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.

No. 18 Rhode Island wins first outright Atlantic-10 title

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KINGSTON, Rhode Island (AP) — At the end of the celebration, Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley was the last one to cut down the net at the basket in front of his team’s bench.

He climbed up a ladder, snipped the final strings and put it around his neck to the roars of the crowd, a small symbol for a program that has finally reached the top of the Atlantic-10’s regular season.

Jeff Dowtin scored 20 points, E.C. Matthews added 18 and No. 18 Rhode Island wrapped up its first outright A-10 regular-season title with an 81-56 victory over Dayton on Friday night.

“Just to be able to enjoy it with our fans, who have amazingly supported since I’ve been here through the climb,” said Hurley, in his sixth season with URI. “To be able to enjoy those types of moments.”

Jared Terrell had 17 points to help the Rams (22-5, 15-1) win for the 18th time in 19 games. It was their second straight after their school-record 16-game winning streak was halted by St. Bonaventure last Friday night.

In 1980-81, the Rams tied Duquesne for a share of the conference title, their only other regular-season A-10 championship.

When the game ended, blue and white confetti — the school colors — and streamers fell from the ceiling. Terrell climbed the scorer’s table, waving to the crowd.

“It was just a great feeling to embrace it with the fans,” Farrell said. “To experience this for the first time, it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Added Matthews: “It was just to give it back and show them we couldn’t have done it without them.”

Hurley said to the crowd over a microphone: “Let’s bring down this net baby, what do you say?”

Jalen Crutcher led the Flyers (13-15, 7-9) with 12 points.

“I think the cumulative effect of their pressure, I think took its toll,” Flyers coach Anthony Grant said. “Give them credit — they did a good job defensively and got it going in the second half.”

Rhode Island shot 64.3 percent in the second half and Dayton only 27.3, including missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts.

Playing for their first conference regular-season title in school history already had the sellout crowd fired up, but it picked up to a notch at the end of 7-0 spurt early in second half when Hurley walked onto the floor, waving for more noise when Dayton called timeout after the Rams went up 46-38 with 16:08 to play.

Following the timeout, URI continued its stifling, man-to-man defensive pressure and took charge with an 11-4 spurt that was capped by Matthews’ 3-pointer from the left wing that pushed its lead to 15 with 13:17 to play. The Rams had two easy breakaway baskets off turnovers in the spree.

They pushed it to 72-46 on Dowtin’s 3 with just over five minutes to play, sending Hurley to the floor again waving after another timeout.

In the opening half, the Flyers shot 58.3 percent and led most of the way despite nearly hitting their per-game average with 13 turnovers before URI closed by scoring nine of the final 11 points to take a 36-34 edge into intermission.

TURNOVER MAKERS

The Rams entered the game as one of the best in the nation, creating 16.38 turnovers per game. Dayton came in committing just 13.6 per, but finished with 22.

HOME SWEET HOME

The Rams improved to 15-0 in the raucous Ryan Center, tying the school-record for most home wins in a season. They also did it in 1987-88 when the program advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tourney.

“We wouldn’t have been able to win this championship without the absolute electric atmosphere that has been created here all year long,” Hurley said.

ROAD WOES

Dayton fell to 1-9 on the road this season.

BIG PICTURE

Dayton: The Flyers were hoping to spoil the party by winning their third straight game to reach .500 in league play.

Rhode Island: The Rams are certainly playing the rest of the regular season and conference tourney, looking for a better seed in a probable selection to NCAA Tournament – even if they don’t win the postseason A-10 tournament.

VIDEO: No. 16 Buckeyes keep title hopes alive with thrilling win at Indiana

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Ohio State guard C.J. Jackson relied on sheer instincts Friday night.

Instead of going with the Buckeyes’ designed final play, he changed it on the fly.

When Jackson finally got control of the pass in the closing seconds of double overtime, he faked another pass and spotted up for a 25-footer and that silenced Indiana’s crowd with 1.7 seconds left and gave No. 16 Ohio State an 80-78 victory.

“You dream of playing in buildings like this when you’re younger and just to have one of these moments is unbelievable,” Jackson said after scoring 13 points.

This wasn’t just another win for the Buckeyes (24-7, 15-3 Big Ten), either.

They needed this one to have any hope of claiming a share of the conference crown in coach Chris Holtmann’s first season. They still need No. 2 Michigan State to lose Sunday at Wisconsin.

And on a night Ohio State dealt with foul trouble and fatigue, Jackson’s brilliant switcheroo was exactly what Ohio State needed.

“We ran a similar action for Jae’Sean Tate at the end of the first OT or whatever it was, and we didn’t execute that real well. The presence of mind to get the shot up,” Holtmann said, shaking his head. “I think CJ may prefer to take a 25-footer rather than get it in a little deeper.”

He didn’t have much of a choice.

With both teams out of timeouts and Indiana clinging to a 78-77 lead after Juwan Morgan’s layup with seven seconds to go, the Buckeyes pushed the ball up the floor.

But rather than look for the trailing Tate or star forward Keita Bates-Diop, Jackson did the natural thing.

“I just felt like I had the best look we were going to get with the time left,” he said.

All the Hoosiers could muster was a half-court heave from Robert Johnson that came up well short at the buzzer.

Bates-Diop had 24 points and tied his career-high with 14 rebounds. Tate finished with 12 points, five rebounds and six assists.

