VCU Seeks New Memories
The first chants we heard for VCU were back on February 6th, a week ago to the day, as the Hoops Odyssey sat courtside at the Dean Center for the much touted Duke - UNC showdown. It came from the Tar Heel fans: a thundering call of VCU! VCU! VCU! as the Blue Devils took the court. That chant never quite died. It came back around at timeouts, slow moments in play, or anytime the Dookies got together near the Tar Heel student section.
It didn't work. The Blue Devils won that game, a hard fought victory that left Duke alone atop the ACC. But it couldn't have been a fun reminder. That was the VCU team who beat Duke in last year's NCAAs. With 1.8 seconds left on the clock in a Western Regional first round game, VCU's Eric Maynor sank a fifteen footer to down the Devils 79 - 77. Classic March Madness moment. The 11 seed over the 6. VCU fans rush the court. Maynor's shot is shown a million times in the day that follows. And the Rams of VCU advance to the second round of the NCAAs for the first time since 1985.
Two days later, VCU took no. 3 seed Pitt to overtime before finally giving up their Sweet Sixteen dreams by a score of 84 - 79. A scant year later and the question remains for VCU: Is that all? The Rams would like to think not.
After a little tourney success, VCU players have to think about the kids.
The 2006-2007 season was a special one at VCU. The Rams just barely edged the Colonial Athletic Association's automatic bid from the previous year's cinderella story, George Mason, on another strong Maynor performance. Then the Duke upset. And the near ousting of Pitt. For VCU Coach Anthony Grant it was a particularly poignant accomplishment. That 06-07 team was the first he coached at the Division 1 level. The year previous, he sat in the chair beside Billy Donovan as an assistant on the Florida Gators' national championship run. And before VCU, Coach Grant's last head coaching gig was in the 92-93 season for Miami Senior High School.
But grab a random Ram fan at a VCU game and they'll tell you Coach Grant is the real deal. A quick look at the VCU roster backs it up. In his first recruiting class, Coach Grant brought in seven ballers, ready to go. Two start. Another three see good time off the bench. Currently, his squad sits atop the the Colonial Athletic Association, 11 - 2 in the league and 18 - 5 overall.
So what'll come of the 07-08 campaign? Hoops Odyssey rolled into town today to suss that one out.
And by 'town' I mean: Richmond, Virginia. It seems the be the center of our universe lately. We were here on our way down to North Carolina ten days ago. Then back for a University of Richmond game on Sunday before heading out to the western regions of the state - the Lexingtons, the Lynchburgs - and now we're back again. Three times is a charm. Richmond, baby. Richmond.
It's been an interesting spin through town. Having grown up in Massachusetts I can remember days when it snowed a foot and a half before lunch and they didn't let us out of school early. Arriving at VCU, we're told the 'ice storm' might keep the crowd down. Apparently a light drizzle of rain in forty degree weather qualifies as an ice storm in these parts. I'm told some schools were canceled. On our way to the game, it appears people are turning their cars into guard rails for the mere fear of slippage. The phrase is on everybody's lips: Ice Storm 2008. It's Insanity!
Dudes aren't thinking about the ice storm.
Fortunately for us, VCU doesn't mess around. The Siegel Center on VCU's downtown campus opened up for the '99 season and since last year's big tournament upset, the crowds have been flocking. This season the attendance record is already only a few games away. Sell outs are suddenly second hat. And inside, folks have clearly braved the elements. It's a sea of gold and black.
James Madison - JMU - made it to the arena tonight as well. Too bad for JMU. This one doesn't take long to get over. And the home court advantage is evident.
VCU is running on an eleven game home win streak. The band plays a wicked fight song and students fill three quarters of the arena. The school fields an official cheerleading squad but it's hard to tell where the cheerleaders end and the student section begins. With every drained bucket, every heated chest bump, block, rebound, or steal, an explosion of spontaneous, booty-shaking, celebratory dancing erupts. Students fill the aisles. Moves get busted. Kids get down.
Bringing rhythm back to the three point celebration.
It's pretty obvious where a lot of the energy comes from. He's wearing number 24. Senior Jamal Shuler is the team's second leading scorer behind point guard Maynor (of The Fifteen Footer) and he plays with an energy, a playfulness, and a passion that leaps from the court and infuses the crowd. Listed at 6'3", he plays long and strong, grabbing boards, elevating on his jumper, and racing the court from side to side in VCU's pressure half court trap. Whenever the whistle blows a JMU timeout, it seems to be from something Shuler did. Tonight, VCU's jumped out to an 11 - 4 lead on the strength of two quick Shuler buckets, and stretched that lead to a dozen on a couple of deep Shuler threes just minutes later. He'll shoot it and make it from anywhere. And when he does, he likes to acknowledge the crowd with a head shake, a wink, a point, a wild exhortation... whatever. This VCU team plays on emotion. And there's a lot of it running around the home arena.
Tonight's fight isn't much of one. With twelve left in the second, VCU's got it on cruise control, the lead now 16. Schuler wiggles down another long three, sprints back to midcourt, and is still shaking his hips when he busts a wide grin for the screaming crowd. In the end, VCU's grabbed another Colonial Athletic Association win, this one a decisive 75 - 56 tally. Point guard Eric Maynor, still only a junior, had 16 points and 5 assists to a mere 2 turnovers. Shuler ended the night with 22 on 7 of 9 shooting. So the question remains: will we be seeing the Rams come tournie time?
If there's one thing the Hoops Odyssey is starting to piece together (and there's not, there are many things...more on those other things in weeks to come), it's that in these mid-range conferences anything can happen. The athleticism and talent is just too evenly distributed, the parity too great. The CAA itself boasts a cadre of teams with recent NCAA tournament experience. VCU, George Mason, UNC Wilmington, and Old Dominion are no strangers to success and are all enjoying winning seasons this year. Come March, anything can happen.
But VCU remains the favorite. Aside from college basketball's elite - teams like Duke, Georgetown, UNC - of the teams I've seen, VCU plays with the highest level of team intensity. As a unit, it often looks as if they've been playing together from youth. More than most any other team, these guys are truly having fun out there. And, as they did tonight, they're reaping the benefits.
Protein for strength.
That said, they rely heavily on the Maynor / Shuler scoring combo. Any tournament success will require both to have a steady run of solid shooting nights. A second weakness, though one that can still be ironed out in the coming month, is the team's youth. Ten players saw decent playing time tonight, seven of them underclassmen. Great for keeping legs fresh and the scores high. But it also meant a number of freshmen and sophomore ballhandlers. Little 5'10" guard Joey Rodriguez carries a heavy load and doesn't always make the right choices with the basketball. He's a solid player and a profoundly talented dribbler, but occasionally does too much with his talents, breaking up his team's offensive sets. And more than once, Brandon Rozzell, a freshman from right here in Richmond, left his feet with the ball in his hands but without a great plan for what to do next. For such a drubbing, JMU hung close to VCU in turnovers, only losing that margin 15 - 11.
Just don't talk to the Rams faithful about weakness. On a night when you'd have thought the sky was following to listen to the weather reports, they came out in droves. And they were rewarded. Somewhere in Richmond, Jamal Shuler is wiggling and pounding his chest in his sleep right now. And fans who dressed tonight in black and gold and Ram's horns are dreaming of another chance at an 11 seed. This year's no. 6s better watch out.