Hey there, sports fans. As you all come down from the high of the BCS National Championship, we must remind you that basketball season is now going to be in full force. It’s conference time, faithful readers, and you know what that means! The Gem City Cagers are either going to win enough games to get them into the NCAA Tournament or finish with a ho-hum 8-8 record and dance in the NIT. What will happen? We’ll find out. First up, the Rams of VCU (cue the classic horror movie theme). To help us out with scouting the Rams, Mat Shelton of VCU Ram Nation answered my boring questions about this REALLY good Rams team, Shaka Smart’s perfection, and what it will take to beat VCU. Leave the interrogatory, take the cannoli.
Don: Welcome to the A10…for now. Before we get into the game, let’s talk about the conference realignment. Clearly VCU moving from the CAA was a good move but if Dayton, Butler, and Xavier all leave (which is the hot shit rumor right now), do you think VCU will still be happy? I have also heard VCU’s name being thrown about the new “Basketball Only” conference. What say you?
Mat: That situation has become a bit of an obsession of mine that I’m pretty ready to be done with. When the news first broke that the C7 was splitting from the Big East I was ecstatic because my brain immediately saw it as a chance to keep rising as a program, be it in some new conference with the C7 and top A-10 teams, or preferably in them joining the Atlantic 10 and having a giant East Coast hoops league. I saw a tweet from Adam Zagoria when things broke saying we were one of their first targets. As time went on I saw a lot less of that (basically none) and a lot more talk of us as a program certainly in the running, but one that doesn’t really fit the makeup of this new league.
It definitely takes some of the wind out of your sails when you leave a lot of money in the CAA, including all the spoils of our Final 4 run, to join a new league that could almost instantly lose the top of it’s conference. But that’s a risk we had to take at the time, and with that said, the CAA is god awful this year. They’ve got one team with a winning record, an 8-6 George Mason program that would likely be among the A-10’s first targets if they were to lose any members. I think even without Xavier, Butler, and Dayton or SLU, we’re still in a great place, especially if the A-10 had to reload a bit and went out and grabbed a Mason, Davidson, etc. Would it be anywhere close to the A-10 as it is now? Of course not. But it would be a hell of a lot better than where we’d be had we stayed in a CAA conference that’s conference RPI ranks 24th without us. Being a large public school without football, but what I think is a desirable hoops program (best in the state of Virginia without question), we’re in a bit of an odd position, but one that I think is ultimately a good position. Hopefully we can stay aligned with the top A-10 programs in some manor, but I think could have some other solid options if that doesn’t work out.
DD: Picked by many to win the A10 (including esteemed colleague Adam), the Rams have not disappointed this season. The Rams have lost to 3 good teams in Wichita St, Duke, and Mizzou and played all 3 tough. I would assume this team is right where you thought they’d be in terms of record?
Mat: I think a lot of VCU fans had high expectations coming into this season, but to be 12-3 against the schedule we’ve faced, certainly…I’m happy. I think more so than the record, Ram fans are excited with how we’ve looked in doing so. I’ve been around the program for a long time, and even with some past greats like Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders, or even when Maynor and Sanders were on the same team, we weren’t beating people by 50. We’d get teams like Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast and play down to them, even losing a few of those here and there and wondering what the hell happened. This is probably the first time in my life I’ve seen us look like a real power program.
DD: It is not shock that the Rams are leading the conference in scoring, as they return nearly everyone from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad. What player has surprised you the most coming into conference play? Is there a player that has disappointed?
Mat: When I first read this question I read it wrong and thought you were asking me if I was shocked that we were leading the conference in scoring. You didn’t, but I’ll tell you that I am quite surprised that we’re leading the conference in scoring. Even in returning so many players, those guys had a hard time scoring last season so we had to win a lot of games with defense and points off turnovers. I couldn’t tell you where we finished nationally, but to currently rank 29th in the nation in points per game against the schedule we’ve played, that actually is a bit of a shock to me.
Biggest surprise for me has probably been our junior guard Rob Brandenberg. Brandenberg showed flashes of brilliance as a freshmen then really struggled with his added responsibilities as a sophomore. His shooting percentages, both from inside the arch and from deep, dipped about five percentage points and you could read his confidence level on his face. But he’s played with real fire this year, is posting career numbers and really rallies the team when he’s on the floor. Treveon Graham is another player that has sort of surprised, not in that I didn’t think he could handle the expectations — SI named him their preseason breakout player of the year — but I’m surprised at how quietly dominant he actually is. He plays with zero flash at all (real old man game), but is averaging more points per minute than our past three greats (Maynor, Sanders and a guy named Dom Jones) did as sophomores, and it’s really not that close.
