VCU the Team to Beat as Atlantic 10 League Play Begins

By Lenn Robbins
January 3, 2014

 

It starts now.
 
Atlantic 10 Conference play begins this week with some ridiculously grueling matchups, which is good for league teams that are going to have to be comfortable with the concept of grueling to get by VCU.
 
The Rams, picked to win the league for the first time under Shaka Smart, are coming together at the right time. VCU completes non-league play Friday night against Stony Brook before opening conference play on Thursday with a home game against George Mason.
 
The Rams (11-3) held their last three opponents to 57 or less points. In a 69-50 win over Boston College at Barclays Center, the Rams forced 23 turnovers and held the Eagles to just 17 field goals.
 
It marked the first time in school history that VCU defeated three ACC teams in one season. Call the Rams mid-major at your own peril.
 
"It's a great accomplishment but one I'm going to enjoy later," said Rob Brandenberg. "To get three wins in a conference like that is something we'll take with us."
 
It’s the Atlantic 10 Conference regular season and tournament, which will be played at Barclays Center from March 12-15, which the Rams are really focused on.
 
There are no secrets when playing VCU, which had 11 steals against BC and leads the nation in that category.
 
VCU applies constant, frenetic, pressure. When the Eagles had 14 turnovers at halftime, Coach Steve Donahue knew his team was in trouble.
 
"There's definitely a factor where they wear you down mentally more than physically,’’ he said. “No one cares who scores and in this day and age that's unique. Ten kids who don't care who scores. They just keep coming at you."
 
There are several A-10 teams that believe they can handle the Rams’ pressure. It will take poise and tremendous confidence but Saint Louis proved it could be done in last season’s Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship game.
 
The Billikens had 13 assists on 18 baskets and shot 45-percent from the field in a 62-56 win. As conference play looms, the Atlantic 10 looks to be even deeper than last season.
 
UMass, George Washington, Dayton, Richmond and Saint Louis all seem capable of contending for the regular season title. For now, VCU is the team to beat.
 
George Washington, looking very much like one of the league teams that could wreak havoc in the NCAA Tournament, opens at LaSalle, last season’s league March Madness maker on Thursday night in Philadelphia.
 
If the Colonials, which opened 11-1, needed a wakeup call, they got it in a 72-55 beat down at Kansas State. The Wildcats are a tough, athletic team that held the Colonials to 34-percent shooting and just 17 field goals.
 
GW is not a great offensive team and the Colonials didn’t help themselves by going 18-of-30 from the line. Coach Mike Lonergan surely will address that.
 
LaSalle, which has a rivalry game Saturday against Penn, is still trying to find the go-to guy that was Ramon Galloway last season.
 
UMass, rebounded from its first loss of the season, a 60-55 setback at FSU, by winning one of the best early-season games of the season. The Minutemen edged Providence, 69-67 in OT.
 
It was a huge win made even greater by the fact that UMass won it after star Chaz Williams fouled out. Derrick Gordon’s tip-in with 1.1 seconds left was the difference. UMass had five players in double figures.
 

Wrong Again, Naturally

Sometimes it’s great to be wrong.
 
Last week we got all full of ourselves, predicting Saint Louis would be an upset victim at Vanderbilt. Wrong.
 
The Billikens, showing they can play the same relentless, tenacious defense that led them to the A-10 tournament title last season, smothered the Commodores in a 57-49 at Memorial Gymnasium.
 
Saint Louis is ninth in the nation in scoring defense (58.4 points) and 38th in field goal percentage defense (39.3 percent). Saint Louis has a tough league opener, playing at Rhode Island, where Danny Hurley is building a program from the bottom up.
 
Every program in the A-10 can look at VCU as a model of what can be attained with the right coach and the right commitment from the administration.
 
The only downside of achieving the level of success that VCU has is that booking games against the power conference schools suddenly becomes a lot tougher. Especially if they’re ACC schools.
 

Coach's Card

Name: Shaka Smart
Age: 36
Record: 117-38 in his fifth season at VCU; 117-38 overall.
Alma Mater: Kenyon College
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
Mentors: DePaul coach Oliver Purnell; Florida coach Billy Donovan. Akron coach Keith Dambrot.
 
“Oliver, just his poise. The way that he stays positive about his program, no matter what. He focuses on the things under his control and lets everything else go. He shapes a team around whatever is best for that team.
 
“Billy is a master at understanding and getting into the minds of players. Getting guys to understand his approach and what he wants on the court but also from a coaching side of things, seeing and thinking what the guys are thinking.
 
“Keith taught me the value of spending time with your players and developing relationships. It’s important that your players know you care about them as young men, not just players.’’
 
Highlight: “The Final Four was phenomenal for that run of three weeks. Nothing that we’ve done has matched that, but to be honest with you, the most gratifying season was the next season because we lost a ton of players and, quite frankly, that group at the start of the season was nowhere near an NCAA team. But we got better and better and better. We only had one scholarship senior. And by the end of the year I thought we were playing as well as any team we ever had.”
 
Philosophy: “Play hard, play smart, think team. Those are three values I stole working for Oliver Purnell at Dayton and Clemson.’’
 

Game of the Week

Jan. 4 (3 p.m.) Richmond (10-4) at Florida (10-2). Two of the Spiders’ four losses came in overtime and another was a 10-point loss to North Carolina. The Spiders were down three with less than six minutes to play. But as Smart will tell you, no coach is better at getting in his players’ heads than Florida’s Donovan.

 

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