (Raphielle Johnson)

MIAMI: Bet The Mortgage

I’ve been all-in on Miami since the preseason. I thought they were going to win the ACC before the season started, before they went into Minnesota and sent the Gophers on this mini-spiral, before Duke lost and it became trendy to think that someone other than Duke was the best team in that conference. That was also before I knew that Dewan Huell was going to be as good as he’s been. We saw on Saturday what happens when Duke has to deal with ball-screens, and Jim Larrañaga loves ball-screens and has a roster full of talented, athletic guards that thrive in them. (Rob Dauster)

MICHIGAN: Fold

The Wolverines have not exactly been all that impressive this season. They blew a 20-point lead to Ohio State and lost to LSU in the Maui Invitational opener. The overtime win over UCLA on Saturday and a win at Texas on Tuesday do make me second-guess myself here, but I just have a difficult time projecting much out of a John Beilein-coached team with this many point guard question marks a month into the season. (RD)

MICHIGAN STATE: Bet The Mortgage

The Spartans have only lost to another national contender in Duke the first week of the season. Looking as deep and balanced as any team in the country, Michigan State has five double-figure scorers and a bench full of upperclass veterans. They might break the Big Ten’s title drought. (Scott Phillips)

Jordan Murphy (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

MINNESOTA: Fold

Since nearly blowing a lead while playing three Alabama players, the Golden Gophers have lost three of five games, including bad double-digit losses at Nebraska and Arkansas. For a team that hopes to make a run in March, Minnesota hasn’t shown enough recent consistency against good teams to look like a major threat. Jordan Murphy looks like one of this season’s biggest new stars but Minnesota is in a recent tailspin and the heart of the conference schedule has yet to begin. (SP)

NEVADA: Raise

The Wolf Pack missed out on two quality wins as they dropped close ones to Texas Tech and TCU last week, but this is still the team to beat in the Mountain West. The Martin twins have hit the ground running during their first season on the court after transferring in from NC State, and in Jordan Caroline they’ve got a versatile forward who’s averaging 17.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Purdue transfer Kendall Stephens has shot the ball well from the perimeter, and players such as Josh Hall, Lindsey Drew and Hallice Cooke are all solid contributors as well. UNLV, Boise State and Wyoming are also worth keeping tabs on in the Mountain West, but Eric Musselman’s ability to blend together talented transfers with players who have already been part of the program is what makes Nevada such a threat. (RJ)

NORTH CAROLINA: Check

I had North Carolina down as a raise until I realized that they were ranked No. 7 in both polls. If that’s where they are in the national consciousness, that’s probably fair. I’d argue that’s their ceiling. Remember, we’re talking about a team that is currently getting all-american performances out of Luke Maye on a nightly basis, a team where Maye is the only big man on the roster that isn’t a freshman. If being a top ten team is the baseline we’re working with here, then North Carolina is a check. (RD)

NORTHWESTERN: Fold

Not showing nearly the same focus and intensity as last season’s NCAA tournament team, Northwestern has been sluggish defensively against strong competition. Only owning an overtime home win over Illinois, the Wildcats have fallen to Creighton, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and Purdue. The next stretch of three non-conference games against DePaul, Valparaiso and Oklahoma are key. (SP)

NOTRE DAME: Raise

Although the Fighting Irish suffered a puzzling home loss to Ball State, there is still reason to be optimistic. Bonzie Colson hasn’t found his touch from the outside and could get hot at any point. Younger role players like Rex Pflueger and D.J. Harvey have room to grow. Notre Dame has a favorable ACC schedule. Notre Dame’s offense is still potent and they have plenty of weapons. (SP)

OKLAHOMA: Raise

The Sooners have Trae Young.

He’s really good.

Bet on the Sooners. (Travis Hines)

OREGON: Check

When it comes to the on-court product, the impulse when it comes to Oregon is to trust that Dana Altman will have it all figured out for conference play and the Ducks will be a Pac-12 contender. Maybe that happens again this season, but thus far the Ducks have largely been a jump-shooting team that struggles when it comes to getting to the foul line (254th in free throw rate). And when you’re shooting just 36.1 percent from three, that could be an issue. Despite the additions of talented offensive options such as Elijah Brown and Troy Brown, Oregon hasn’t been as efficient offensively as past Altman-coached teams have been. And I’d argue that this team doesn’t have as many versatile players who can fill a variety of roles on both ends of the court as past Oregon teams have possessed, either. Don’t give up on Oregon, but don’t be in a hurry to add money to the pot either. (RJ)

Trae Young (Harry How/Getty Images)

PURDUE: Raise

Minus a poor stretch at Battle 4 Atlantis, Purdue has looked like a veteran team with a number of options. Owning quality wins over Arizona, Louisville, Marquette, Maryland and Northwestern, the Boilermakers look like a potentially strong team in a weak Big Ten. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has blossomed as a scorer and he has weapons like Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas around him. (SP)

RHODE ISLAND: Raise

That win over Seton Hall, which came without the injured E.C. Matthews, will do wonders for URI’s profile as it looks to earn a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The perimeter is deep and talented, even without Matthews, with Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Jarvis Garrett and an emerging freshman in Darron “Fatts” Russell among the contributors. The front court is the question mark; if Nikola Akele, Cyril Langevine and Andre Berry can provide consistent production the Rams should be able to take care of business in the Atlantic 10 and get back to the NCAA tournament. I’d raise on Dan Hurley’s team, but maybe exercise some caution with the dollar amount until Matthews returns to the court. (RJ)

