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.

Bettor wins $16,000 on UMBC wager

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The whole country became UMBC fans throughout Saturday night as the Retrievers attempted – and ultimately pulled off – the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA tournament against Virginia.

There may have been one person at The Venetian in Las Vegas cheering a little more than most, though. They had a little more on the line. The moneyline, to be exact. 

One bettor won $16,000 on a $800 wager that UMBC would beat the Cavaliers, which is exactly what they did, 74-54, in Charlotte.

While the bet paid off this time and it makes for an all-time story, it’s probably best not to make this your betting strategy. If you would have bet 800 bucks on every 16 seed every year, you would have been $108,000 in the hole before getting your Retriever payout and riding a rough 135-bet losing streak. Can’t win without buying a ticket, though, right?

And it’s not like that the person who just cashed a $16,000 check cares about that at the moment. Also no word on how they’re betting UMBC against Kansas State, either. The Wildcats are 10.5-point favorites, if you were wondering. 

No. 2 Duke advances to Sweet 16 with easy win over Rhode Island

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Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter looked like men playing against boys on Saturday afternoon, as they combined for 35 points on 14-for-16 shooting to go along with 15 boards and four assists as No. 2-seed steam-rolled No. 7 Rhode Island, 87-62, to get to the Sweet 16.

They will take on the winner of Sunday’s second round game between No. 3 Michigan State and No. 11 Syracuse.

The truth of the matter is that this URI team is the one that is made up of grown-ups. Bagley and Carter are freshmen. The Rams are a veteran-laden team with fifth-year seniors and players that are leaving the South Kingstown after this school year with a degree and either a real job or a spot on a team outside of the glitz and the glamour of the NBA.

But that didn’t matter on Saturday afternoon.

The Rams tried to play four of those veteran guards together, using Stanford Robinson on Bagley in the post early on in the game, and it did not work. The problem is two-fold. On the one hand, putting someone that is 6-foot-4 on Bagley, who is a monster, is not an ideal situation, not when double-teams can’t work because Grayson Allen and Gary Trent are making shots.

But the bigger issue is that using that little guard doesn’t even earn you a mismatch on the other end of the floor. Since Duke is playing in this zone, Bagley doesn’t have to chase perimeter players around defensively. He doesn’t get put into ball-screens actions where he’s going to be asked to ice, or black, or switch. He just has to be big, athletic, active and take up space, and that’s something that he’s perfectly capable of doing.

What that means is that in order to be able to matchup effectively with this Blue Devil team with the way they are currently playing, you need to have two bigs that are capable of going post-up for post-up and box-out for box-out with the Blue Devils, or you need to have super-skilled front court players that will be able to dice up a zone with their ability to pass the ball while making Duke work on the other end in the paint. (Think UNC with Theo Pinson and Luke Maye.)

Let me put this another way.

Over the course of the nine days — from the start of the ACC tournament through the end of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament — what we have learned about the Blue Devils is that they are the toughest team in college basketball to matchup with, but if you have the pieces to matchup with them, they can be beaten.

But — and I ask you this in all sincerity — just how many teams are there in the country that have the players to matchup with them?

Could Isaac Haas play for Purdue despite a broken elbow?

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Maybe Isaac Haas college career isn’t over after all.

The Purdue 7-foot-2 center broke his elbow in the Boilermakers’ opening-round win over Cal State Fullerton, but isn’t ruling out continuing to play despite the injury.

Haas practice Saturday with Purdue with the aid of a brace and is hopeful that he could still be cleared.

Purdue coach Matt Painter downplayed the possibility that Haas would play, saying that “his future is too important.”

Certainly, Haas’ availability would be enormous for the Boilermakers not only because he’s averaging 14.7 points and 5.7 rebounds, but because he totally changes the game with his presence inside on both ends of the floor. Purdue has a capable reserve in Matt Haarms, but without Haas, Purdue’s Final Four chances seem dire.

Even if Haas is able to play, it remains to be seen how effective he can be with a busted elbow. It also sounds as though the brace he’s been outfitted with may need special clearance from the NCAA due to its composition.

For an NCAA tournament full of amazing storylines, Haas’ (potential) ability to play through a broke elbow might be among the most intriguing.

No. 1 Villanova makes 17 threes, routs No. 9 Alabama

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On paper, this matchup set up perfectly for No. 9-seed Alabama.

The Crimson Tide are the longest and most athletic team that No. 1 seed Villanova has faced off with in months. They entered the day as one of college basketball’s best at defending the three-point line. They have the kind of dynamic play maker at the point guard spot that can give Villanova fits in Collin Sexton.

All of the dots connected.

What I failed to mention there, however, is that Villanova has an uncanny ability to absolutely bury anyone in their path in an avalanche of threes, and that is precisely what happened to the Crimson Tide on Saturday afternoon.

Mikal Bridges, who scored just a single point in the first half, scored 16 of his 23 points in the first four minutes of the second half as Villanova took a game that was close for 20 minutes and turned it into a massacre. The Wildcats outscored Alabama 49-31 in the second half — a number that was limited as the Wildcats took their foot off the gas down the stretch — en route to an 81-58 win.

Villanova will advance to the Sweet 16 to face the winner of tomorrow’s game between No. 5 West Virginia and No. 13 Marshall.

Bridges led the way for Villanova on Saturday, but they may not have been in the position that they were in if it was not for Donte DiVincenzo. The redshirt sophomore caught fire in the first half, scored all 18 points his points and hitting five threes to put Villanova ahead by five at the break. Divincenzo also added five assists, his play-making a difference-maker with Jalen Brunson on the bench with a pair of early fouls.

And that should terrify everyone in the East Region.

Hell, that should be a statement to everyone in this tournament.

Villanova just de-pantsed one of the teams that best matched up with them, a team that has a lottery pick running the point and an NBA player and coach on the sideline. And they did it without much coming from their all-american point guard, the guy that was named the NBC Sports National Player of the Year.

Brunson finished with just 12 points and four assists, and honestly, did you even notice? This was the Bridges show in the second half when Villanova made their run. It was DiVincenzo’s show in the first half when Villanova needed someone to keep them close. We’ve seen Phil Booth take over games. (Anyone remember the 2016 national title game? He had 20.) Omari Spellman can pop off for 25 from time to time.

The Wildcats are just so dangerous.

And when they play like they did today, they are damn near unbeatable.

Police: Thief steals electronics from UNC basketball program

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Police say someone stole thousands of dollars in electronics from the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team locker room and office while they were away for the ACC tournament.

UNC-Chapel Hill campus police said on Twitter that the break-in happened at the Dean Smith Center on March 9, and they released images of a man they believe may have been involved.

A police report says the thief managed to get into the team locker room and basketball office without forced entry, according to The Herald-Sun.

The report says the thief stole a PlayStation 4, Xbox One and clothing worth $2,900 that belonged to the athletic department. Police say the thief also stole a laptop worth $1,200 and a financial document worth about $3,000 belonging to one of the players.