Indiana (16-14 9-9) was led by Juwan Morgan with 18 points and Johnson, who had 17 in what could be his final game at Assembly Hall.

“Really disappointed for our fans and our seniors in particular,” coach Archie Miller said. “I thought we did enough at the end and we just had a breakdown at the end to contest the shot.”

But from the moment Indiana took a 61-59 lead on Josh Newkirk’s layup with 3:54 left in regulation, it was a cliffhanger.

Neither team scored after Indiana’s Justin Smith made two free throws left with 2:18 in regulation.

Neither team led by more than two in the first overtime, which ended tied at 70.

And neither led by more than one in the second overtime — until Jackson’s knocked down the long 3.

KEY STATS:

Ohio State: Kam Williams scored 15 points and Kaleb Wesson had 12 before fouling out. … Bates-Diop also finished with four blocks in 45 minutes. … Four of the Buckeyes’ starters played at least 40 minutes. … Ohio State had a 41-35 rebounding edge.

Indiana: Smith had 16 points for Indiana. … Josh Newkirk added nine points and six assists with only one turnover. … The Hoosiers scored only four points during over a stretch of 9:50 in the first half and missed their first seven shots to start the second half. … Indiana committed 12 turnovers and was 13 of 23 at the free-throw line.

HE SAID IT

“Rest,” Holtmann said when asked what his team needs now. “They are exhausted. We just rode some guys because we had too. Jae’Sean Tate literally couldn’t function, that’s why I called one of those timeouts. He couldn’t move. He (Bates-Diop) needs rest in the worst way.”

BIG PICTURE

Ohio State: No, the Buckeyes aren’t going into the conference tournament with the momentum they had hoped. And they may not get even a share of the league crown they craved. But they will be one of the top three seeds and they’ll have a few days to get things fixed.

Indiana: Fans who watched the Hoosiers season opening loss to Indiana State may not have recognized the team they saw Friday night. Indiana has progressed steadily all season, understands what coach Archie Miller expects and have learned how to challenge everyone.

Report: FBI wiretaps shows Sean Miller discussing payment for Deandre Ayton

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Sean Miller was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for his freshman star Deandre Ayton, according to a report from ESPN.

The conversations that were intercepted were between Miller and Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller, in which the pair discussed a $100,000 payment that would ensure Ayton’s commitment to and enrollment with Arizona.

According to ESPN, when asked by Dawkins if he should work through former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson to finalize a deal, “Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money.”

Richardson was fired by Arizona after he was caught up in the original FBI complaints in September. He had worked for Miller for 10 years at Xavier and Arizona. He was alleged to have accepted $20,000 in bribes to steer players to Dawkins and another financial advisor.

Ayton committed to Arizona in September of 2016. He is currently averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 boards for No. 14 Arizona and is considered by many to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

There has been speculation all season long that Arizona’s ties to this investigation could cost Miller his job.

CBT Podcast: Michael Porter Jr. is back, Duke and Kentucky might be back, Allonzo Trier’s gone

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Fun episode today. Rob Dauster was joined by one of the up-and-coming stars at ESPN, Dalen Cuff, to talk through the changes that Duke and Kentucky have made in recent weeks and whether or not that changes our perception of those teams moving forward. They also discussed Trae Young’s regression as well as the root of their soccer fandom, and all of that happened roughly 90 minutes before news broke that Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. was cleared by doctors to play while Arizona’s Allonzo Trier was once against ineligible for a positive PED test, so Travis Hines of NBC Sports jumped on the podcast to talk through all of that. The rundown:

OPEN: Should Michael Porter Jr. play this season?

10:05: Did Allonzo Trier get screwed by the NCAA?

16:55: Why did Dalen Cuff sully his name by becoming an Arsenal fan?

26:20: Why has Duke been better without Marvin Bagley III?

34:05: Is Jarred Vanderbilt the key to unlock Kentucky’s potential?

39:25: Have you changed your outlook on Duke or Kentucky in the long-term?

43:45: Texas Tech losing Keenan Evans was a bummer.

48:00: So let’s talk about this Trae Young slump.

Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky respond to report connecting players to agent payments

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Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky are the three most visible programs that have had their program connected to today’s report from Yahoo Sports that linked current players to potential NCAA violations involving ex-NBA agent Andy Miller and a former employee, Christian Dawkins.

According to the report, the mother of Duke freshman Wendell Carter had lunch with Dawkins at a Longhorn Steakhouse where Dawkins spent $106 on the meal. The parents of Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges are alleged to have received a mean with $70 from Dawkins as well as a $400 cash advance. Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox or a member of his family is listed as receiving a meal from Dawkins, although his father has already denied that this happened.

All three programs have denied wrongdoing.

“Duke immediately reviewed the matter and, based on the available information, determined there are no eligibility issues related to today’s report,” read a statement released by Duke AD Kevin White.

“We are aware of the report in Yahoo! Sports,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. “While we will cooperate with any and all investigations, we have no reason to believe that I, any member of our staff or student-athlete did anything in violation of NCAA rules.”

“I have no relationship with Andy Miller or any of his associates,” John Calipari’s statement read. “Neither my staff nor I utilized any agent, including Andy Miller or any of his associates, to provide any financial benefits to a current or former Kentucky student-athlete. We will cooperate fully with the appropriate authorities.”

Cal also said in a press conference that he believes Knox will play on Saturday against Missouri.