The Blog Squad

Friday, February 22, 2008

Your Rams Are Better Than Mine

I’ve held off writing about the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team because I didn’t want to jinx them. I’m ridiculously superstitious and told myself “when” the Rams won their 20th game, I would blog something.

It happened on Wednesday.

VCU beat Northeastern, 66-62, to improve its record to 20-6. It’s the first time the Rams have had consecutive 20-win seasons since 1983-84 and 1984-85. VCU needs one more Colonial Athletic Association victory to clinch the No. 1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

I’m beaming with pride.

When I attended VCU from 1990-95, we had a heck of a men’s basketball program. Kendrick Warren, Sherron Mills, Marc Jackson, George Byrd, Kenny Harris, Terrence Gibson, Tyron McCoy, Rodney Ashby, Eric Atkins balled at the Richmond Coliseum. Oh yeah, I can’t forget Konstantin Pepeliaev, the first 7-footer and Russian to play for VCU (I believe).

I would argue that those teams had more talent than the Rams under the current head coach, Anthony Grant. Warren is the school’s all-time leading scorer. Mills was selected in the second round of the NBA draft. Jackson played in the NBA long enough to earn a pension. McCoy is a top 10 all-time scorer.

But the Rams of my era never sniffed the NCAA Tournament under Sonny Smith. Instead, VCU lost in the first round of the NIT in 1993 to current rival Old Dominion.

Those Rams teams disappointed me every year.

So what’s the difference?

Coaching is definitely the biggest reason. But more on that in a bit.

The Rams did themselves a favor when they moved to the CAA in 1995 from the dissolved Metro Conference. VCU had very little chance of winning the automatic bid against schools like Louisville, UNC Charlotte, Southern Mississippi and Tulane. And unfortunately for the Rams, they never jelled well enough to be seriously considered for an at-large bid.

Now, VCU is in a conference with similar schools. The Rams can compete against programs like George Mason, James Madison and Old Dominion.

But like I said before, Grant is the difference maker. He has developed a culture of winning, and that still translates well with a young team.

I’ve watched perhaps a dozen Rams games. I’ve only seen them play their best two or three times. In other games, VCU struggled offensively — shooting poorly, committing way too many turnovers and not having a reliable third scorer.

But in the 12 games or so, I’ve only seen them lose once.

Three reasons why.

One, VCU plays great defense. The Rams get after it and put constant pressure on the ball. They can transition quickly from defense to offense and that leads to many easy baskets. VCU is holding opponents to 58.7 points per game, 38.7 percent shooting and just 27.5 percent from behind the arc. Those are impressive numbers.

Two, the Rams have a pair of go-to-guys who can score when the team needs a bucket. Everybody knows Eric Maynor, who leads the team with an 18.2-points scoring average and 135 assists. However, more notable are his 140 trips to the free-throw line where he’s shooting better than 78 percent. That means when Maynor needs to score, he’s taking it to the basket and getting rewarded. The other threat is Jamal Shuler, who is a good complement because he can hit the three when the team needs a big rally.

Three, VCU never seems to hesitate or appear nervous when holding a narrow lead or trying to come back from a deficit. This demeanor is a product of Grant and the run late last year. The Rams believe they can win every game despite the scoreboard.

I truly believe if VCU finds a consistent third scorer, even if it’s a different person every game, the Rams will again go to the NCAA Tournament. And depending on the matchup, I think it’s reasonable to expect a victory in the first round.

VCU has an important contest tomorrow morning at Akron in ESPNU’s BracketBuster game. This is not a must-win, but is probably needed if the Rams fall to at-large status.

And, folks, trust me — Grant is just getting started. The VCU program is going to maintain this level for a decade even if he leaves.

OUT AT HOME: I love the television show Lost. I watched it last night and predicted the identity of the baby before he was revealed. I do have so many questions. So if you’re a Lost expert, please leave a message. I need some answers.

VIDEO OF THE WEEK: Keeping with the theme of singing kids, here’s one that made me smile. I love the accent!


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