Top 25 Countdown: No. 13 VCU Rams

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 13 VCU.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

source:
AP

Head Coach: Shaka Smart

Last Season: 26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10 (t-2nd), lost in the opening round to No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin

Key Losses: Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenberg, Terrence Shannon

Newcomers: Terry Larrier, Michael Gilmore, Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams

Projected Lineup

G: Briante Weber, Sr.
G: Melvin Johnson, Jr.
F: Treveon Graham, Sr.
F: Jordan Burgess, So.
F: Mo-Alie Cox, So.
Bench: JeQuan Lewis, So.; Terry Larrier, Fr.; Jarred Guest, Sr.; Antravious Simmons, Fr.; Justin Tillman, Fr.; Jonathan Williams, Fr.; Michael Gilmore, Fr.

They’ll be good because … : Shaka Smart will once again have himself a roster perfectly suited to VCU’s ‘Havoc’ style of play. Briante Weber is an absolute nightmare to try and handle the ball against, having led the country in steal percentage in each of his first three seasons in college, and he’s the guy that plays the point in VCU’s full-court press. He’s the engine that makes that defense go, and when the Rams get on a roll defensively, they can simply overwhelm opponents.

Weber will be joined on the perimeter by senior Treveon Graham, who is arguably the best player in the Atlantic 10. Graham is a known-quantity at this point in his career. He’s a physical, 6-foot-6 wing that scores a lot of points, draws a lot of fouls and just generally causes headaches for opposing power forwards that have to guard him. There are some question marks at some other spots on the floor, but with those two seniors anchoring the lineup, VCU is always going to be good.

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Treveon Graham (AP Photo)

But they might disappoint because … : There are, more or less, three real concerns for this VCU team:

  • The Rams don’t have all that much in the way of consistent perimeter shooting. Melvin Johnson can get hot in a hurry and hit four or five in a game, but he’s streaky. Graham is a respectable shooter, while Weber is barely a threat. Jordan Burgess shot 30.7% from the field as a freshman. This limits what VCU can do offensively, and when the Rams struggle to score, they struggle to get into their press.
  • Mo-Alie Cox is one of my favorite players in the country for a couple of reasons: His name is terrific, and he’s a 6-foot-5 brick wall of a big man that looks like he should be playing football, not basketball. He’s physical, he can rebound, he can score around the rim, but he’s also VCU’s best front court option and he’s all of 6-foot-5. Antravious Simmons has lost a ton of weight and VCU landed a pair of forwards that are long, lanky and athletic in Michael Gilmore and Justin Tillman, but none of them are guaranteed to be impact guys this season. The front court could be a constant question mark.
  • Sticking with that same theme, I’m not sure if VCU has enough depth this year. Freshman Terry Larrier, an athletic, 6-foot-8 wing that was a top 50 recruit nationally, should be an impact guy right away for Smart. JeQuan Lewis will provide some experience in the back court as well. Beyond that, there’s a lot of youth. Having quality depth is a bit overrated in college basketball, but not when you run the system VCU runs.

Outlook: Here’s a stat for you: Shaka Smart has never won a conference regular season title. Not in the CAA, and not in the Atlantic 10, and that is a point worth discussing. Ever since he led VCU to the 2011 Final Four out of the play-in game, Smart has been one of the hottest names in college coaching. He’s taken VCU from being a contender in a mid-major conference to being a perennial top 25 program and the overwhelming favorite to win one of the top nine conferences in the country.

Smart has done a terrific job building — and branding — this VCU team, but there are skeptics out there. Is VCU nothing more than ‘Havoc’? And can a team that relies on being more athletic, more aggressive and in better shape to win games really going to be able to beat elite teams, teams with players that can match up with VCU athletically who won’t be bothered by a full court press? It’s worth noting here that the team Smart had the most success with, that 2011 team, was the least ‘Havocy’ of any team he’s had in Richmond. They played the slowest pace, forced the fewest turnovers and won because they had shooters that caught fire from deep at the right time.

I say all that to say this: VCU is the best team in the Atlantic 10, which is the first time the Rams been the clear favorite since joining the conference. They should win the regular season title, and at least a game or two in the NCAA tournament. If they don’t win the league, however, than we’re going to have to have a real conversation about whether or not VCU can be elite using ‘Havoc’.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.