SAINT MARY’S: Check

This is a good team and the biggest threat to Gonzaga in the race for the WCC title. But here’s the question that arose from those losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy: can this group slow down dynamic guards? Malachi Flynn did his thing for Washington State, and in the third-place game Georgia’s Juwan Parker, William Jackson and Tyree Crump all performed well. The Gaels haven’t lost since, taking care of Cal, Sacramento State and Seattle, but that’s to be expected. Emmett Naar and Jock Landale are capable, talented players who will lead the way, and Randy Bennett’s team will once again produce a gaudy win total. But due to the lack of a marquee non-conference win, those games against Gonzaga are of even greater importance to Saint Mary’s. Talent-wise this is an NCAA tournament team, but will the profile be good enough to get Saint Mary’s a good seed as well come March? That’s my concern. (RJ)

SETON HALL: Raise

So here’s the thing about Seton Hall: To date, they’ve been about what I expected them to be entering the season. They look like they may be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. They are tough. They defend. They are nestled somewhere in the top 15 nationally. But I’m still bullish on the Pirates because their two best players haven’t been their two best players. What does that mean? Well, Angel Delgado was a preseason all-american. Khadeen Carrington was a member of the preseason all-Big East team. Through the first month and change of the season, Desi Rodriguez has been Seton Hall’s all-american and Myles Powell has been an all-Big East player. That’s explainable – Delgado is dealing with double-teams, Carrington is still figuring out the point guard role – but it also means the Pirates haven’t yet reached their ceiling. That’s a good thing. (RD)

Desi Rodriguez (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

VIDEO: Wisconsin beats Western Kentucky on controversial blocking call 90 feet from the hoop

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Wisconsin freshman Brad Davison helped the Badgers sneak past Western Kentucky for an 81-80 win on Wednesday night by drawing a blocking call 90 feet from the basket on an inbounds play with two seconds left.

With the game tied at 80 and the Badgers in the double bonus, the blocking foul on Western Kentucky’s Marek Nelson sent Davison to the free throw line to clinch the game. Davison made the first free throw and purposely missed the second to give Wisconsin the one-point win.

Obviously, some smart coaching from Gard (if he called it) and a good play from Davison to elicit the call from the official. But for Western Kentucky to lose like this? On a call like this? That’s a really poor look from the officials, who could have just as easily called this a charge. Or even better, let the play go and settle for a likely overtime between two tied teams.

That referee’s call, on what’s very close to a non-basketball play, decided Wisconsin’s win over the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury was furious over the call and was hoping the officials could check to see if Davison was out of bounds.

Brunson leads No. 1 Villanova in rout of Temple

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jalen Brunson had 22 of his career-high 31 points in No. 1 Villanova’s dominating first half and Omari Spellman scored 27 to help lead the Wildcats to an 87-67 rout of Temple on Wednesday night.

Donte DiVincenzo added 12 points for Villanova (11-0), which won its unprecedented 22nd straight Big 5 game. The Wildcats last lost a contest in the Philadelphia round-robin series to Temple on Dec. 5, 2012. The Big 5 also consists of La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Penn.

The Wildcats, who moved into the top spot in the rankings for the third straight season this week, looked like the best team in the country in a dominating opening 20 minutes.

With his dad Rick – a former Temple standout and current assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves who played nine seasons in the NBA – sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, Brunson led the way.

The 6-foot-2 junior point guard made 8 of 10 shots, including 5 of 7 3-pointers, and added four assists while controlling the opening 20 minutes.

The performance surely impressed Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who were among the sellout crowd of 10,206 at Temple.

Quinton Rose scored 27 points for the Owls (6-3), who began the week No. 11 in the RPI rankings. It was the third straight season Temple played Villanova as a No. 1, and the Owls fell to 2-18 all-time against No. 1-ranked opponents.

The Temple student section was fired up in the pregame, hoping to help the Owls end Villanova’s Philadelphia dominance, but the Wildcats gave them little for which to cheer.

The Wildcats scored the first seven points as Temple came out cold, missing its first five shots and committing three turnovers.

And Villanova went from there.

The Wildcats took their biggest lead of the half on DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer that made it 25-5 with 11 minutes left before the break. And the lead reached 20 again on Brunson’s 3-pointer that made it 28-8 44 seconds later.

Temple rallied by scoring the next 13 points over 3 1/2 minutes to pull within 28-21 on Josh Brown’s jumper with 6:45 left before the break.

But Villanova continued making shots and Brunson, appropriately, finished the first-half scoring with a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left that gave the Wildcats a 46-29 lead.

Villanova shot 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from the arc in the opening 20 minutes.

The second half was a mere formality.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats likely will hold the top spot in the rankings for at least another week, as they will take nine days off for exams before returning to the court. They will next play a nonconference game against Hofstra, the program Wildcats coach Jay Wright led before coming to Villanova, on Dec. 22 before beginning Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Temple: The Owls host another Philadelphia school, Drexel, on Saturday and then play at Georgia on Dec. 22 before starting American Conference play on Dec. 28 against Tulane. The Owls will be looking for their 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance and will need a high finish in the conference to get there.

UP NEXT

Villanova: After a break for exams, the Wildcats play Hofstra on Dec. 22 in Uniondale, New York.

Temple: Hosts Drexel on Saturday night.

___

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