As far as disappointments, while he’s been very solid (third in ppg at 13.6, first in rpg at 7.1), Juvonte Reddic has disappeared at times and I think having been spoiled by two greats before him (Larry Sanders and Jamie Skeen) Ram fans have just grown to expect too much from our bigs. Skeen was a matchup nightmare because he had the best post game I’ve ever seen at VCU and shot 42% from three. Sanders was a shot-blocking monster who had about 8 alley-oops a game. Those are tough acts to follow.
DD: We all know that Shaka Smart is one hell of a coach, but I am going to throw a tough one at you. What is something that he does, let’s say, “not so good” that frustrates you as a fan?
Mat: This will sound like a dodge, but I learned the hard way to never question Shaka again. Our Final 4 season we lost three straight games in our home arena (a first in it’s history) to three in-state teams, two being beatdowns to big rivals (ODU and Mason), the other on senior night. I thought a lot of that was because he was trying to run his now famous havoc system of D with the wrong players. Teams were consistently breaking our press and throwing down highlight worthy dunks on us. That was a tough stretch of games as a Ram fan, and I thought he was being stubborn in not switching to some zone looks. But we landed that miracle tournament invite which sent me on my first trip to the beautiful town of Dayton, Ohio, beating USC there to start our run to the Final 4. After the game he admitted that he had been talked into running some zone by assistant coach Mike Jones (current head coach at Radford), which he worked in WITH his havoc D, and we started torching teams all the way to Houston. So I thought he was being stubborn, but dude is a millionaire coach who clearly knows what he’s doing. Who am I to question that man?
DD: We talked about this with a George Mason blogger when we played them a few years ago, so I’ll ask you. Going to a Final Four has got to be a top sports moment for you, no? I would just kill for a sweet 16 appearance! What will you remember most about that epic run?
Mat: Funny story about that Final 4 run. I was driving home from an old job the Friday night we were to play Florida State in the Sweet 16 when I got a call from this guy named Grant who said he worked for Buick. I’m really skeptical of anyone calling me from strange numbers asking me for anything, so when he said if VCU made it to the Final 4 he wanted to send me there I thought maybe he was trying to scam me. Either way, we still had to beat Florida State and Kansas to do so, which funny enough, we did. The Monday morning after beating Kansas I got a call back from Grant. Turns out the dude was legit, sent me a ton of paper work, got info, and next thing you know my boy Mike and I were picking up our new Buick Lacrosse after our free flight to Houston. We drove to the Westin hotel we were staying at, saw Jay Bilas unloading his bags, proceeded to yell a few thoughts out our window at him, then went up to our rooms for four days of all-expense paid VIP style Final 4 basketball in Houston, Texas. A couple of tips for the folks at Blackburn Review if Dayton makes it to the Final 4 this year. 1) If Grant calls…do what he says, and 2) If the club you paid $90 to get in asks if you want a “waitress”, don’t give them your credit card…
DD: The Rams don’t lose that often, let alone lose at home. What do the Flyers need to do to keep this game close?
Mat: The formula is simple, but easier said than done. For starters, hold on to the ball. VCU has forced just 11.3 turnovers per game in our three losses as compared with our 21.4 season average. The next thing you have to do is limit our threes. The Rams are shooting 36.9% as a team from deep this season, but just 29.3% in our three losses.
DD: And to piggyback on that question, let’s hear your prediction for the game.
Mat: I made a prediction thread on our VCURamNation.com forum after our Missouri loss, saying we’d win our next 11 games. I’m batting .1000 nine games in, so obviously I have us winning this one. If I take my VCU hat off for a second and break this down objectively though, I like that Dayton ranks 206th in the land at defending the three and turn the ball over 20.7% of their offensive possessions (175th nationally). I also like that we struggled against Lehigh. I think we needed that punch in the teeth to bring us down to Earth and prepare us for A-10 play. I’m nervous, but optimistic.
Thanks to Mat and the guys over at VCU Ram Nation. Hopefully this is not the last year the Flyers and Rams play but if it is, let’s make it a good one.